Vail Wine Ink column: Drinking Italian wines is about pure pleasure
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
Avignonesi Rosso di Montepulciano DOC 2014 — Looking at this wine and tasting present two different experiences. In the glass, the wine is light in color, clear enough to read the type on this page through its red hue. But in the mouth, it was much bolder and fuller in body than I expected. It was the fruit that caught me: fragrant with the basket-of-summer-berry flavors that are so appealing. It was the kind of wine that you hold in your mouth for just that extra instant before swallowing. It’s 100 percent sangiovese, made from 100 percent estate-grown vines in organic or biodynamic vineyards.
THE BARBERA FESTIVAL
Can’t make it to Italy this summer? Consider a visit to the Amador County Barbera Festival in Amador County in Plymouth, California. Now in its sixth year, the festival celebrates the noble grape from Italy and all of its West Coast iterations. This year, the event moves to the Terra d’Oro/Montevina Winery for the June 11 event. Nearly 80 wineries from all over California, including the Sierra Foothills, Paso Robles, Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake County, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Ventura County, Lodi and the Bay Area will be pouring their Barbera-based wines. For more information, visit barberafestival.com.
When people find out I’m a wine writer, frequently the next question is, “If you could take one wine to a desert island, what would it be?” I get it, but as a wine writer, you taste and love so many wines that it is really an impossible question to answer.
So what I go with is, “I’d take all the wines from Italy.” I legitimize my broad answer by noting that it is not the wines that account for my Italian fetish, it is the soulful nature of those who make them and the places from which they come.
As of the 2015 harvest, Italy is the most prolific producer of wine grapes on earth, a position that ping-pongs back and forth between Italy and France, depending upon the vintage. Italians have been making wines for 2,800 years — well before the Roman Empire — giving them one of the longest legacies of wine production. Italian wines have quality, history and, of course, extreme quality on their side.
Part of the experience
In Italy, as winemaker and author Richard Betts likes to say, “Wine is a grocery, not a luxury,” meaning it is, like the air we breathe, simply a part of life. “In Italy, there is always a bottle on the table,” said a friend of mine emphatically, as though that were a requirement for any meal. “But the Italians sip their wines, like it’s a garnishment, just something that goes with the dish. You might see eight people at a table and then just one bottle. A little wine in each glass. It’s not like anyone is trying to get drunk. It is just a part of the dining experience.”
It gets me to thinking about how in Italy, the Old World, wine and food go together naturally, organically, without too much thought. Here in the New World, we put so much work and emphasis on having the right wine, the right vintage and the right pairing that perhaps, sometimes, we miss the point. We tend to think too much about it, to overwork it. Wine enhances a meal. But if it becomes a focal point, then maybe we have our priorities out of sequence.
THE LAY OF THE LAND
In addition to the Italians themselves, things that make Italy such a great wine region include the topography and geography of the country. Longitudinally, it ranges from the 36th parallel in Sicily to the 46th parallel in Alto-Adige; oceans border its shores, the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the Adriatic Sea to the east. In the north, the border is the slope of the mighty Alps. Soils are diverse up and down the Boot, and the rolling hills, mountains and plains provide a constantly varying topography. God himself could not have created a more perfect place for growing grapes.
There are 20 different wine regions in Italy that generally correspond to the administrative regions of the nation (think states), but these are further broken down into 74 Designation of Origin Controlled and Guaranteed wines. These are similar to our version of the appellation designation.
Perhaps the most significant of these for Americans would be the dominant red wine DOCGs of Piedmont, famed for their production of Barolo, “The Wine of Kings,” and Tuscany, perhaps best known as the home of Chianti and the epic Brunello di Montalcino wines. But white-wine lovers may lean toward the fragrant, beautiful wines from the Alto-Adige region or the bracingly crisp, refreshing wines from Sicily.
There are more than 2,000 varieties of grapes grown in Italy. The variations can be subtle. You don’t need to know all of them, but if you know, say, six — three red and three white — you can drink your way from top to bottom through the country. Let’s look at two to get you started:
The most widely planted grape in Italy is the Tuscan varietal Sangiovese. The name translates to “the blood of Jove,” and it is the grape that makes Chianti and the aforementioned Brunello di Montalcino wines. Light in both color and body but high in acid, this is a versatile grape that can produce simplicity and summer sips or wines of power and elegance.
In Friuli-Venezia Giulia, in the northeastern part of Italy, is the much less frequently planted Ribolla Gialla. Fragrant on the nose with the aromas of peaches and fresh apples and citrus, the wines from this grape have become a darling of the sommelier set. These grapes are also favored by winemakers in the production of “orange wines” that are made by leaving the juice in contact with the skins and the seeds for a few days to create an orange hue.
See you on my desert island.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab, Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.