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A Crash Course in Italian Red Wines

I'll admit that while I know a good amount about wine, I tend to absorb information as it comes to me. For example, I knew pretty little about Rhône wines until this January when I was exploring cool climate syrah in Sonoma County and in the process was served a '98 Côte-Rôtie at SingleThread and went wild for them, prompting more research and exploration into the region and grapes (tasting a bunch, of course!).

Wine is grown in every corner of Italy, and there are literally thousands of native Italian grapes and just as many sub-climates. I knew pretty much zero about Italian wines until I became interested in nebbiolo, a grape grown in the Piedmont in northern Italy, which creates beautiful, bold wines, the most famous of which are Barolo and Barbaresco. This trip to Italy allowed me to do some research on the wines of Italy as I drank them (some 60 or so bottles among my group of "Bad Boys"), particularly in Tuscany, so I am happy to share some information I've learned over the past week to help navigate the often mystifying world of Italian wine.

As a primer, it's important to know that New World wines (i.e., everywhere but Europe) are generally labeled by the grape varietal (cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, etc.), but Europe is a bit trickier in defining a wine. The German-speaking countries also tend to label by varietal (e.g. Riesling, grüner Veltliner), while France labels almost exclusively by the region (or appellation) where the wine is produced. Italy is a mix of both, but favors toward the French model.

In France, an "official" region of wine production, which determines the label, is called an AOC or "Appellation d'origine contrôlée." Within large-scale wine regions, like Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhône, etc. are these AOCs, which are generally small geographic areas, such as Meursault in Burgundy, Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Rhône, and so on. Essentially, for a wine to be labeled a certain way, the grapes have to be grown entirely within a certain AOC, and often meet other procedural requirements.

In Italy, a similar system emerged, with the use of "DOC" ("Denominazione di origine controllata") being gradually tightened to be more precise with wine to a higher tier of "DOCG" ("Denominazione di origine controllata e garantita"). DOCG wines, often considered the finest Italian wines, are also isolated to a specific growing region. They also can have a handful of other requirements, such as time aged in the barrel, etc. However, there are also wines that are labeled by grape variety, or even things unrelated to the type of grape or region entirely.

Here is a handy dandy chart stolen from WineFolly to give you an idea what Italian red wines taste like and where they come from, and help you pick one for your next dinner!

To give you a brief rundown of the major Italian red wines, here are some highlights:

- Amarone. Made out of at least 50% corvina grapes in the Valpolicella DOCG in northern Italy near the city of Verona. The grapes are partially dried, generally in the sun, after picking and before pressing, which makes the wine particularly bold and full-bodied, but with bright fruit flavors, like cherries and strawberries. Because of its intensity, Amarone needs time to age, so waiting about six or seven years at least to crack one open is advisable. Stands up well to rich foods that are full of flavor, such as short ribs or funky cheese. You'll also see generic Valpolicella, which is made from Corvina grown in the same region, but not in the method of Amarone. Some other Valpolicella wines are labeled Ripasso, which means they have undergone a second pressing after the Amarone juice has been extracted, which can give you an idea of Amarone without breaking the bank.

- Barbaresco and Barolo. These wines come from the Piedmont region of Northern Italy in the Alpine foothills, and made out of nebbiolo grapes. They are named for the towns around which the grapes are grown. Nebbiolo produces wines with full body, exhibiting brighter fruit flavors, such as strawberries, with earthy or herbacious backbone and very tannic structure. Barbaresco tends to be lighter and more fruit-driven and approachable than Barolo. Nebbiolo is excellent with meat dishes, but needs anywhere from five to fifteen years for the tannins to really mellow out. Some nebbiolo can be approached before then, but many will coat your mouth with tannins and render the experience of this wine far less enjoyable.

- Barbera. A medium-bodied, berry-forward wine with high acidity and little grip, and better yet, a wine that is generally inexpensive. This wine is primarily grown in the Piedmont, specifically in the Asti and Alba areas. I once had a server describe barbera as a "sweaty Italian farm stud coming home from the fields." I like the visual! The wine is among the most versatile to pair with food, and doesn't need much time, if any, in the bottle.

- Brunello di Montalcino. Some of the most magnificent Italian wine is produced around the town of Montalcino in Tuscany. "Brunello" initially derived from the color of the grape, which looked (for some reason) more brown than other sangiovese grapes, but there is in fact no genetic difference between them, so Brunello grapes are actually just sangiovese, just like Brunello's Tuscan counterparts. These wines are especially intense and dry, often with hints of earth, tar, or leather, and also need a good amount of time (over a decade) to mellow out their grippy tannins.

- Chianti. A big big region in Tuscany, the wine produced in Chianti varies widely in quality and flavor profiles. Chianti can be a cheap table wine or an exceptional bottle worthy of aging and collecting. Generally, the wines are driven by red fruit, like tart cherry, and very dry. Chianti Classico is generally thought of as a higher quality wine due to its better growing location.

- Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. Not to be confused with Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, these wines are made from Montepulciano grapes in the Abruzzo region. These are some of my favorite for less expensive, approachable Italian wines, and tend to have some lovely, quaffable red fruit and a slight herbaceousness. They are versatile and don't need age, necessarily, but there are world-class expressions worthy of collecting with a fuller structure.

- Super-Tuscan. Refers simply to wines grown in Tuscany with non-Tuscan grapes, usually cab or merlot by themselves or blended with sangio. Newer style, and gaining more recognition in Italy. Many of the most famous Super-Tuscans are being made in Bolgheri, and labeled accordingly. I loved the Bolgheri that I tasted.

- Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Another Tuscan, made out of sangiovese. Similar to Chianti, but I find these to be a bit fuller bodied and a tad more focused on the fruit.

Of course, this only scratches the surface. Explore! I consumed so much magnificent Italian wine on this trip, and I encourage you to try some of this stuff. Hopefully this helps you refine your search for fantastic Italian reds! Pinot nero, Nero d'Avola, Salice... there's so much!

Coming up: A day lost in Venice, and finally giving you a look at my 787 ride from Calgary to Gatwick!

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