Sunday, May 11, 2014

What Do I Need to Learn About Italian Wine?

Wow! How does one answer that one in 1000 words or less? Fortunately I have been asked that question a lot more lately. A new crop of wine salespeople is rushing towards Italian wines. And most of them are women under 30.

I see it all now. The bearded sage is leading hundreds of beautiful, intelligent young women from the summit of Mount Nebo and showing them the path to the river Jordan, where they will pass into the Promised Land.

All of a sudden I get a tap on my shoulder, from a young woman in spandex workout clothes. “Hello? I asked you: What do I need to learn about Italian wines?” Her impatience was implacable.

Gathering myself back from the reality of a post-Promised Land scenario, I faced her, and the scores of other young men and women behind her. “Yes, you did. Let’s get to work on that now,” I said.

First of all, you might want to get a map, virtual or otherwise. Italy is longer than it appears. Try driving from Naples to Milan in a day; it’s a whip. A map is a good visual guide.

Know the basics. That would be: Chianti, Pinot Grigio, Moscato and Prosecco. 80+% of all Italian wine sold in America are those wines.

The other 20% is where you will be spending most of your time (the old 80/20 rule).

I like to break them down into flavor categories.

Red wines. Dry Red wines. Light red wines. Full bodied red wines.

White wines. Dry white wines. Light white wines. Medium bodied white wines.

Sparkling and Frizzante wines. Classic method. Italian method. Fizzy. Dry. Extra Dry. Brut. All others.

Rosé wines. North to south. Light to full. Dry to fruity. It really pays to know the difference. And also to know which one(s) you like.

Sweet wines. Again, north to south. Light to fuller. Younger to more aged wines. White and Red.

What about varietal names on wines? Because I like maps, I like to use the regions to break down the different named wines. There is one hitch. When America started going for varietal named wines (Cabernet, Chardonnay, etc.) in a big way, the Europeans eventually saw that they would need to pay attention to this fashion. The Italians have been a little late to this game, but many of them now are showing the grape names on the bottles somewhere. It’s a good thing because it provides context for the Italian wines on the world stage. Gives people equivalent types. Not a science, but important. I have a young friend who is putting together a wine list for his new place. He is definitely going to make sure all the wines have a spot on the list to note the grape type. Great idea. Merlot from Sicily is not the same as Merlot from Trentino. Etcetera.

Classic wines.
Of course these must be addressed. Barolo. Brunello. Barbaresco. Chianti Classico. Amarone. Gavi. Soave. Verdicchio. Fiano. To name a few. These are foundation wines. A Barolo is not a Barolo is not a Barolo. There is a whole world inside of this appellation. Same with the rest. One needs to know the difference between the traditional producers and the maverick producers, the farmers and the stylists, the old-school and the new-age ones. Often there aren’t clean lines of demarcation. That is where it is worth spending time, finding a pattern and an understanding that works for you. Very important with the classic wine areas, as the evolution of style and sensibilities are constantly being polished, reworked, refined. Nothing stands still in Italian culture.

Probably one of the most important things to remember about all things Italian: Nothing stands still in Italian culture.

If you remember this, you will save yourself a lot of grief, especially when you have the inevitable “My God, Italian wines are so complicated” moment.

I say this, because I have it all the time. It is as if I have managed to trigger a dopamine-like response when I feel this way. I don’t fret. I don’t sweat. I take a deep breath. And I imagine a double-barrel shotgun is pointed at me. I must be very calm. This will pass. I will survive. I must be cool.

And then it passes.


Because Italy is about the little things, the nuance, the details, the particularity. One cannot “nail” Italian wines, not even the Double Masters (Master Sommelier/Master of Wine). I know this because one of them told me so. His take is similar to mine. Be calm. All that needs to be revealed will be.

Don’t worry if you don’t know all the DOC/DOCG/DOP/IGP wines of Italy. Or Tuscany. Or Piedmont. I don’t. That’s what we have maps and lists and those things for.

No, the real key to knowing what you need to learn about Italian wines is to taste, taste, taste and put them into context with food, with conviviality, with life and with love. All the other stuff is for computers.

Get to know the tactile. Travel. If you are under 30 and you haven’t bought yourself a ticket to Milan or Rome, start with that. Get your butt to Italy. Go by yourself if you have to, no one is going to hassle you, even if you are a young, beautiful woman. Get thee to Italy.

Get your hands dirty. My friend Lucio is a strong proponent of that. So is Natalie in Montalcino, as are many wonderful people. Don’t worry; there is hot water and showers in Italy. Everyone cleans up, eventually. Get mud between your toes. Sweat under the hot Sicilian sun. Come in from the Ligurian vineyards with the scents of rosemary and sage all over your body. This is a visceral prerequisite. You will learn more about Italian wine in one afternoon in a vineyard in the Langhe than you will by reading blogs, listening to podcasts, Instagramming and tweeting.

That’s enough for now. We’ve reached 1000 words. On to the Promised Land.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W
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