Trying to get your ?wine-feet? wet in a wine-centric country you might find yourself underwater quicker than expected. You?ll soon recognize that trying to remember all those wines has put some extra pressure on your hippocampus. Maybe you have actually known someone who just returned from a foreign country and amidst the discussion of their trip they begin to mention the great wines they drank.
You ask them, ?What was it? Who made it?? But, they look at you with a puzzled expression across their brow; they are clueless. Their recollections of those experiences consist of where they were, who they were with and perhaps what happened later that night. Kudos to them for even remembering that much! Or maybe you?ve been in a similar conversation but rather on the brunt end of an oenophile?s verbose wine rant. A lot of people believe that being oblivious to the facts about wine is what makes drinking it so enjoyable. I’d argue that wine is more than that. It’s analogous to beer drinkers not knowing the subtle differences between an American Ale and an English Ale and furthermore it doesn’t take a snob to know there is a difference between an Irish stout such as Guinness and an American lager such as Coors Light.
But back to the wine, specifically Italian wines. I’m not the beer guy after all.
The 20 regions of Italy, from Liguria to Trentino and Puglia to the Veneto, are home to the most indigenous grape varietals any single country can lay claim to. Yes, that means you France! Most of these varietals have garnered DOC status, and for those that haven?t they contribute directly to the blend for a wine that has garnered DOC status. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata. It’s Italy?s standard of laws governing wine quality. When there is a ?G? at the end, DOCG, (short for ?Garantita?) it signifies that the wine has met the highest level of quality, aka the wine is ?guaranteed?. There are 22 DOCGs and more than 320 DOCs. In the mid-90?s Italy added a new category to its wine laws. It is abbreviated as IGT, Indicazione Geografica Tipica. This new classification gives the wines of good quality that don?t conform to the stricter DOC laws an opportunity to be labeled at a higher level than ?vino da tavola? (table wine). This classification may be due to anything from discrepancies in aging requirements (length of time in barrel or type of oak) to non-traditional grapes being used in the blend.
For instance, Cabernet, Merlot & Syrah are all grown to a very large extent in Tuscany and can be used for up to 15% of Chianti (which is a DOCG). However, if the winemaker wanted to make a proprietary blend with those three varietals or any one of the three, it would only be able to attain IGT status, even though it?s grown in the Chianti DOCG area. Some of the most widely known DOCGs & DOCs are Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Barolo, Barbaresco & Barbera d?Alba. Maybe you?ve even heard of Prosecco, Moscato d?Asti, Barbera d?Alba & Amarone, but this is still barely scratching the surface of what Italy has to offer.
Let?s take just white wines for example. We all know that Italy grows Pinot Grigio & the ubiquitous Chardonnay. The sales of Pinot Grigio in the United States alone are staggering. There?s definitely some Pinot Blanc & Riesling grown in the northern region of Trentino Alto-Adige near Austria and Germany too. What people haven?t tried though are some of Italy?s most affordable, quaffable, fun, food-friendly, tricky tongue-twister varietals. Vermentino, Verdicchio, Falanghina, Garganega, Greco di Tufo & Fiano are some that are quickly gaining international recognition.
Vermentino has DOCG status in the northern area of Sardinia and is actually planted in a few places in the Santa Barbara & Paso Robles regions of California. It is a refreshing, light to medium bodied, playful wine that is great on its own or with any shellfish. Verdicchio has two different DOCs in the eastern coastal region of Marche. You may remember those kitschy fish shaped bottles at your local supermarket; almost always Verdicchio. It tends to be a little lighter in character than Vermentino and is therefore usually more of a value wine.
Falanghina, Greco di Tufo & Fiano are all found in the southwest region of Campania, surrounding Naples and near the isle of Capri. Falanghina is on the rise and has an ancient history, often being found on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius. Try it with some grilled squid or octopus! Greco di Tufo is a little better known as its name lends itself to a supposed Greek origin and the tufa rock it?s grown on. Many people find this wine to be a difficult pairing, but I?ve discovered it to work wonders with grilled flaky white fishes & salads. Fiano, better known as Fiano di Avellino (when from Avellino), is made in a variety of styles, similar to those of California Chardonnay. Some are full throttle and lavishly oaked while others are pure, focused and very clean. As far as Garganega is concerned, you?ll probably never see its name on the label, but it constitutes the majority of the seepage in Italy?s most famous white blend, Soave.
How many times have you seen these wines but passed them up because not only had you never heard of them, but they were too difficult to even pronounce? Wines like these don?t seem to sell Stateside simply because they aren?t ?user-friendly?. This language barrier has been a dilemma for foreign wine producing countries for years. In many different walks of life we are afraid of trying things that we don?t understand, whether it is food, drinks or something deeper. Now my point is not that I?m advocating the support of another country?s product but instead that you try something that you may not fully understand. That lack of understanding may begin from what?s on the outside of the bottle, the inside, or both. The extent to which you are willing to embark on a gustatory journey is up to you, your wallet & your trust in your local wine shop.