For those of us used to American wines, with their easy identification by type of grape and only a handful of varietals to keep straight, the sheer number of grape varieties Italy offers can be overwhelming; the regional classifications opaque (you thought France was bad!); the labels inscrutable. Why even bother?
Here’s why: because you don’t need to know it all, or keep everything straight, to drink amazing wines that go better with Italian (and most other) food than any other wines! Mostly, you have to be willing to experiment, aware of what you like (as opposed to what you’re “supposed” to like), and keep in mind a few basics.
Here’s the most basic basic of all: when it comes to Italian wine, remember that each region in Italy’s amazing tapestry of related cultures evolved independently. Just as each region has developed a singular cuisine based on local ingredients, each has its own wines — coming from the same place, the same terroir — that pair well with that region’s food by their very nature: the food and wine have evolved together over the ages. Thus, what seems like daunting complexity to the outsider means a seamless, symbiotic relationship between the food and wine of each region.
When Joe and I were in Calabria in July 2007 we arrived one hot afternoon at a wonderful agriturismo near Santa Severina, where we found ourselves welcomed warmly and directed immediately into the dining room without further comment. Next thing we knew there was a pitcher of red wine at our table, and before long out came plate after plate of simple but incredibly delicious food — no menus, no discussion of what to eat or drink, just lunch. My first taste of the wine was a bit disappointing, but to my surprise and delight it complemented the food perfectly! It was not a formidable wine — instead it was a simple, light, wonderfully agreeable wine that we both grew to like more and more over the course of our stay — continuing always to marvel at its ability to pair effortlessly with the food our talented chef-proprietor served.
And that’s the second basic of Italian wines: most really only come into their own in relation to food. Wine tastings and high scores are a bit abstract; to enjoy Italian wine to its fullest, a meal must be part of the event!
There is much more to say about Italian wines, but let’s start with these simple points:
1. Don’t be frightened! The abundance of Italian wines should not be intimidating, but approached as an adventure that rewards any amount of experimentation and exploration.
2. The variety is all about regional cuisine and traditions — each portion of this amazing country has its own wines (including specific varietals) that have evolved in conjunction with local food based on local ingredients.
3. The wines of Italy are ALL about the food of Italy! They are symbiotic and meant to be enjoyed together!
So enjoy! Cin-cin! Mangia!