Our introduction to the wines of Calabria is epitomized by our welcome at La Puzelle, a wonderful agriturismo near the small hill town of Santa Severino in central Calabria. We arrived at lunchtime on a hot day, after a drive of several hours. Leaving our luggage in the car, we wandered through the gate looking for an office where we could register and orient ourselves. Instead, we encountered proprietor Salvatore Vona, who waved us immediately into the dining room, where lunch was being served. Motioning us to sit at an empty table, he brought out a pitcher of red wine, a pitcher of cold water, and glasses. Soon he brought out plates of delicious pasta, followed by an excellent meat course. He didn’t ask a single question: he brought us what he was serving that day, including the “house” wine, which we continued to drink throughout our stay there.
Still not fully acquainted with the way wine works in most of Italy, I was a bit taken aback when the pitcher of red wine appeared without any consultation. The first sip, before the food arrived, didn’t make me feel any better. But once I was drinking this red — presumably from a barrel in the cellar — with the food Salvatore Vona brought out, I realized how well they paired; how food-friendly the wine was.
That unassuming and delicous Calabrian lunch taught me two important lessons about Italian wine: 1. The best wine is often the “house” wine: local, simple, from a barrel on the premises (and I have since learned that no restaurant will offer such a wine it does not consider worthy of its food); and 2. Judging an Italian wine on its taste in isolation — instead of as an integral part of a meal — is to do it a grave injustice. Perhaps more than any other wine (and especially American wine), Italian wine is made to go with food — an essential component of an ancient, integral synergy.
We had wonderful food at La Puzelle, where Chef Vona has developed a reputation for attentiveness to traditional means of preparing wonderful, simple, rustic but eloquent dishes. The local wine he served along with the food could not have complemented it better. It too was traditional, simple, local, a bit rustic, but a perfect match.
It is too bad that in the United States, unenviable land of “two-buck Chuck” and other dirt-cheap, poor-quality, horrible wines, we have a justifiable fear of the “house” wine. In Italy, thankfully, that fear can be put aside; the very best, most food-friendly wines are often those that come in a pitcher or carafe by the mezzo-litro, without prior consultation offered or needed!