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Ciao, Italia
Italian wines finally make it to the top of the world’s wine hill

When Americans think of wine, we tend to think of France, or our own burgeoning industry (especially the West Coast’s). But Italy, where wine may well have originated, is viniculture’s first nation. It produces more wine and consumes more per capita than any other country.

Italy is also one of the most exciting wine spots on the planet right now. To get a sense of wine’s importance to Italy (and Italy’s importance to wine), take note: the country, where wine has been made for several thousand years, has more than 1000 documented varietals and 900,000 registered vineyards, as well as 20 distinct wine regions and 21,000 wineries.

Impressive numbers — but numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. For Americans, wine is a beverage, and yes, it does go well with food. In Italy, wine is food. And the complexities of a given wine are often revealed when it’s properly paired with the combination of flavors that unlock its (sometimes hidden) treasures. Italian wines inspire passion.

What makes wine so important to Italians? For one thing, grapes grow everywhere, and the microclimates throughout the country’s mountainous and hilly terrain help fine-wine grapes ripen properly. Italians have vast experience with their land, and with certain grapes, methods, combinations, and styles.

For more than three decades, Italy has been experiencing a wine renaissance. " Supertuscans " — wines that do not conform to the regime of classifications — were one of the biggest breakthroughs. The first Supertuscans came from Villa di Capezzana in Carmignano, where cabernet was artfully blended with merlot and/or sangiovese — Tuscany’s main red-wine grape, the primary component in Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. Sassicaia, the second Supertuscan, made since the 1940s, is a rough cabernet that started to impress internationally in the 1960s. In 1971, the renowned Antinori family made a Sassicaia based on sangiovese, but with no white wine in the blend. (Most Chiantis include white wine to make them more approachable.) Now more than two dozen renowned Supertuscans exist, all of which command prices over $30 and compete with the world’s finest wines.

But Tuscany, while perhaps Italy’s most visible wine region, is not necessarily its most impressive. That honor goes to Piedmont, in the north, home of the nebbiolo powerhouses Barolo and Barbaresco, as well as the Barberas d’Asti and d’Alba, Asti sparkling wines, and the low-alcohol frizzante Moscato d’Asti, one of my favorite summer beverages. Piedmont reminds many wine folks of Burgundy; both regions focus mainly on a single red varietal (nebbiolo in Piedmont and pinot noir in Burgundy) not normally blended with other varietals and often difficult to make.

Don’t try to make sense of Italian wine labels; you need a degree to figure out the producer, the varietals, the region of origin, etc. Indeed, one of the things that makes buying Italian wine so difficult is that you can’t rely on shortcuts that work with wine from other countries. Because Italian winemakers have such vastly different styles and attitudes toward modernization, it’s not enough to say, " I like barberas or Veronese wines. " You need to focus on producers, years, regions, and varietals. Now is a great time to try Italian wines; the last five years have all been either good or great, prices have essentially flat-lined, and wine stores and restaurants have stocked up. Be adventurous, and look to a passionate wine person for guidance.

Italians love details, and they love their land. As a result, many wines are named after specific spots on the hills where the grapes are grown: bricco means the sunniest part of a hill, while sori is the south-facing place where snow first begins to melt; one of Italy’s most famous and delicious white blends is called Ronco delle Acacie (made by Jermann), which means " hilltop of the acacias. " Appropriately, Italian wines have finally made it to the top of the world’s wine hill.

Zardetto Prosecco Non-Vintage Brut. This crisp and fruity sparkler, redolent of apples and lemons, is a wonderful refresher for under $10. Goes well with fruit, super-sharp cheese, salade niçoise, or spinach and bacon.

1998 Salice Salentino Taurino Apulia. This easy-drinking red blend (80 percent negroamaro, 20 percent malvasia nera) is smoky and fat, with plums and a raisiny taste. It’s a fun, round, smooth wine, great with garlicky red sauce or salty carpaccio or other antipasti.

1999 Nero d’Avola Morgante Sicily. Sicily is a major up-and-coming wine region, and this oaky and sweet fruit-bomb is reminiscent of a grenache, a zin, or an Aussie shiraz. Superb value. Perfect accompaniment to pizza, burgers, or an Italian grinder.

1999 Ripasso Zenato Valpolicella. Big, ripe, bold, slightly sweet, but stops short of ostentatious. This is a wine that loves lamb chops or wild boar pappardelle, because the black fruit wants a big, fatty meat flavor to open.

1999 Allegrini Valpolicella Classico. Fruity and smooth, this easy-drinking accompaniment to pasta Bolognese or spicy sausage has blackberries and a long finish.

1996 Cavalotto Barolo. Big nebbiolo, not yet fully developed, ardent and sensuous, but perfect with a veal saltimbocca or a filet mignon with béarnaise.

1995 Zardini Amarone Valpolicella. Sweet but not syrupy, cherry, dense, and chewy, almost a meal unto itself. Great with a jambalaya, spicy pork chop, or a meatball dish with your mama’s Italian " gravy. "

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

Issue Date: March 28-April 4, 2002
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