Falling in Love with Italian Wine
In wine as in romance, it is usually first relationships that set the patterns for all those that follow. In Hong Kong, most drinkers come to wine through France; many will never move past this first love. This is not uncommon worldwide, with many infatuates firmly equating the word “wine” with “French wine”; all the 30 odd other wine-producing nations be damned.
Then there are those, even in Hong Kong, who came to wine through Italy. This troupe of renegades can always be spotted at wine dinners: they crave wines with higher acidity, drier tannins, less oak influence. Their vocabulary is dense with derisive terms for full-bodied, fruit or wood-driven wines such as “jammy,” “fruit-bomb” and “buttered popcorn.” To them, the Big B’s are Barolo, Brunello and Barbaresco, not Burgundy and Bordeaux, and frankly they’d be just as happy with a nice Chianti Classico.
However, their rhapsodizing may not fall on deaf ears for much longer. With this year’s Memorandum of Understanding signed between the Vinitaly wine fair team and the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, and every Manhattan Italian chef worth his weight in pasta setting up shop in the city, the question on the tip of Hong Kong wine merchants’ tongues is this: is it time to start showing Italy a little more love? Even for those not yet willing to throw in the towel on France (not that we’re suggesting it!) surely there’s no harm in playing the field?
So, for those virgin palates as yet unaccustomed to the vinous wiles of the land once known as Oenotria, how do you ease your way in? First dating tip: learn to relinquish control. Many of us enjoy the comfort of Bordeaux because of the relatively limited number of brands and districts among which we can choose. While Italy does have its share of big labels, the elusive “Italianness” that Italophiles adore is much more evident in its myriad regional wines, many of which taste like no other wine on earth (try the fruity-spicy Schioppettino from Friuli for a punch in the teeth you’ll swear is black pepper).
The trick is to accept that nobody is familiar with all of Italy’s regional wines, least of all Italians themselves, and the true Italy-lover’s reaction to an unfamiliar wine is to geek out rather than freak out. Remember that “Italy” the nation has only existed 140 years and that multifaceted identity is evident in the wine.
Now that you’re ready for this novel tryst, try a second hot tip: divide the country into broad zones and learn enough to know what to expect. The northwest is dominated by the Piedmont, the land of truffles, nutella and nebbiolo, the finicky grape behind such storied wines as Barolo and Barbaresco. As do most Italian regions, it also has a great number of what are called “autochtonous varieties,” a term rarely heard outside Italy that refers to native varieties. To talk in sweeping generalizations (the point of this exercise), the reds from this region are relatively light in color, often firm with tannins (generally more so the more money you spend) and bright with acidity – the flavors tend towards red berries, with the name of one grape (Freisa) actually meaning “strawberry.” The whites are fresh, mineral, and, apart from the lightly sweet and fizzy Moscato d’Asti, uncommon outside of the region.
The Northeast, comprising Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino Alto-Adige and parts of Veneto is the white wine capital of Italy, with floral, aromatic whites near flowing from the foothills of the Alps (Friuli) and Dolomites (Trentino). Look here for high-quality Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon and regional specialties like Malvasia, Friulano and Gewurztraminer. Veneto, however, generally skews more red, with the famously luscious Amarone, a wine made from dried grapes, topping its roster of offerings.
The center of the country is Tuscany territory, with the three “Tuscan Masters” Chianti Classico, Brunello and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano ruling the scene. Reds from this part of the country tend to be dominated by red-cherry flavors with what are known as “dusty” tannins (mouth-drying without being too coarse) and hints of tea leaf. The reds from Marche (Tuscany’s mirror image on the Adriatic coast), Umbria, Emilia-Romagna and Abruzzo, while not always made from the Sangiovese grape that epitomizes Tuscan wine, tend to have a similar character.
The south of Italy, also called the Mezzogiorno (i.e. midday) for its punishing midday heat is, as one might expect, generally an area of robust, inky reds, gushing with artery-clearing phenolics. Sicily in particular is an area to watch, with wineries from Palermo to Etna making huge strides. The predominant grape of the South is the aptly-named Nero (black) d’Avola, with Primitivo and Aglianico, the dark horse of Campania and Basilicata, also playing a part.
Sound exhausting? Just plunge in and get drinking – the point of these wines is more conviviality than serious study. A final word of advice: when in doubt, introduce to friends. Italian wine = food wine; with this much acid and tannin, these wines need something to tousle with in your mouth to keep from tiring your tongue. No need to break out something fancy, the classic cucina povera (peasant food) of the Italian countryside such as bean soup, tomato pasta or (why not?) pizza makes an ideal bedfellow for these frisky finds. And as a bonus, while we wouldn’t go so far as to call Italy a cheap date, especially in the middle bracket of the market, these wines give you more bang for your buck than anybody else.