The Wines of Italy
Italy is the birthplace of most wines. The Roman Empire brought grapes and grapevines to Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, and many other regions. Italy still produces and consumes a huge amount of wine, although not much gets out to the rest of the world. Most non-Italians only know of Chianti, the delicious red wine traditionally found in basket-bottles. Perhaps a few people know of Soave, the poetic white, or perhaps even Asti Spumanti, the sparkling dessert wine. Learn about them all!
Amarone Wine Information
Amarone della Valpolicella, or Amarone for short, is created in the Venetian region of Italy. Originally there was only one legal region, or DOC, for the Valpolicella name. These wines are made with the Corvina Veronese, Rondinella and Molinara grapes. Two sub-groups emerged, though – recioto, which is a sweet dessert wine, and amarone, which is a dry red wine with great body.
Both recioto and amarone are made with grapes that have been dried on racks, bringing out their flavors. In 1991 these two were granted their own DOCs. The land area encompassed by these three DOCs is the same, but the types of wine are quite different.
Amarone is the fourth biggest seller in Italy, behind Chianti, Asti, and Soave. This fine wine has flavors of licorice, tobacco and fig, and goes well with game and ripe cheese. Hannibal of Silence of the Lambs fame, of course, had his with fava beans. In the movie version, they had him drinking the more pedestrian chianti wine type. While some styles of Amarone can be very bitter (that’s where the name comes from), new styles are more fruity.
Amarone can be drunk young, while still a ruby purple, but they also age magnificently to a dark garnet for thirty years or more. A typical drinking age is 10 years. Amarone should be served around 60 F.
Asti Spumanti Wine Information
A non-Champagne sparkling wine, Asti spumanti comes from the Turin region of Italy and is very popular with new wine drinkers. Asti spumanti is Italy’s second most produced wine, with “clones” produced in California and other locations. It is a sweet-to-semi-sweet dessert wine. Some people prefer asti to French Champagne because of asti’s sweetness and easy drinking qualities.
Asti Region Asti is a “DOCG” wine, meaning it is regulated as to what grapes can be used in it, and what areas can create an Asti Spumanti. The DOCG rating system for Asti was set up in 1993. The Asti DOCG rating requires:
- GRAPE: Moscato bianco (white Moscato)
- MAXIMUM PRODUCED AMOUNT: 100 quintals grapes per hectare.
- COLOR: from straw yellow to pale golden yellow
- PERLAGE: fine and persistent
- BOUQUET: fragrant, of Moscato grapes
- TASTE: sweet, aromatic and characteristic
- LIMPIDITY: brilliant
- OVERALL MINIMUM ALCOHOL LEVEL: 11 degrees with minimum 4.5 degrees of reduced alcohol.
Martini & Rossi, the leading producer of asti spumanti, cranks out 21 million bottles annually of this fine alcohol. It was first named “Moscato Champagne”, but by the time it came over to the US (1930s) they changed the name.
Asti spumanti is made from Muscat Canelli grapes. Asti is the town that actually supplies the grapes, while “Spuma” means “foam”. Asti Spumanti is a light yellow color, and is sweeter than typical French Champagne. It should be served in a tall, thin glass to preserve its bubbles.
Asti spumanti goes very well with sweet desserts – a dish of strawberries, a sweet peach pie. It is the perfect summertime drink – light and sweet! Asti spumanti should be served at 41F, which is almost out-of-the-fridge temperature.
Asti Spumanti is a drink now wine. It is not meant for aging. It will not go “bad” if it’s old, it just will not taste as good.
Barolo is a section of Piedmont, Italy, southwest of Alba. While wine in Italy is timeless, Barolo came about in the 1800s when the Marchesa Giulietta Colbert Falletti started making wine out of Nebbiolo grapes. Nowadays, there are 3,000 acres of Nebbiolo producers in the towns of Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Cherasco, Diano d’Alba, Grinzane Cavour, La Morra, Monforte d’Alba, Novello, Roddi, and Serralunga d’Alba.
The standard grape used in Barolo is still nebbiolo. Of the towns in the area, the “left” hills have compact soil and produce long lasting wines. The “right” hills have softer soil, making a wine that should be drunk more quickly. Both vineyards are regulated – Barolo vineyards can only grow around 3200k of grape/acre.
The Piedmont area of Italy in general is ripe with history – ancient castles, legends of feuds and loves, beautiful hills and valleys. This is a great area to go both wine touring and vacationing.
Barolo alcoholic content is set at 13%. There are two grades of Barolo:
- Standard Barolo, aged two years in the barrel, one in the bottle.
- Riserva Barolo, aged three years in the barrel, one in the bottle.
Barolo wines are typically a deep red. Their flavor is thick and complex. Some are flowery – violets, roses. Others are fruit, licorice, or oaky. Barolo should be drunk at 60F and can age for 5-10 years.
Castel del Monte Wine Information
Castel del Monte is a wine region in Apulia, Italy, known for its reds. The name “Castel del Monte” comes from a huge castle built by Emperor Frederick II, in the shape of an octagon.
It uses mainly Uva di Troia as the red grape, also using pinot noir, sangiovese, montepulciano and aglianico grapes. The wines tend to be gentle and soft, full with cherry and blackberry flavors. The region produces around 3.4 million bottles of wine annually.
The region does also produce white wines and rose wines, but they are not as highly regarded.
Chianti Wine Information
Ah, Chianti. In the “old days”, Chianti was the basket-bottle wine, served on a red checked tablecloth, holding a romantic candle. In a modern reworking, Chianti now usually comes in a standard glass bottle, looking for a more elegant image. If you’re a traditionalist, however, some brands still use the basket.
Chianti comes from the Chianti region of Tuscany, Italy. Only wines from this region can properly be called Chianti, although some other areas are using the name on their labels.
Chianti was first identified as a type in the 13th century. Its primary red grapes are Sangiovese and Canaiolo, while the main whites are are Trebbiano and Malvasia. There are now seven Chianti zones, defined by the Dalmasso Commission in 1932:
- Chianti Classico
- Chianti Montalbano
- Chianti Colli Fiorentini (Florentine hills)
- Chianti Rufini
- Colli Senesi (Siena hills)
- Colline Pisane (Pisan hills)
- Colli Aretini (Arezzo hills)
These demarcations are not quite as well done as the similar ones in France. The Classico, for example, was initially set by edict in 1716. With the expansion in 1932, they were pushed to include inferior vineyards, and suffered as a consequence. Other areas were expanded in a more logical manner. It is still wisest to learn about the actual winery the Chianti comes from, instead of relying solely on the zone the wine comes from.
Chianti is a red wine, strong and bold. Typical flavors in a Chianti include cherry, plum, strawberry, spice, almonds, tobacco, vanilla and coffee. Chianti goes well with well-seasoned foods. Chianti is often called a “fruity” wine, meaning it appeals to new wine drinkers.
Chianti, being a red wine, is best served from a red wine glass. The glass shown above is the specific glass recommended by Riedel for drinking Chianti. The glass emphasizes its fruity flavors.
Current marketing of the Chianti name includes a “Black Rooster” emblem – wineries in the Chianti Classico have started using this rooster to build regional recognition for their wines. Chianti should be served at 59F and is good for up to 10 years, for a good variety. If you can find any, 1997 was considered by many to be the “vintage of the century”.
Est! Est!! Est!!! Wine Information
What a great name! Est! Est!! Est!!! is a wine created in Montefiascone, north of Rome around the ‘Lago di Bolsena‘ (Lake Bolsena). The white wine is made from trebbiano and malvasia grapes. It’s a pretty low-key semi-sweet wine with a small amount of effervescence and mild, fruity flavors.
The fun part about this wine is its name. Apparently it was named this in the 1100s, during the times of Henry V. A German bishop, Johann Fugger, needed to go to Rome for his coronation. He sent his lackey ahead of him to mark the inns serving the best wines with “Est!” on their doors in chalk. This stood for vinum est bonum, the wine is good. When this runner hit Montefiascone, he liked the wine there so much that he wrote “Est! Est!! Est!!!” on the door!
There is actually a tomb in the Montefiascone church with Fugger’s name on it, although nobody knows for sure how much of the tale is true.
This wine is of the drink-now variety and goes well with light appetizers.
Gavi Wine Information
Gavi comes from the Piedmont area of Italy, and is made primarily with the Cortese grape. The two wines coming out of this region are Gavi and Cortese di Gavi. This is Italy’s most expensive white wine shipped to the US.
Gavi, for Italians, is the standard “Bianco” (white). Gavi tends to have a straw color and a neutral, mild aroma. It is very acidic. Its unassuming flavor is usually fruity, persistent, dry and balanced. Gavi goes very well with fish.
Gavi is best drunk young – it peaks after a year, and it is only drinkable for another 2-3 years after that. Gavi should be drunk at 48F.
Marsala Wine Information
Marsala is the west section of Sicily, the island near the foot end of Italy. In 1798 the Sicilians managed to substitute their own wines in place of the standard rum in an English naval shipment. In those seafaring days, something had to be done to wine to allow it to last the long ocean journeys. Brandy was added to allow the wine to last longer, and to be more resistant to temperature changes. These were called “fortified wines”.
Once the British had a taste of Marsala, demand grew quickly. In the United States during Prohibition, things became even more interesting. The typical Marsala bottles made the wine look like medicine. People found that getting Marsala was less risky than other types of wine. While not as popular now, it is still used quite frequently as a cooking wine in Italian dishes.
Marsala uses the following grapes:
- white skin/berry grapes: Grillo, Catarratto, Inzolia and Damaschino for golden and amber Marsala
- dark red skin/berry grapes: Pignatello, Calabrese, Nerello Mascalese, Nero d’Avola for ruby red Marsala
Marsala is made in the “solera” tradition – a melding of years. First, a keg is filled with wine from the current vintage of grapes. Subsequent years with similar tastes are placed in kegs above the first. When liquid is drawn out of the bottom (oldest) keg, it is refreshed with liquid from the next keg up, and so on. In this manner, the taste remains the same throughout the cycle, and every bottle you get has (potentially) some liquid from the very first vintage.
Types of Marsala
- Fine: 17° alcohol, aged >1 yr
- Superiore: 18° alcohol, aged >2 years
- Superiore Riserva: 18° alcohol, aged 4 years
- Vergine Soleras: 18° alcohol, aged 5 years
Marsala was traditionally served between the first and second courses. It is now also served, chilled, with Parmesan (stravecchio), Gorgonzola, Roquefort and other, spicy cheeses.
We regularly get emails from casual wine drinkers who come across a recipe for chicken marsala or veal marsala and want to know what other alcohol they can substitute instead. We love both of these dishes. Here’s the issue. Imagine you had a recipe for making orange juice and you wanted to substitute lemons instead. They’re both citrus! However they taste very different. So you’re no longer making orange juice, you’re making lemon juice now.
The same thing is true for dishes with marsala. It has a very specific dish. Sure, you could make chicken with chardonnay, or chicken with cabernet, and they might be tasty. But they are no longer chicken marsala. The flavor will be completely different. So at that point you could call it “chicken with wine” and be happy. If you want chicken marsala, then you need to find marsala, so that it tastes like marsala.
Pretty much any regular wine shop will have marsala bottles on their shelves, along with the port and sherry. Again marsala doesn’t taste like port and sherry, but that’s the type of wine it is. So we highly recommend that you take a run to your local wine shop, grab a bottle of marsala and enjoy! It lasts a long time because it’s fortified. Chicken and veal marsala are really yummy, so you’ll want to make it several times. It’s one of those staples of cooking, like having lemon juice in your fridge.
Most often, that concern is about alcohol content, yet home cooks fail to note that in cooking, alcohol burns off at a much lower boiling point than water. If you have serious issues with alcohol, we’re afraid there is not a non-alcoholic marsala flavoring. Note that any recipe calling for “Marsala” means this wine. Marsala is the name for this wine.
Sweet vs. Dry Marsala
We get emails from cooks asking which they should use – sweet or dry marsala – in a recipe. It’s like saying you have a recipe which says to use cheddar cheese and you have mild cheddar and sharp cheddar and medium cheddar, and which should you use. You can use any of them. They are all cheddar, they will all provide a cheddar flavor. If you like mild cheddar better, you might go with that. But if you’re not a cheese fanatic you might not even really notice the subtle differences between for example mild and medium cheddar flavors when they are in a dish.
So the choice definitely is a matter of taste. Do you like sweetish chicken dishes? Do you like non-sweetish chicken dishes? Are you even going to notice the difference which is that kind of subtle variation? Who knows, you might not even be able to taste any difference since both are going to taste “like marsala”. Undoubtedly you’re not going to make chicken or veal marsala only once in your life if you like it, you’ll make it every few weeks. So make it one time with the sweet and one time with the dry, and see if you can even notice any difference. Or, we suppose, have someone else add in the marsala and not tell you which they used and see if you can guess. It might be you can’t even tell which is being used, in which case it’s not worth worrying about. Use whichever one you have more of. Don’t worry. If you prefer the dry and have a bottle of the sweet, you can use the sweet marsala in a number of superb dessert recipes.
Marsala is a fortified wine – this means they add hard alcohol to it. This also means that, just like you can keep opened (sealed) bottles of vodka and rum on your shelves, you can also keep an opened bottle of marsala around. Yes, the flavor will gently deteriorate over time, but it won’t go from wonderful tasting to awful tasting in three days. You probably won’t even notice the flavor difference after a month or two. Still, we’d suggest drinking it all within three to four months (or cooking dishes with it). When you cook with a flavor, you get a really concentrated version of that flavor. So you want really tasty, yummy marsala flavors – not sort of stale, stagnant marsala flavors. We are very much a fan of eating food that you really enjoy, and savoring the flavors!
Marsala is fortified, so you do NOT have to store it in a fridge or take any special measures. Just keep it in a cool, dark area like any other oil or wine. Marsala will not “go bad” – it won’t turn dangerous to drink – but its flavors will fade over time.
Montepulciano Wine Information
Montepulciano is the name of a red grape that is planted in central Italy. It is grown in Tuscany, but it is most widely known for its use in Abruzzi. Here it is used to create Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, which is an inexpensive but tasty red wine.
Montepulciano is best served around 60F and goes well with red sauce dishes.
Soave (swah-vay) is an Italian white wine. Soave is one of the top selling wines in Italy, along with Asti Spumanti, Amarone and Chianti. Soave is created in the Venice area from the Garganega and Trebbiano di Soave grapes. There are three styles of Soave:
- dry, still
- spumanti – sparkling
- recioto – sweet
The best Soave are the Classico Superiore, which are grown in hillside vineyards and account for 20% of total Soave production. Soave is an extremely popular export, with around 50 million liters a year being produced. The only “grade” of Soave is Superiore, which requires 8 months aging and a minimum alcohol level of 11.5%.
Legend has it that Dante, the famous Italian poet of the 13th century, gave soave its name (meaning “smooth”), because of its mildness.
Soave is a straw yellow color, almost green sometimes. It’s known to be delicate and light, perhaps a hint of almonds. Think perfumes and gentle flowers. Gentle acidity. A slightly bitter finish.
Soave is best as a before-dinner drink – with hors d’oeuvres or soups. It can also go with light dishes, like simple vegetables, rice, pasta, and the like. It’s best served around 48 degrees F.
Valpolicella is a red wine created from corvina, molinara, and rondinella grapes in the Veneto region of Italy. Regular Valpolicella has 11% alcohol and no more than 70% corvina. Valpolicella Superiore is created with at least a year of aging, and must be 12% alcohol or more.
The traditional center of Valpolicella production uses the name ‘Valpolicella Classico’ – about half of all Valpolicella falls into this category.
Valpolicella can be a fruity, medium-weight red wine, but because of recent production troubles and overplanting it can often be acidic and thin. They can have a light cherry flavor, with licorice hints and slightly bitter finish. Robert Parker went so far as to call it “insipid industrial garbage” at one point. It appears that Valpolicella producers are trying to improve their wines to combat this appearance.
Valpolicella should be drunk at around 56F which is cool but not white wine temperature. It is normally drunk relatively young, within 3 years. It goes well with light dishes – pork, lamb, eggplant in red sauce.