THE GOCHISO GOURMET: Sukoshi bit of vino rosso

Yes, I’m aware that I’m mixing cultures with that title but that’s exactly what I had, a little bit of red wine. And since it was vino rosso that means it was a little bit of Italian red wine. There were quite a few bottles poured but we all received just a taster’s portion — or a little bit, hence the title. Why Italian wine? Well, this is the country of 2,000 different varieties of wine grapes. Boy, that’s a lot more than a little bit. Of course I didn’t sample all 2,000 varieties, just the popular varietals like Nebbiolo and Sangiovese along with Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. But that’s the beauty of Italian wines. A little bit of old varietals vinified the original way all the way to New World style wines that are Californian as much as they are Italian.

The King and Queen of Vino Rosso

Arguably, the royalty of Italian red wine hails from the North, specifically from the Piedmont region. Here the “Foggy Grape” or Nebbiolo produces the King and Queen of Italian reds — arguably King and Queen of all red wines — Barolo and Barbaresco (for more on these, visit http://the-gochiso-gourmet.blogspot.com/2007/02/foggy-grape.html). Because Nebbiolo grapes carry a fair amount of acid and tannins, they aren’t exactly great eating grapes (think sour and bitter), though birds aren’t as picky when pilfering grapes from vineyards so growers often intersperse Dolcetto grapes as sacrificial offerings. Though both Barolo and Barbaresco can be teeth-staining and membrane-striping when young, bottle-aging transforms the wine and rewards those who wait to a multifaceted, multidimensional liquid red nectar with cherry, leather, tobacco, dried herbs and earth that’s perfect with roasted meats and hearty stews. In fact Barolo and Barbaresco are probably one of the top three red wines that I enjoy.

Central Italy’s King

Denizens in Tuscany would most certainly argue that Nebbiolo doesn’t hold a candle to their native grape, Sangiovese. Sangiovese, which is the main grape in Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano has a right to claim grape nobility on its own merits (see http://the-gochiso-gourmet.blogspot.com/2007/04/from-blood-of-jupiter.html). From the simple red wine found in woven straw fiaschi all the way up to the greatest Brunello di Montalcino, Sangiovese makes wine for every palate… unless you don’t like red wine. And they’re food friendly with just about any terrestrial creature (or plant) and lighter versions even pair with heartier seafood.

The Southern King

The Aglianico is considered the noble red grape of the South primarily grown in Campania and Basilicata. This thick-skinned grape produces teeth-staining, rustic wines with spicy overtones almost like the midpoint between Cabernet and Syrah. These are usually best paired with hearty red meats like lamb… lamb… and lamb. Oh, and it’s also great with beef. Most Aglianico have flavors of dark red and black fruits with black pepper and earthy undertones with enough acid to be food friendly and allow for longer aging.

The Others

Though these grapes are noted as “The Others,” that doesn’t marginalize them in any way. They all make classic Italian red wines that are distinct in their own right and also beautifully pair with food. For instance Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (which is actually the Montepulciano grape, as opposed to Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which is made from Sangiovese) produces silky wines with lower tannins and just enough acidity to pair with hearty roasts and stews. And though you may not have heard of Corvina Veronese, when it’s mixed with Rondinella and Molinara grapes, the resulting wine is called Valpolicella, which you may have tried at some point in your life. When these three grapes are air-dried on straw mats then vinified, the resulting wine is called Amarone, which takes concentration to a new level. Or the Sicilian Nero d’Avola, which produces wines with ripe plum flavors and silky tannins that pair well with grilled and barbecued meats.

New Kids on the Block

Italy also has its share of wine innovation, the foremost being the introduction and incorporation of non-native wine grape varietals into winemaking. The strict DOC and DOCG regulations previously specified exactly which grapes were allowed within certain regions (along with a host of other regulations including length of aging, crop yields, minimum alcohol levels, etc.) so that wines produced with “foreign” grapes were declassified to Vino di Tavola or table wine status. With the international acceptance (with corresponding prices) of Tignanello and Sassicaia, which were originally labeled as Vino di Tavola (almost like labeling Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon simply as table wine), the Italian classification system added a new category — IGT or Indicazione Geografica Tipica, which simply denotes a specific region in Italy. Most of these IGT wines simply use grape varietals not originally planted in the region like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. And many of these wines cost more than DOCG wines.

An Italian Red Wine Blind Tasting

I attended a blind tasting of various Italian red wines… well, almost all Italian reds. The host of the tasting forgot the theme and provided a French red wine from Provence. After tasting and giving each wine a score, we revealed the identity of each wine. Because you’re not influenced by any labels, blind tastings are the best way to determine your true likes and dislikes in wine. At the last blind tasting of Chardonnays that I attended, one of my bottles was corked. I’m happy to report that neither of my Italian reds were corked… though one bottle was seriously cooked. But not due to faulty storage conditions on my part — after purchase it sat quietly in the dark at 55 to 57 degrees. Hopefully both of my wines will be in perfect condition at the next blind tasting. Here are my favorites (with my scores) from that evening:

TAKE THE VINO ROSSO CHALLENGE — Elio Altare Arborina Barolo came out on top in the blind taste test of Italian red wines. photos by Ryan Tatsumoto

2000 Elio Altare Arborina Barolo (4.75)

Cherry, earth and dried herbs on the nose, with a nice balance of fruit and earth on the palate and a seamless flow, with a medium long finish.

2001 I Balzini Black Label (4.5)

A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Merlot, with a concentrated nose of dark fruit and earth; and while concentrated on the palate, not overbearing; with a seamless flow over the palate and a medium long finish.

2003 Querciabella Chianti Classico (4.5)

Thyme and red cherry on the nose; hints of leather and tobacco, with a concentrated palate but seamless flow over the palate, with a long finish.


2007 Grilli del Testamatta (4.5)

Slight tobacco and ripe red cherry on the nose, with cherry and earth on the palate; a nice balance between fruit and earth and a long finish.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, Hawaii and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

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