One of the great things about Italian wines is that you can buy a different varietal every week and still be sampling new ones six months later. Over a thousand different grapes are vinified in Italy. This, combined with the fact that Italian wine labels often indicate the origin rather than the type of grape the wine is made from, can make walking the Italian aisle a frightening experience. But the wines are extraordinary, can be great alternatives to the usual fare, and can make you look really smart in the process.
A perfect example is a grape called Negroamaro which is grown almost exclusively in Puglia (“the heel of the boot” ). When people are in the California Zinfandel aisle, I often suggest this as an alternative—same big fruit but a point or two lower in alcohol (so not as “hot” as some Zins), not over baked (some Zins get a little raisiny) and more elegant and earthy. The grape’s name translates to “black and bitter” and does have a bitter black cherry finish sometimes. It tends to be deep in color and robust and earthy with big aromas and flavors of dark fruit. Around the town of Salento, the Negroamaro is often blended with the very fragrant Malvasia Negro to make a complex big wine, Salice Salintino, which can be marvelous. We are talking about prices in the twelve to sixteen dollar range, so they are great bargains. One of my favorites is N Zero, 100% Negroamaro at $12.99. Leone de Castris Salice Salentino at $15.99 is a no brainer.
Sicily is known for the Mafia, Mount Etna, and great food. Thanks to some up and coming winemakers, it is also becoming known for its indigenous grape, Nero d’Avola. Once mainly a blending grape in bulk wines, spectacular examples of wine from this grape are emerging and should not be missed. These wines are dark in color, big in dark fruit flavors, earth, and smoke with moderate tannins. Arianna Occhipinti is a rock star winemaker only in her late twenties who is putting Sicily on the map with her organically grown wines. Her elegant, complex TAMI Nero d’Avola shows the heights this varietal can reach—a bargain at $18.99.
When people come into the store looking for a wine to go with a ribeye dinner, they are usually standing in the California Cabernet section. I have no argument against a big, tannic, mountain-grown Cab as a great match to the well-marbled meat. Likewise, a left bank Bordeaux is wonderful. But as you might guess, the southern Italian section offers a perfect alternative.
Aglianico is a monster grape grown in the Basilicata and Campania regions of southern Italy. Italian wine is my first love, and this may be my favorite varietal of all. Originally introduced by Greek settlers, it has become one of Italy’s finest grapes. The grape produces wines of huge dark fruit, massive tannins, and a bracing acidity which makes very age-worthy. The wine is known as “The Barolo of the South,” after the Nebbiolo-based Barolos of Piedmont that can age for decades (and cost hundreds of dollars). They boast aromas and flavors of dark fruit, dark chocolate, coffee, leather, smoke, and mineral. In Basilicata, these grapes are grown around the ancient volcano Monte Vulture and comprise the region’s only DOCG. In Campania, the grapes are grown around the town of Taurasi, and the wines and the DOCG have the same name.
Mastroberadino’s 2005 Taurasi Radici may be one of my favorite wines of all time. It is absolutely massive with dazzling power and depth—believe it or not, a bargain at $63.99. For the more moderate pocketbook, a humble farmer makes a version of this wine that I keep in my house at all times. San Martino Siir Aglianico de Vulture is the best $19.99 wine you’ll ever pour next to a giant medium-rare prime rib. This wine is biodynamically farmed and has a wonderful rustic quality that will hook you.
These three varietals are only a tiny sample of what you can find in the vineyards of Italy. I have customers who I take on Italian shopping trips through the store every week or two. They first come in totally lost and afraid to sample them, and before they know it, they’re addicted. As far as addictions go, there are far worse.