Wines of Italy

When you look up Italian Wine in the dictionary there is a picture of this squat little bottle of Chianti in a basket-like holder. Ok, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it is unfortunately how many of us think about Italian wines. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with Chianti. On the contrary, many of my favorite Italian wines are Chianti Classico Riserva. My point is that many Americans equate Italian wine with Chianti, and not very good Chianti at that


Italy is among the world’s largest wine producing countries with more than a million vineyards, more than any other country. Most of the common grape varieties grown in the United States are also grown in Italy, but most Italian wines are produced from grape varieties distinctive to that part of the world. These unfamiliar grape varieties make dealing with Italian wines more challenging for Americans. That’s unfortunate because Italian wines are very food friendly.

There are hundreds of varieties of grapes unique to Italy, but fortunately only a few responsible for the wines you and I are going to see on the shelf. The most prevalent of these are Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Montepulciano, Corvina and Barbera for red wines, and Trebbiano and Pinot Grigio for white. These grape varieties are responsible for the commonly seen Italian red wines Chianti Classico, Barolo, Barbaresco, Montepulciano, Barbera, Valpolicella, Amarone and the white Italian wines Trebbiano, Soave, and Pinot Grigio.

Sangiovese (san-joh-VAY-zeh) is Italy’s most famous red-wine grape variety, but you may not be familiar with the name. Sangiovese is the predominant grape variety of Chianti Classico (Key-AHN-tee Class-e ko), probably the most well known Italian wine. Sangiovese is also produced as a varietal wine. If you like Chianti Classico you may want to try one of the many Sangiovese varietal wines, some produced in California. Sangiovese can also be blended with other varieties to produce non-traditional blends called Super Tuscans.

The Nebbiolo (Nay-BYOH-low) grape is used to produce Barolo (Ba-ROE-loe) and Barbaresco (Bar-ba-RES-coe) wines. Wines produced from Nebbiolo are known for their elegance and bouquet of wild mushroom, truffle and roses.

Montepulciano (Mon-tuh-pul-CHEE-an-no) is one of the most widely grown grapes in the coastal area of Abruzzo. Montepulciano produces wines that develop silky plum-like fruit, food-friendly acidity, and light tannins.

Barbera (Bar-ber-AH) is the most widely grown red grape variety of Piedmont and Southern Lombardy. The wine has bright cherry fruit, a very dark color, and a food-friendly acidity.

Corvina (Cor-vee-nah) is the principal grape variety of Valpolicella (Val-pole-e-CHEL-la) and Amarone wines. Valpolicella wine has dark cherry fruit and spice. Amarone (Ah-ma-ROH-nay) wines, because of different production techniques, are elegant, dark, and full of fruit.

Trebbiano (Treb-YAH-no) is the most widely planted white varietal in Italy. Trebbiano wines are typically pale, easy drinking wines. Soave (SWAH-vay) is one of the top selling wines in Italy made from Trebbiano. It is a straw-yellow color, delicate and light, with a hint of almonds and flowers.

Pinot Grigio (PEE-no-GREE-jee-oh) is probably the best known white-wine grape of Italy. Pinot Grigio (a.k.a. Pinot Gri) is a crisp white wine, usually delicate and mild although in the right hands it can be full-bodied and complex.

Italy produces modern wines, based on an ancient tradition, with flavors and aromas that cannot be experienced in wines from anywhere else. Italian wines are very easy to drink, reasonably priced and common on restaurant wine lists and by-the-glass lists. So why not try a Chianti Classico, Barolo, Barbaresco, Montepulciano, Barbera, Valpolicella, Amarone, Trebbiano, Soave or Pinot Grigio. I think you’ll become a fan as I have.

Cellar Notes

I had the pleasure of visiting Simposio Ristorante one evening last week for their first annual Fall Wine Tasting and Food Pairing featuring food and wine from Tuscany, Sicily, Piemonte and Friuli-Venezia Giula. Simposio has been in Houston for many years, but in their new location at 8401 Westheimer between Fondren and Hillcroft for only two. The new restaurant provides a beautiful and sophisticated backdrop to some truly outstanding northern Italian cuisine.

We sampled more than a dozen menu items paired with an equal number of Italian wines. My favorites were the Funghi del Bosco (wild mushrooms on crisp, grilled polenta) and Agnolotti di Coniglio (ravioli stuffed with rabbit). This innovative use of traditional ingredients by executive chef Riccardo Palazzo-Giorgio created a memorable tasting experience. In the spirit of full disclosure I need to say that I was a guest of the restaurant on this evening. However, my wife and I already have plans to return as paying customers.

Here are two of the wines we sampled that evening, a Sangiovese and Barbera, that I liked and that you might want to try when you visit the restaurant. Since I’m not sure these wines are available at retail, I’ve also included a reasonable priced Chianti Classico Riserva that you will find at some grocery wine departments as well as at Specs (but not at Simposio).

Name: Tenuta La Braccesca Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano
Grape: Sangiovese
Producer: Aninori Tenuta (estate) La Braccesca
Appellation: Nobilie di Montepulciano – Tuscany
Flavors of black olive and black cherry. Savory, rich and full bodied.

Name: Pio Cesare Fides Barbera d’Alba 2005
Grape: Barbera
Producer: Pio Ceasare
Appellation: Barolo – Piedmont
Flavors of cherry, chocolate and ripe fruit.

Name: Riserva Ducale Oro (gold)
Grape: Sangiovese
Producer: Ruffino
Appellation: Chianti Classico
Spec’s $30 – $35
Flavors of plum, blueberry, black cherry, blackberry and vanilla.