A wine journey through Italy

Cascione Vineyards

Cascione Vineyards - Credit: Archant

There are many seasonal recipes for winter warming food that can be accompanied by easy to appreciate New World wines with their immediately obvious full, rich and fruity flavours. However, some of my current favourite wines are Italian which still have full yet vibrant flavours but also some more subtle depths.

As in many wine-producing countries food and wine made in Italy go hand-in-hand and provide the best matches for each other. The combinations also make it easy to understand why certain types of wine are produced in particular regions. I have always found Italian wine production the most difficult to grapple with as there are over 350 legally recognised, mostly-native grape varieties in terms of wine laws and the Italian Wine Classification from a base of over 2,000!

The Italian Wine Laws were first published in 1963 and have since been amended, most recently in 2008/9, with many changes made to include new wine types rather than uphold winemaking principles, although traditional wines must still adhere to them.

There are some distinct regional characteristics and if one follows a route from north to south a picture of wine type and complementary food emerges.

In the northern eastern states of Trentino and Friuli, where there are strong Austrian influences and cheeses and meatballs using smoked meats are produced, which combine well with locally-grown Pinot Noir with its mushroomy vegetable notes and fresh acidity, although few are imported here

The Veneto region is well known for rice growing, seafood due to its proximity to the sea, polenta, a wide range of vegetables and heavy meat dishes. Here the Molina grapes produce stylish Valpolicellas including the Ripasso and Amarone styles which use semi-dried and dried grapes to increase their complexity and flavours. Look out for these in addition to the vibrantly fruity more everyday styles of Valpolicella and Bardolino seen on most wine shop shelves.

In Piemonte the varied microclimates and topography means a wide range of food and wine is made here, especially with combined French and Italian influences. Some of the specialities are seasonal truffles and Carru beef, and hunting and fishing are common pastimes. The dense deep concentrated wines of Barolo and Babaresco made from the Nebbiolo grape and Dolcetto-based wines provide great accompaniments to the local produce. Barolo is one of 73 DOCG wine regions (Denominazione di origine controllata – “controlled designation of origin”) which means the quality of the wine is controlled and guaranteed to pass stringent assessments.

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Tuscany is another well-known region of wine making with Chianti from the Sangiovese grape and small percentages of other grapes and the first DOCG wine – Brunello di Montalcino is made here and is one of the best and most expensive Italian wines with deep flavours and innate character.

There are a number of wines that have acquired a cult status and following, known as the Super Tuscans such as the well-known Sassicaia and Tignanello. Originally made for the vineyard owners’ consumption they didn’t conform to the local wine laws as a proportion of non-recognised grapes were added such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc from the Bordeaux blends. As a result when they were first commercially available they were only given a generic classification status such as Vini and now are Vini IGP meaning that the geographical origin is recognised but the marketing hype surrounding them ensures notoriety!

Emilia Romagna is renowned for Lambrusco, not the sweet drinks once very popular in the UK, but dry stylish wines especially the reds, in addition to other native grape varities such as Gutturnio and Bonarda, now widely grown in Argentina.

They match the locally produced and renowned Parmigiano cheeses, pork, parma hams and all the varieties, balsamic vinegar from Modena and Reggio Emiliana.

In the foot of Italy in the toe and heel of the “boot” there are some classic dark, robust, fruity wines grown in the foothills of the Apennines from Primitivo (also known as Zinfandel in the USA) to complement the local myriad vegetables and seafood dishes cooked in local olive oils, with Aglianico and Negro Amaro in Campania suitable for tomato, pepper, fennel, seafood and pasta dishes.