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Popping the cork on Italian wines

Whether you’re a diehard Pinot Grigio fan or a sucker for chardonnay, a glass of chilled white wine is a universal crowd-pleaser in the fall. The majority of white wines are lighter and have a crisper, more citrusy flavor compared to reds.

Just when you thought you were starting to understand French and California wines, along come the Italians with an intimidating variety of great wine. And since you might not know, Italy is the largest wine-producing country in the world by volume. Italian wines separate into two main groups: table wines and the high-end Italian wines. The table wines tend to be more modest-priced red or white wines that are meant to be enjoyed with an Italian family dinner, while the fine wines of Italy have sophisticated tastes and aromas and are among the best in the world for special dining.

Incredibly, there are 800 wine grape varieties and 20 designated winegrowing regions in Italy. Coupled with hundreds of years of winemaking, this makes understanding Italy’s wine products an enormous challenge.

As Thaddeus Miller, director of beverage at Montage Palmetto Bluff, explains, “The sheer diversity of environs across the boot of Italy is what makes them so special.” To break down the vastness of this challenge, let’s concentrate on the Italian hot spots. Tuscany and Piedmont represent Italy’s leading regions in terms of regional recognition and production.

Italian White Wines

Italian white wines come in many options that go from crisp and dry to sweet to smooth and some even fruity.

One of Italy’s most famous wines is Pinot Grigio made from the Pinot Gris grapes of Northeastern Italy. It is well known by many and enjoyed for being dry, light-bodied and crisp.

From south of Rome, Frascati is dry, light-bodied with an un-oaked, crisp acidity and subdued flavor.

Asti is wine made from the Moscato grapes around Asti. This wine is beautifully sweet, low in alcohol with distinct sweet and flowery essences.

A generally medium-bodied wine called Orvieto is made from Grechetto grapes from Orvieto. This is a dry, crisp, wine with flavors of pear and apple and a pleasant aftertaste.

The dry, medium-bodied wine Gavi comes from Cortese grapes. It is typically dry and un-oaked with faint hints of honey, apples, and minerals.

A dry, crisp, un-oaked, with essences of pear, apple, or peach, Soave is from the Soave zone in the Veneto region.

Italian Red Wines

Barbera is a dry medium-bodied wine with intense berry flavor and little tannin. Barbera is produced mainly in the Piedmont region.

A very dry, medium-bodied, moderately tannic wine, Chianti has a tart-cherry flavor. It is made from Sangiovese grapes grown in Tuscany. Jeff Martin of Red Fish suggests pairing Chianti with roast chicken, pizza and any dish with marinara sauce.

A dry, full-bodied, wine from Nebbiolo grapes, in the Piedmont region, Barolo has intricate fragrances and flavors of strawberries, and herbs. Red Fish chef Jeff Martin likes Barolo with grilled lamb chops or filet mignon.

If you are looking for a full-bodied, hearty and intense wine, you might try Brunello di Montalcino. Sangiovese grapes that are grown in Tuscany are the source of this dry and quite tannic wine.

From the Negroamaro grapes in part of the Puglia region comes Salice Salentino. It holds up well with heavier foods and is dry, full-bodied wine and has somewhat penetrating scents and essences of cooked fruit.

For a medium-bodied red, many people prefer Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. It is tasty with red berries and a sports an herbal taste.

Lambrusco is a sweet wine from the Emilia-Romagna region, and it comes in both dry and sparkling styles that are versatile with meals.

A particularly bold wine from partially-dried Corvina grapes, Amarone tends to be dry with an intense fruitiness and sweetness. Amarone pairs well with rich foods or cheeses. With its red cherry flavor similar to Chianti.

The Best Italian Wines to Try

We asked local wine experts for a few of their favorites:

Recommendations from Nicky Geoffory from Rollers:

Etna Bianco. This white wine is a light straw color with strong green reflections. It shows suggestions of ripe grapefruit, tangerine and white peach. It also is complemented by earthy herbal tastes. This dry wine will pair well with fish or shellfish.

Vietti. This white wine falls under the watchful eye of Vietti Roero Arneis. It is a non-oak wine that goes well as a first-course wine or with chicken, pasta or fish. The bouquet of Vietti is full with fragrances of bright citrus, white peach, wild sage, ash, and natural rubber. This wine’s appearance and taste are bright and fresh.

Orena. Is an American cabernet Italian style. A super Tuscan, this wine is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot. A bold wine, Orena is an excellent complement to hearty dishes of beef or lamb, and this wine will age very well.

Jeff Martin of Red Fish suggests:

Michele Chiarlo Roero Arneis. This white wine has aromas of white flowers, mint and apricot. On the palate it is fresh and elegant.

Lalole Di Lamole Chianti Classico. The outstanding structure and soft texture of the red wine is set in a rich aromatic array of fruit and sweet spice.

Michele Chiarlo Barolo Tortoniano. Aromatic and silky this wine delivers cherry, raspberry, rose petal and mineral flavors.  Balanced and soft with gentle tannins and nice finish.

Castell Banfi Brunello Di Montalcino. The cherry and plum flavors along with notes of leather, earth and wild herbs with dense tannins are the signature of this wine.

So where to start?

Studies show drinking red wine in small doses is better for you than not drinking at all. Antioxidants found in red wine lower incidences of cardiovascular disease, mortality and type-2 diabetes; but not all red wines are made the same. Dry red wines are better than sweet ones, younger red wines have higher cholesterol-inhibiting tannin than older wines, and red wines with an ABV below 13 percent are better than ones with a higher count.

With this wide variety and almost intimidating array of choices, exploring the wonderful world of Italian wines is virtually unapproachable for most of us. So Nicky Geoffrey of Rollers Wine and Spirits suggests, “come into a trusted wine store and discuss your tastes and likes with an expert.”

For many, Italian wines are an exciting new frontier that needs to be explored with great food and friends. Facciamo un brindisi!