Just tell the truth, already: you are totally freaked out by Italian wine.
By "freaked out", we mean shaking like a leaf. Shivering in your shorts. Just plain scurrred. Ask a wine retailer which category they find most challenging to sell to less experienced consumers, and you're likely to hear the same despairing reply: Italian.
This means that some of the greatest wines in the world are being passed over in favor of bottles with kangaroos on them, people. But we're not trying to give you crap here, because we get it. There's that whole pain-in-the-ass business about the terms on the label being in a foreign language, and even if you're able to decipher those, you'll still have to deal with crazy-high levels of acidity and trying to remember which grape you're drinking if you're enjoying a Barbaresco. Because we realize that you're probably not carrying around a copy of The New Wine Lover's Companion in your back pocket (not that there's anything wrong with that), after spending last weekend tasting a half case worth of too-good-not-to-recommend Italian reds, we got to thinking: What if we could make these endlessly alluring wines more accessible to you?
Before we give you the goods, though, be warned: These are not one-for-one exchanges we're proposing here. Italian red wines do not, nor should they taste exactly like the domestic wines we're comparing them to below. Your mission is to look for a wine (or three) that you commonly enjoy and purchase on a regular basis -- then work on expanding your repertoire by sampling the Italian wine that comes closest to it, relatively speaking. Don't forget to try the recommended food pairing, as that's likely to make your foray into the world of old world wines a little smoother, being as it is that the addition of fat, protein, salt and / or umami flavors will significantly affect the experience of highly acidic and /or tannic wines on your tender palate. So push yourself. Buy a bottle you've never heard of, and see firsthand why you've got nothing to lose (and everything to gain) by exploring the world of Italian wine.
If you love pinot noir, try the Palladino Barbera d'Alba Superiore 2009 ($14): Alba, a district within northwestern Italy's famous Piedmont region, is known for producing a few of our favorite things: truffles, fine chocolates, and naturally, wine. Like classic pinot noir, youthful barbera wines are fragrant, soft, and full of juicy cherry and currant flavors. The Palladino featured a beautiful, dark plum shade and smelled of soft cherry fruit and smoked almonds.
You'll definitely notice the wine's expected, vibrant acidity on your tongue, followed closely by bright currant and freshly-picked cranberry. A sausage and mushroom pizza is just what you need to counteract some of the acidity and highlight the wine's earthy backbone.
If you love cabernet franc, try the Fattoria del Cerro Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2007 ($20): Yeah, the name's a bit daunting. But the wine is not -- in fact, it was one of the tasting group's favorites of the night. That's because for those with palates less experienced with old world wines, it offered elements of the familiar (relatively mild tannins, toasty oak, easy-to-drink fruit flavors) as well as a few surprises (dusty earth, nutmeg and clove-driven spice). By the way, the major grape variety here is sangiovese, same as what you're sipping when you order a bottle of Chianti. Pour this with a hearty winter meal of spicy chicken Cacciatore and see how acid (from the tomatoes in the dish) plus more acid (from the wine) equals a whole lot of delicious.
If you love merlot, try the Lenotti Capomastro Rosso Veneto 2009 ($10): It only makes sense that our tasting notes on this wine from Italy's Veneto region (whose capital city of Venice conjures up all kinds of romantic images) would include words like "voluptuous," "lush" and "sexy." You're probably not surprised, then, to see that we've compared it to a merlot. The round mouthfeel and ripe fig and blueberry flavors of this particular bottle mean that you're not obligated to drink it with food as a means of dealing with those sky-high acidity levels typically found in Italian wines. The only thing you need to do to enjoy this wine is find your corkscrew.
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If you love California meritage and Bordeaux blends, try the Baracchi O'Lillo Toscana 2010 ($15): European wine producing laws are crazy strict. Their quality classification systems dictate which grape varieties are legally allowed to be grown within specific regions in order to be deemed worthy of the very highest designations. Back in the '70s, a group of Italian winemakers wanted to plant unauthorized grapes like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah in Tuscany in order to make fruit-forward wines more suited to the American palate (and to offer Italy's take on the vaunted Bordeaux blends).The term "super Tuscan" was a clever marketing ploy that succeeded in positioning these higher end -- and typically more expensive -- bottles as premium wines. If you didn't know better, you might actually mistake the smooth-drinking Baracchi for a California wine, given the load of spicy, jammy blackberry and dried cherry fruit you'll be treated to at first sip.
If you love off-dry riesling or moscato, try the Villa M Rosso 2010 ($14): We are huge proponents of the notion that every now and then, a sweet wine is in order. But what you might not realize is that there's no need to relegate these bottles strictly to after-dinner service (although they'll certainly be delicious with dessert). We adored the fact that the delightfully frizzante (aka slightly sparkling) Villa M rosso, made from the brachetto grape, tasted just as refreshing with a plate of prosciutto and a hunk of Gorgonzola as it did with a handful of bittersweet chocolate chips. Plus, it clocks in at a sobriety-promoting level of just five percent alcohol, a relief for those evenings when you want to get festive, not faded.