The Beginner’s Guide To Great Italian Red Wines
Wine can be a little off-putting. There’s just so much of it out there. There are Pinots and Merlots and Cab Francs to contend with. There are renowned regions and famous wineries. Then there’s vernacular like the ‘nose,’ legs,’ and ‘finish’ to navigate. It’s a lot to track. The key is to “like what you like” and not apologize for being a neophyte. In the end, it’s just red, white, rosé, and sparkling. The other words on those labels are just place names and types of grapes.
No one understands this attitude better than the Italians. A trip to Italy to tour Tuscany while drinking wine is on the top of many an oenophiles bucket lists for good reason — the country has over 1,000 wine regions. Visiting them all would take a lifetime. It’s easier to hop over to, say, Rome, and start your Italian wine journey with practical advice from a local expert. City Wonders in Rome offers a guided wine night with an expert somm who can give you a gateway to Italy’s wine culture. Plus they’ll throw in a great food pairing.
If you can’t make it to Italy, we’ve got your back. A couple of caveats first. In Italy — and much of Europe — wine is ordered by the region not by grape variety. In America, we tend to order Pinots or Cabs while Italians order Barolos or Salice Salentinos. Those are literally towns in Italy and types of wine.
Also, let’s not get bogged down in pairings. The best advice any somm can give is to find a wine that you love and eat it with the food you love. Don’t let snobbery get in your way of loving great wine or enjoying a great meal. We’re also leaving aging and vintages at the door. We can talk about which wines to age and how that works another time. The wines listed here are good young or old. Lastly, we’ve tried to keep these bottles in the $10-$50 dollar range. But, that’s very speculative since most US states have varying alcohol taxes.
Okay, no more sniffing the cork — let’s dive in. As Ernest Hemingway once said, “drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary…”
VINO NOBILE DI MONTEPULCIANO — LA BRACCESCA
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano or just ‘Nobile’ for shorthand is one of Tuscany’s most important and classic wines. The wines have to come from the hills southeast of Sienna around the village of Montepulciano. The main grape grown in the small mountain region is Sangiovese — which also goes by the name Prugnolo Gentile by the locals. ‘Nobile’ wine has to age for 24 months for the standard and 36 months for the ‘Riserva.’
La Braccesca’s Nobile is a vividly ruby red with a nose of blackberries, violets, and red currants. That’s followed by a rush of cinnamon and dark, ripe berries on the palate with a mineral edge and a clean finish. It’s a blend of 90 percent Prugnolo Gentile and ten percent Merlot. The wine spent 12 months in oak before it was bottled and aged for an additional 12 months.
BRUNELLO DI MONTALCINO — MOCALI
Brunello di Montalcino is wine grown on the hillside slopes around the Tuscan village of Montalcino near Sienna. The wine is made exclusively from Sangiovese grapes. It even takes its name from the local’s colloquialism for the grapes they grow. Brunello means ‘little dark one’ in reference to the Sangiovese berries. Brunello region wines stand out — and some argue above — other Tuscan wines because they use only Sangiovese Grosso grapes in the fermentation.
Mocali’s wine is a rich and full glass with a deep red color. There’s plum, eucalyptus, and cacao on the nose. That’s followed by a fresh herb garden full of rosemary and sage with hints of library dust and dried sour cherries. The wine spends 12 months in small Tonneau barrels which impart more oaky flavors. Then the wine is transferred to huge 95-gallon vats where it rests for another two years.
CHIANTI CLASSICO RISERVA — CASTELLO DI VERRAZZANO
Chianti Classico comes from the area called Chianti, which lies between Florence and Sienna in Tuscany. A Chianti Classico wine has to be at least 80 percent Sangiovese grapes and usually also contains some mix of Canaiolo, Colorino, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malvasia, or Trebbiano grapes. All of which must be grown in the local region.
Castello di Verrazzano was the ancestral home of the infamous Verrazzano who charted the eastern seaboard of North America and had a bridge in New York named after him for his efforts. The estate’s wine is a stellar example of the regional style. The ruby color is accompanied by a flush of ripe red fruit, peppercorns, and whispers of tobacco. The palate is full of oak tannins with hints of ripe cheese and plenty of berry undertones. The wine is aged for 24 months in oak and spends an extra six months mellowing after bottling.
MONTEPULCIANO D’ABRUZZO RISERVA — PODERE CASTORANI
Okay, buckle up, things get tricky here. Montepulciano, the region, grows primarily Sangiovese grapes these days — as seen above with ‘Nobile’ wines. However, they used to grow their own grape called the Montepulciano. But, now, those grapes are primarily grown in the Abruzzo region of Italy on the eastern coast, near the Adriatic Sea — with primarily soft clay soil and plenty of salty ocean breezes. So, to recap, the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo has nothing to do with the wine region of Montepulciano. But the grape they grow is from there — and that grape is not grown or used in Montepulciano anymore. Got it? Cool.
Podere Castorani has a gorgeous vineyard near Alanno, only 300 meters (980 feet) above the sea. Their wine has deep ruby color with violet hues. The nose is awash with wild berries, stark licorice, and wisps of vanilla and cacao. The palate is a balance of ripe red fruits, lines of tobacco, and mellowed tannins. The wine is aged 12 months in oak, six months in vats, and another 15 months (at least) after bottling.
BAROLO — MAURO MOLINO
Barolo is a small village in the hills of Piedmont in northwestern Italy. The region is famous for its limestone terroir and the Nebbiolo grape which grows predominantly in the area. This brings forth a wine that’s bright red, big in fruit flavors, and high in acidic and alcohol temperments.
When you hold Mauro Molino’s Barolo DOCG up to the light of the sun, it’ll glimmer like a bright garnet stone. Your nose will be met with a bouquet of dried roses and cherry blossoms. The wine tastes of a summer breeze rushing over pine trees mixed with blackberries and an acidic grape end. The wine is 100 percent Nebbiolo grapes and spent 18 months aging in oak barrels before bottling.
VALPOLICELLA SUPERIORE — ALLEGRINI
Just north of Verona is the Veneto region. Tucked away in the foothills of the Alps you’ll find the area where Valpolicella wines hail from. Generally speaking, Valpolicella wines are generally a blend of Corvina, Rondinella, and less frequently Molinara grapes. The vineyards on the high altitude chalk hillsides are south facing and take in the full Italian sun throughout the summer. This creates a lighter red wine that’s easy on the palate.
Allegrini’s Valpolicella Superiore bottles are a good entry point to the region and style. The dark burgundy color is accentuated by a nose that’s a full bouquet of fresh wild berries. That’s underpinned by a palate of light tannins, a touch of forest floor funk, and an almond finish. They use 70 percent Corvina Veronese, 25 percent Rondinella, and five percent Oseleta grapes in the blend. Then the wine is aged for 12 months — half in Slavonian oak and the other half in French oak — before bottling.
NOTO — PLANETA’S SANTA CECILIA
Noto is in the far south east of Sicily. It’s famed for being the birthplace of the Nero D’Avola grape. It’s also the region where the village of Pachino is — which was made famous when actor Al Pacino found fame (his family took their town’s name when they immigrated). Noto has white soils, hot Sicilian sun, and sea breezes full of salt. It’s a tiny corner of Sicily that make huge wines.
Planeta has six wine producing estates all over Sicily. So there’s a lot to choose from when it comes to this label. Their Santa Cecilia is a 100 percent Nero D’Avola wine with a bright red color that reflects the warm sun. There’s a whiff of carob, wild spices, and orange rind on the nose. That’s followed by big hits of balsamic, minerals, cherry blossoms, and dried dark berries leading to a sweet and acidic balance on the end.
CERASUOLO DI VITTORIA CLASSICO — COS
Cerasuolo di Vittoria is a big hitting wine region in Sicily. The wines are an almost equal mix of Nero d’Avola and Frappato grapes grown in limestone, sand, and clay soil. The wines benefit from the sandy beaches and hot Sicilian sun, making this a wine on the lighter side of the big Italian reds you get on the mainland.
Cos’ Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico is a beautiful wine worth seeking out. The wine body is a bright red that lets the sun sparkle through it. The nose is an array of forest floor, pine resin, lilacs, lavender, and wild berries. That’s followed a palate of dark cherries, spicy licorice, and a fresh seaside herb garden. The wine is a 70/30 mix of Nero D’Avola and Frappato grapes. It’s aged in tonneaus and tanks for 12 months, then spends an additional six months mellowing in the bottle.
ETNA ROSSO — PASSOPISCIARO’S PASSOROSSO
Terre Siciliane covers the wine areas of Sicily, Pantelleria, and the Aeolian Islands. Etna is one of the more special regions in Sicily. It has rich volcanic soils and high elevations (above 3,000 feet). The most popular wine produced in the region is Etna Rosso which primarily uses the Nerello Mascalese grape.
Passopisciaro’s Passorosso is the defining Etna Rosso. The wine is made from Nerello Mascalese grapes grown at different altitudes across the vineyard’s lands. The wine is a deep ruby red with hints of herbs and minerals on the nose. The palate has a dark berry base with whispers of sandalwood and exotic spices from a market in a far off land. The wine is aged in oak for up to 18 months.
SANGIOVESE DI ROMANGA — FATTORIA ZERBINA’S CEREGIO
Romagna is the region that encompasses the eastern half of Emilia-Romagna. The region is best known for its cultivation of Albana, Cagnina, Pagadebit, Trebbiano, and Sangiovese grapes. Although the Sangiovese wines are the most sought after. Hence the moniker ‘Sangiovese di Romagna.’
Fattoria’s Ceregio is the perfect entry point into this region. The color is a deep red followed by a nose of dried herbs and dark fruit. That’s followed by sour cherries, stewed plums, and the slightest waft of tobacco and mineral at the end. The wine is 100 percent Sangiovese and spends 12 months in oak and it then rested for months in the bottle.