Wine Talk: Pasta, pesto, and pizza

Italy is famous for countryside and agriculture, art and architecture, history and fashion. It is also known for taste, flavor and hospitality.

Tuscany region of Italy (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tuscany region of Italy
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Italy reminds me of Israel, and not just because of the similarities between the Italian and Jewish mother. Italy is a long, thin country with many micro climates. Northern Italy has its head in the Alps, and the far south is more or less North Africa.
It is also a patchwork of regional diversity, partly because unification took place only in 1861. It can be said that Italy is a country of individuals bound together by a common language. Many would say the same about Israel.
Italy is famous for countryside and agriculture, art and architecture, history and fashion, music and love, luxury and authenticity. It is also known for taste, flavor and hospitality.
Italy was the mother of Western cuisine, and the roots of French gastronomy came from there. When Catherine de Medici left Italy to marry the future king of France in the 16th century, she introduced a new elegance and refinement to French cuisine. Yet it is the use of natural ingredients like the tomato, garlic and olive oil that has given Italian cuisine the simplicity and purity for which it is known.
Tuscany is the region that most often comes to mind. We automatically describe any beautiful wine region here as “The Tuscany of Israel.” I have a painting at home of a typical Tuscan scene of vines, olive trees and cypresses. What does that remind me of? Israel, of course! Furthermore, the holy trinity of cuisine in Tuscany is bread, wine and olive oil. Remember, Eretz Yisrael was described as “A land of wheat... of vines…., a land of olive oil….” The dietary staple of the ancient Israelites was bread, wine and olive oil, too.
Italy is not just a country of pasta, pesto and pizza but also the land of Chianti and Barolo. Italy vies with France for being the world’s largest producer of wine. The Greeks had it right. They named Italy Oenotria, the land of wine.
However, Italian wine is complicated. President Charles de Gaulle once said of France that it was impossible to run a country with so many cheeses. Maybe the same could be said about Italy, as there are so many wines, grape varieties and producers.
The three main grape varieties are Barbera, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. Barbera is the second-most planted red grape variety in Italy and is particularly dominant in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy. Barbera wines run the full spectrum of style, from light, fruity and refreshing to quality wines aged in small oak barrels. The finest are usually called Barbera d’Asti or Barbera d’Alba. The wines have concentrated flavors of ripe berry fruit, plums with a hint of spice. Like many Italian wines, Barberas usually have an excellent acidity, which makes them successful food wines.
Nebbiolo is the most exclusive Italian variety, responsible for making Barolo, the king of Italian wines. The word nebbiolo translates to “little fog,” as a light fog covers the vineyards. Nebbiolo is the Pinot Noir of France. It is moody, difficult to grow but unique. The wines have a delicate aroma of tar and roses, with a whiff of violets, backed by earthier notes of wild mushrooms and truffles. They are also very tannic with a high acidity. Once, Barolos had to be bottle aged for a minimum of 20 years before even considering opening a bottle. Today, they are more fruit forward but still with real potential to age.
Barbaresco wines are also made in Piedmont using the Nebbiolo grape. This is a region revived and brought to the world’s attention by the legendary Angelo Gaja. Barbarescos are more feminine than Barolo. Their Nebbiolo tends to ripen earlier, the tannins tend to be softer, the fruit more red than black, and it is slightly more approachable. However, the wines are no less in demand from connoisseurs the world over.
Sangiovese is Italy’s most planted variety. The word means “the blood of Jove.” It is at its most popular in the wines of Chianti in Tuscany. Simple Chianti can be light, with a sour cherry aroma, an attractive earthiness and, again, the refreshing acidity. The better wines are called Chianti Classico. The Sangiovese grape is at its most regal in the age-worthy Brunello di Montalcino wines made near the hilltop town of Montalcino in Tuscany. These wines are rich, opulent with blackcurrant fruit. Not far behind are the wines called Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, made from the village of Montepulciano, south of Siena. Good value Sangioveses from other regions are Rosso Piceno from the Marche region and Sangiovese di Romagna.
On the west coast of Tuscany are the socalled Super Tuscans. In some cases, these are wines that are blends of an international variety such as Cabernet Sauvignon with Sangiovese. Examples are Solaia and Tignanello. Others don’t use Italian varieties at all, such as the legendary Sassicaia.
Other worthwhile Italian wines include the popular sour cherry Valpolicella from Veneto, the juicy Dolcetto from Piedmont and the good-value chewy Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (this time, Montepulciano is the name of a grape). Also from the hotter south are the quality Aglianico from Campania, the deep full-bodied Negroamaro from Puglia and the spicy Nero’Avola from Sicily.
Whites tend to be blander than the reds. Pinot Grigio is by far the most popular in overseas markets, followed by Soave from Veneto, Frascati from Rome or Orvieto from Umbria. My favorite is the lime fresh, grassy, almost nutty Verdicchio from the Marche region on the Adriatic coast. Those looking for interest and variety should go for the flinty Vermentino from Sardinia, peachy Fiano or fuller bodied Greco from Campania.
As far as sparkling wines are concerned, the sweet and grapey Asti Spumante produced in Piedmont has taken a back seat because of the new success of Prosecco. These light, fruity, unpretentious wines from northeast Italy are becoming more and more popular also in Israel.
Amongst the frizzante wines are Lambrusco from the Emilia region and Moscato d’Asti from Piedmont. Moscatos are the new “in” thing. In America, they call it Moscato madness. These wines are aromatic, light, semisweet, slightly sparkling and low-alcohol.
Wines made using ancient methods include the bitter-sweet, chocolatey flavors of an Amarone or the sweeter Recioto. These are made from dried grapes hung or laid out on straw mats. Or there is the delicious Vino Santo, a rich, luscious marmaladey dessert wine also made from dried grapes.
Italy has a small Jewish community. Rome must be one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, as it dates back to the second century BCE. There are kosher wines made in Italy. The best are those made under the Ovadia Estates label, such as Barbera d’Alba, Chianti and Barolo. However, there is a full range of very pleasant food wines under the Bartenura label, including a Prosecco, Pinot Grigio, Valpolicella, Chianti and the best-seller Moscato in a blue bottle.
Local Italian-style wines
As far as Israel is concerned, Sangiovese is the main Italian variety planted, and there are tiny amounts of Barbera and Nebbiolo. Certainly, Italian varieties show best at home, but the Israeli versions there are give a good opportunity to sample something other than Cabernet and Merlot, and they do pair well with food. If you want to drink Italian, these wines are recommended.
BEST VALUE: NIS 40-NIS60 Teperberg Silver Sangiovese 2011 Lightish, very fruity and easy drinking. Good value.
Gamla Sangiovese 2009 A good food wine with aromas of raspberry and strawberry, backed by good acidity. Refreshing.
BEST QPR: NIS 60-NIS100 Galil Mountain Barbera 2010 Medium-bodied wine with cherry fruit and plums on the nose, caressed by soft vanilla notes.
Gamla Shmura Nebbiolo 2010 A good opportunity to taste Nebbiolo. Delicate aromas of blackberries and cherries with an underlying minerality.
SPECIAL PURCHASE: NIS 100 + Ramat Naftaly Barbera 2010 Not yet tasted by me but recommended by others as one of the best Barberas in Israel.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications. [email protected]