Oenotria—Italian Wines with Italian Food

Been a couple of Fortnights

Now, before diving into Oenotria and Italian Wines with Italian Food, a moment on how life intrudes on schedules. Though I didn’t mind this intrusion—a short trip to visit my mother in Columbus with my “new” brother Jay Shilladay. The first time our mother had seen us together in, well, ever. Yes, there is a long story here involving different fathers, different cities, DNA tests and a carefully worded email dated about a year ago. That will appear here as one of those Adventures in the Interzone. One of these days.

After the family visits and 4th of July Fireworks, we traveled to Toronto and Montreal. I brought along everything needed to keep publishing the Fornightlies and keep up with the FB and Instagram posts and tweets on Twitter. Right on schedule. But trying to explain why I’m sitting indoors at a computer versus walking about with my family proved too much. Instead, I tried to vacation. With modest success. [Lots of street art was gathered.]

The Wine Hunter (revived and expanded)

Italian Wines with Italian Food

Entering a Tribeca loft for an Italian wine dinner, my guest and I were given a glass of white wine as an aperitif.

The host told us it was D’Alessandro’s Fontarca, and described it as a 60% Chardonnay, 40% Viognier blend.

Hmm. Curious blend. One I could only guess about—there’s not one Italian varietal inside.

Usually, I wouldn’t care, but this time, I came with a guest. One I wished to impress with wine, so this surprise glass full of uncertainty left me a bit nervous.

So, before any wine had passed our lips, I readied a natural enough sounding explanation, suggesting that Italy does better with red wines†.

“So, you see….,” I would have said in my most knowledgeable tone.

How wrong my trepidation was.

Starting with the initial sniff at the lip of the glass, then across the palate and through the finish, I knew I’d tasted not only a very well-made wine but an impressive one—without a drop of native Italian varietal juice involved.

My guest smiled, nodded approvingly.

The first wine hurdle passed, I patted myself mentally on the back. This will be a good night.

As the Chiantis, Vino Nobile di Montepulcianos, and Rossos de Montepulcianos made their way around the table over roasted eggplant, gnocchi and pesto, I kept recalling that surprising white we had tasted at the entrance.

What an odd hybrid. So aromatic.  So refreshing. So… interesting. I’d never see that blend before. Even from Australia or California.

But weren’t we here to try Italian wines with Italian food?  To have wines paired with the food they grew up with.

That Fontarca – a blend of French varietals grown in Italy… how, exactly, would that fit in with this night’s Italian food?

It didn’t. Nor was it meant to.

Rather, it had started the evening as an aperitif. And did it excellently.

Of course, this does not mean it couldn’t have matched the food well—its acid backbone ensured a certain food-friendliness. Plus with forward white fruit and honeysuckle balancing its bright acids made this a wine, it would not only pair well with Italian food but shows itself a perfect crossover candidate for the many wine-innocent cuisines and fusions we’re now eating so much of.

Looking back, this really shouldn’t have concerned me. Even for a moment.

The ancient Greeks called Italy “Oenotria” the land of wine. Wine grapes are grown over the whole of the country, side by side with the many Italian cuisines. i.e., all Italian wine grew up with some local food, which all share the more general tendencies of Italian cuisines to use copious amounts of vinegar, tomatoes, and citrus juices— all acids—which brighten food flavors.

And Italian wines, which have been made for centuries to complement this food, show this same marked acidity.

The Mexican Connection

This vein of acidity should sound quite familiar—Mexican foods. Both it and Italian cuisines are (generally) based on very fresh, simply prepared local ingredients, with bright sauces. It’s the same balance seen before in Mexican and Latin foods—vegetable and meat sweetness balanced with acid tartness.

Further, like Mexican and most Latin cuisines, ranch-lands excepted, Italian is a cuisine of scarcity. Few large joints of red meat. Meat tends to be an adjunct, an additional flavor. Vegetables and starches drive the dishes.  

Oddly, national politics do matter for taste—Italy, like Mexico, didn’t unify until relatively recently. This civic separation helped keep local cuisines very different across each country, unique to a location.

Of course, the style, techniques, and history of Mexican food are not similar Italian, perhaps growing as close as kissing cousins after the Columbian exchange—sharing tomatoes, peppers, corn and all. Yet beneath the surface, below the specific ingredients, techniques, and tools, they share much.

So, a wine that grew up with Italian cuisine should work well with Mexican, Latin, and Latin Fusion Cuisines.

I had wanted to buy this wine for tasting notes here in this column. But Steve at William Grant and Son Importers told me that it has already sold out. And, the next vintage won’t be shipping until 2004. Even the distributor couldn’t find a bottle.

So, if you see it, buy it. It’s a treat. Otherwise, keep your eyes peeled for the next vintage. I have a standing order for it when it arrives.

For now, I’ve had to find other Italians to play the Latin (and Asian) matching game with. And, below are five in which I’ve found promising dates.

† A quick apology

† A quick but heartfelt apology to Italy in general and Italian winemakers in particular: I used to be universally disappointed in Italian whites. Painful admission, but true. For years, I simply took the flood of innocuous Soaves, Pinot Grigios, and Chardonnays, all of which elicit, at best, a shrug and a place as the house white at the local diner as what Italian white wine was.

Stupid me.

I’ve since been enlightened, yet there are still very many uninteresting bottles of Italian whites.
Mind you, understanding the patchwork nature of Italian wine naming conventions, unique grapes, classifications, and regions does nothing to help. Pick up a bottle, and it could be named after a grape, a grape plus region, a region only or just whatever name the maker wishes to call it, and then it also bears one of several levels of official classifications.

DOC (Denominazione Origine Controllata)

This owning, in part, to the creation of the DOC (Denominazione Origine Controllata) areas in 1962, based on the French AOC system (Appellation d’Origine contrôlée). At its inception, many non-traditional areas were allowed to put a DOC’s classification on a bottle of wine, meaning what’s inside, how it was farmed and then vinified became a mystery. This led to many poor-quality wines cashing in on famous, and pricy, classifications.

DOCG (Denominazione Origine Controllata e Garantita)

In 1980 the error was partially rectified by the creation of a new category— DOCG (Denominazione Origine Controllata e Garantita). This designates a wine “guaranteed” by a tasting panel to meet specific standards. Only some of the many wines have been granted this status: Brunello, Vino Nobile, Barolo, Barbaresco, Chianti being the first few.


Then in 1992, the “Classico” designation was introduced, which, while it explicitly does not guarantee a better wine, does indicate the grapes come from the traditional areas and vineyards for making a particular style of wine, using the approved farming and vinification techniques. Many DOCG wines include the Classico designation.

These might be better. Or not. But at least, you have a better idea of where the grapes were grown and that it matches the wines that made that region famous.

I tend to look for them when I buy a bottle of wine: At least the maker is bound to follow the rules for that style of wine in those vineyards that go back more than fifty years.

“Superiore” and “Riserva”

There is also “Superiore,” usually with an ABV of about 0.5% and typically coming from smaller yielding vines, thus more flavorful, and “Riserva,” which requires extra time in barrels—each style of wine has its own rules governing that classification, so there is no general rule for that other than at least a year more than is required for the non-Riserva version.

Yes, Italian wines are confusing. But largely worth the effort.

Serendipitously, a sharp wine writer over at Wine Folly just send me an email with this in it:

With over 350 regional wines and over 500 native Italian wine grapes, how does one go about getting into Italian wine? These five Italian red wines are a great place to start –especially if you’re a beginner – because they absolutely encapsulate what Italian wine is all about!

From Wine Folly’s newsletter

So yeah, expect the unfamiliar when one wades into the wines of Oenotria

Watch their video for the full list! Right here.

If you like videos like that, let me know. I must just start filming them. Videoing them, but that is such an ugly sounding word.

And yeah, the date went well. We’ve been married fifteen years now.

New wines Tasted Fresh for Your Perusal

Label from bottle of Lini 910 'Lambrusa' Labrusco Rosso 2015
Lini 910 ‘Lambrusa’ Labrusco Rosso 2015

Rusty—rosehip, with a light head and intermittent bead. Leaves fine bubbles around the glass. Strawberry with earthy funk and a smidge of iodine. The bright attack, petulant, with red berry notes. Prickles long the tongue into a modest, but crisp finish: 3 of 5 🍷🇮🇹
For pairing this wine, cold cuts, and sheep’s milk cheeses—canapes early in a party. This wine can be an aperitif solo or pair. It’s easy that way. Sausage and peppers isn’t a stretch, nor is lasagna. We started with is solo, and it went right into dinner without missing a step.

Label from bottle of Three Hares Western Cape Pinotage 2017
Three Hares Western Cape Pinotage 2017

Deep plum, clear meniscus, and a few long slow legs, somewhat viscous. Not very open—some dark fruit, richness, and earthiness, with a touch of spice in time. Grippy tannins right out, loads of dark berry fruit but w/balancing acidity and those tannins which prickle the tongue well into the long finish—smooth coating, leaving slightly better late but remains well balanced with hints at sweetness: Stupendous w/sujuk, a cured beef sausage, the Armenian version we had was a dense, spicy, herby one: 3 of 5🍷🇿🇦.
Take the sujuk as a cue for what pairs this wine—meat—charcuterie in particular, or pork, but also dishes with warm spices and lots of herbs. Possibly even lamb curry.

Label from bottle of The Seeker Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2016
The Seeker Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2016

Classic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc: very pale, essentially clear in the glass. Shows a few slow falling legs, fairly viscous. Very bright nose, full of citrus, with hints of grapefruit. The attack has a fruitiness that opens up into well balanced grapefruit notes, without bitterness, well-balanced with firm acidity. Into the long finish, the grapefruit picks up a touch of pith bitterness, and lingering fruit. Nice wine: 4 of 5 🍷🇳🇿.
As for pairing, think big flavors. This has it to burn—so grilled fish, bold salads, Asian styled seafood, Thai curries. I, though, like it with simply dressed crudites, Elizabeth David—5 ingredients, salt, pepper and the best olive oil possible—no acids to scratch that one up. The wine will handle things for you.

Label from bottle of Domaine le Vieux Chêne Côtes Catalanes Blanc 2017
Domaine le Vieux Chêne Côtes Catalanes Blanc 2017

Very pale parchment—nearly clear—wide, slow legs, and moderate viscosity. Fresh, minerally on the nose, with a touch of pear, and char, and a hint of the floral. Fresh attack—crips, very soppy, near mouth coating, unctuous, mellower finish, though the acids still dominated. Some impression of white-fleshed fruit, perhaps nectarine in the finish. Begs for food or add itself to a spritzer: 3 of 5 🍷🇫🇷
This wine is mostly Grenache Blanc, and so pairs well with richly spiced dishes—so long as they are not too hot. Think mostly white meats, but it can stand up to short ribs if spiced well enough.

Label from bottle of Commuovere Dogliani 2016
Commuovere Dogliani 2016

Solid Italian red. A deep garnet, clear meniscus, many slow legs all around the glass, fairly viscous. Rich, round dark red fruit on the nose, with a mere hint of bandaid over floral notes, and autumn spaces, pleasing. Acidic right out of the gates—followed by a full, supple mouthfeel w/dark berry fruit lasting into the long finish—all topped w/fine-grained tannins, ending with lingering juicy prune notes. 4 of 5 🍷🇮🇹
This is a Dolcetto Wine that is made in the town of Dogliani, so for pairing, think Dolcetto—Doglianis should be drunk young, with antipasti, pasta with meat sauces or roasted chicken. Simple. Straight forward. Like this solid Italian red

Label from bottle of Maison Bonheur Beaujolais-Village 2016
Maison Bonheur Beaujolais-Village 2016

Medium plum color, with a touch of brown near the clear meniscus, very few legs, medium viscosity. Tight nose, with some dark fruit and spice notes. Lighter body, with sour cherry notes and from acidity—a tart wine—simple, easy-going, not a pushover Beaujolais: 3 of 5 🍷🇫🇷.
This lighter-bodied red, with no tannins to speak of, pairs with a wide variety of food, starting with charcuterie and ripened cheeses, and fish. As the French say, Beaujolais is the only white wine that happens to be red. It can be served chilled.

label from bottle of Josh Cellars Central Coast Pinot Noir 2016
Josh Cellars Central Coast Pinot Noir 2016

Likely a case of improper storage. I know this maker & picked the bottle specifically for that. Yet, it doesn’t resemble what I expected: lighter bing cherry color with browning on the meniscus (2 years old?!) Many slow fat legs, and a bit viscous. The nose was a touch hot, with cassis, toasty notes, a touch of caramelized brown sugar and earthy funk. The attack showed a thinner body than expected, with muted fruit, some acidity soon joined by fine tannins, which lasted into the somewhat bitter finish. Off and out of balance. Odd: 2.5 of 5 🍷🇺🇸.
Usually, a bigger burgundy style Pinot Noir like this should sip well all on its own, and pair with more assertive meats, like duck and lamb especially when spiced up a bit. Not hot spice, warm spice. Dishes with figs or especially cherries would match very well.

label from bottle of Josh Cellars North Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2017
Josh Cellars North Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2017

A solid Cali Sauvignon Blanc—Very clear wheat color, a few, slow, fat legs. A bright, fresh nose with citrus and a touch of cut grass—full bore in the glass. It comes on bright and citrusy in the attack, moving to a medium boy wine, with drying finish and a nutty (almond) finish with that light citrus as a through-line. Loved the Asian we had including Pork & Shrimp Shumai, Fried Rice, eggplant and grilled radish dim sums: 4 of 5 🍷🇺🇸.
For pairing, keep in mind its acidy and its tendance towards herbaceousness—if the dish has herbs, it should play well with this wine. Fish of course, as well as other white meats. Goat’s milk cheeses. Fattier vegetarian dishes would work splendidly, tarts, quiches, composed salads with avocado.

Label from bottle of Twomey Bien Nacido Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir 2016
Twomey Bien Nacido Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir 2016

Grand wine for dinner in Napa. Light plum in color with a clear meniscus, and many slow legs all around the glass. Fully body, round, long finish with fine tannins. Silky cherry and berry fruit notes. Slick wine. Love the burrata and ricotta gnocchi was outstanding. Loved the quail as well. 4.5 of 5 🍷🇺🇸.
This is a more “serious” style of Pinot Noir and it does especially well with meat, especially gamier red meats, pork roasts or game fowl. Mushrooms. Herb crusted, ripened cheeses.

Five wines under $20 (From the Vault)†

Inexpensive wines make up the bulk of most people’s wine drinking. But inexpensive doesn’t have to mean boring. Added bonus—not only are these wines guilt-free for the budget, but they match everyday fare better than more expensive wines.

† (Prices are what I paid retail in Manhattan, circa 2003. Current, local prices may vary.) 

Bonacchi Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG – 2001
Monsier Touton Importers
$5.99 Retail

Pale straw, with bright highlights and medium viscosity. In the nose, rich, with peach, cooked pear, and evanescent hints of tropical fruit. Attractive. Rich with a touch of zip.
On the attack, the fruit is reserved. It opens into crisp acids over a medium body. Mid-palate, there is a bit of a sweet-tart play. White fruits appear on the finish as well as solid, noticeable acids. Bright and lively, with a long, a slightly bitter finish. A bit too bitter for an aperitif, this wine calls out for food. Think white meats or fish in spicy-citrus sauces. Or a vegetable-driven dish, like a wild mushroom tamal: 3 of 5 🍷🇮🇹

Villa Rosa Gavi DOCG – 2001
Opici Importers
$10.99 retail

Light straw, almost pale, with silver highlights. On the nose, fruit, particularly white fruit. Very clean. Pleasing. After a bit of time in the glass, some cherry and cherry tart notes appear.
The attack opens up dry and full of acids, verging on bitter. It cries out for food. Mid-palate, herbs enter, including a touch of hay. Light to medium body, with a long, acidic finish. Quite herbaceous, with hints of fennel and bitter herbs. A simple wine, one that should be drunk with simple food, such as a simply dressed crudités, or a mild white fish prepared with herbs like steamed Sea Bass with Hoja Santa, tomatoes and sliced bell peppers. Perhaps butter-fried plantains on the side: 3 of 5🍷🇮🇹

Fazi Battaglia Verdicchio Dei Castelli Di Jesi Classico DOC – 2001
Palm Bay Imports, Inc. Importer
$8.49 Retail

Still sold in the classic amphora shaped bottle. In a glass, it’s almost clear, an extremely pale straw. The nose calls out its food-friendliness with just slightly bitter almonds, like raw almonds. Yet, this balances a decided nut sweetness, as if from almond butter.
The palate carries on the nut flavors, the attack full of roast almonds and nut sweetness: one of the reasons I so like this style of wine. Then, as it moves across the palate, it opens into black walnuts, with their earthy funk. A medium-bodied wine with nice, well-integrated acids on the finish. Smooth.
A simple wine, yet pleasing, with a long finish and good balance. More of a food wine than an aperitif, though it was nice to sip on a warm summer evening, on a terrace overlooking 26th street. It loved nutty cheeses. Would love any lighter-bodied meat: fish, pork, chicken, especially made almandine or with pumpkin seeds. Nice wine: 4 of 5🍷🇮🇹

La Cala Vermentino  Di Sardegna DOC – 2002
By Sella  & Mosca
Palm Bay Importers, Importers
$8.70 retail

Virtually clear, almost like water. Fairly viscous, really fat legs. The nose was very forward, full of general citrus that settled into lemon/lime in time. Hints of toasted almonds. Very attractive, and it practically jumped out of the glass.
The attack came on strong as citrus and acids. Quite zippy. Very refreshing. This acid, though, made it appear deceptively light-bodied. It’s medium to full-bodied, with a general fruitiness throughout. Rich mid-palate. Then moves into a long, long finish of zippy acids, and impressions of white fruit and citrus.
A nicely balanced wine. Can be drunk as an aperitif or with food. It’s got the body to stand up to some full-flavored fish, like blue or salmon, any white meat, including some heavily sauced ones, and perhaps even red meats if served cold. Think sausage or sliced roast on a salad. Sharp wine. It really grew on me as I finished the glass: 4 of 5 🍷🇮🇹

Villa Antinori Toscana (Bianco) IGT 2002
Villa Antinori importers
$7.50 retail

This wine, by the maker of Solaia and Tignanella Super Tuscans, has been around since the 30s. It’s an easy, appealing wine that blends two Italian varietals, Trebbiano and Malvasia (80%), with Chardonnay (20%).
It’s very clear, almost like water, with just the slightest straw color. The nose speaks to its broad appeal—simple bright citrus with zippy acidity and a touch of tropical fruit, suggesting pineapple. The attack starts as general fruit, and then is taken over by refreshing acidity. A surprising richness takes over mid-palate, though the acids keep it light and lively. The general fruit keeps up through the finish, which moves to a zippy acidity that starts the salivary glands working on full. Both hints of fruit and zippy acids keep going on this long finish. The suggestions of citrus and pineapple grows after it’s swallowed.
Good aperitif, especially on a hot afternoon. Yet, would do very well with shellfish, any lightly flavored fish, or simply prepared chicken.   Straight up – a nice, simple wine, good for every day drinking in the warm months: 3.5 of 5 🍷🇮🇹

Bonus sold-out wine:

Tenimenti D’Alessandro Fontarca – 2002
William Grant and Sons importer
$17 (estimated)

60% Chardonnay 40% Viognier Blend

As I was having this at a cocktail party, I didn’t take notes. I was expecting to buy a bottle and taste it at home, with food. So, these brief notes are pure memories. A forward sweetness-tart balance of white fruit and honeysuckle with bright acids. It did make a killer aperitif, and a great match with any lighter, well balanced dish, such as lobster tacos with black bean puree, chili de arbol salsa, and avocado.  Look for the 2003 in January 2004. It has limited production, but it is worth the effort if you can lay your hands on a bottle: 4.5 of 5 🍷🇮🇹

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