For many of us, the Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s Day holiday trifecta is a time for Italian food, like lasagna, the feast of the seven fishes and panettone.
One of the very best restaurant meals we had in the past year was at Formento’s. We tried fish, pasta and red meat, all done in the simple and classic Italian style, and through it all, sommelier Chuckiy Bement found wines that did what wines are supposed to do: they made the food taste even better.
For years now, we’ve noticed that many Italian wines represent a huge value, punching way above their price point, delivering more than we’re paying for. So we decided to learn more about Italian wines—and why they’re priced so low—by talking to Bement, who, no surprise, leans heavily on wines from Italy in his job at Formento’s.
When we had dinner at Formento’s, you and I talked about the low prices of Italian wine. Why are Italian wines such a value?
The amount of production that comes out of Italy helps with the value as well as the fact that a lot of Italian wines are meant to be drunk young. There’s a huge draw to wines with quick turnaround, as seen by regions like Australia and New Zealand. I think almost any wine region these days has readily available wines in the $10-$25 range, and another big draw for Italian wine is the number of options you can have. With so many choices, regions and producers, it’s nice to have a wide variety of options when it comes to buying budget or ready-to-drink wines.
Italian wines are not as well-known as French and California varieties. What do we consumers need to know about Italian wines?
Consumers are intimidated by Italian wines. So many regional differences and dozens of varietals make buyers apprehensive. Most people enjoy consistency and knowing what they’re getting when they buy a wine, so they usually opt for a Chianti, Nebbiolo, Pinot Grigio or Prosecco. I think my advice to consumers is to not be afraid of Italian wines! This is a country that has drunk wine casually for generations and has only been making serious wine since the 1970-1980s. Most varietals and styles of Italian wines are very approachable, though many of the wines that consumers are told to buy can be the most intimidating. Going to a store and buying a Barolo with no prior knowledge is a scary venture. So much of Italian wines beyond Amarone, Brunello di Montalcino and Barolo can easily be consumed right away and enjoyed with friends and a meal. Wine is always a fun journey and there’s a plethora of amazing Italian wines at an affordable price.
What are some outstanding Italian wines—available at places like Binny’s—that offer an outstanding value?
- Castello di Ama Chianti Classico (about $30). Located in central Italy in the Tuscany region, Castello di Ama has been a longtime favorite producer of mine; it’s a winery that cares as much about the expressiveness of its wine as it does about its own identity. The winery dates as far back as the eleventh century. Their Chianti Classico serves as a go-to for anyone wanting to get an idea of what Italian wines are about. Castello di Ama’s Chianti is loaded with aromas from cherries, dried flowers, basil and the ever-present fresh tobacco found in most all chianti-style wines. This is a wine fit for most occasions, ready to drink and approachable enough to go along with most Italian cuisine.
- COS Frappato (about $27). Traveling south to Sicily, we arrive at an island most famous for Mount Etna, the volcano that overlooks the Italian coast. With this you get volcanic soil, porous with great drainage, and grapes with unique qualities. COS is the project of benchmark Sicilian producer Giusto Occhipinti, whose family has made several fantastic wines that have been pulling more attention to this region of winemaking since the 1980s. Frappato itself is the lesser-known grape of Sicily compared to the more popular Nero d’Avola. COS Frappato is light in structure and bright in flavor. Like taking a handful of berries, this wine is full of cranberry, strawberry and raspberry. This is the perfect patio wine, and it can be enjoyed with a light chill, the perfect solution for those who enjoy white wine dishes but are red wine drinkers.
- Lunae Bosoni “Grey Label” Vermentino (about $20). Located at the northern coast of Italy in Liguria, the Lunae wines have been awarded the Tre Bicchieri for five years in a row. Their Vermentino is known for its lush and expressive fruit and a nice punch of acidity to the wine. The Lunae Grey label has a very fresh and pleasant nose with qualities of white peach and grapefruit, as well as slight honey, making this wine perfect for those who enjoy Sauvignon Blanc but are looking for a slight change. This wine is great for pairing with non-red sauce pastas, seafood, as well as white meats and vegetables.
Vermentino has been one of my favorite summer sips for years now, but it took a Vermentino from Barboursville, Virginia, to introduce me to this wonderful Italian grape. Taking Bement’s advice to heart, I cast off fear of Italian wines and boldly strolled into Anfora Wine Merchants, an Oak Park Italian wine store; I proudly returned home with an Italian Vermentino from Sardinia. It was a lovely bottle of wine (less than $20), with a light crispness that makes it an ideal accompaniment to fish, seafood, cheese and vegetables. Though a lighter wine, Vermentino has a complexity that makes it a good sipping wine. I’m buying a case, because immersion seems the surest way to overcome any fears about Italian wine. (P.S.: I don’t really have any fears about Italian wine and you shouldn’t either.)
As I was completing this, I thought it would be a good idea to get Brian Duncan’s take on Italian wines, particularly ones that are somewhat bubbly. Of all wines, Champagne is probably the most preferred vino for the holidays, and although Champagne can be made only in France, Italy has some bubbly wines that offer pleasant and high-value alternatives to French bub. Duncan had some solid recommendations, also available at Binny’s.
- Tessari, Avus Brut Garganega Sur Lie ($21.99). Sparkling and Champagne-like with a biscuity yellow fruit flavor profile. The re-fermentation takes place in the bottle from Garganega grapes. Built to accompany everything throughout an entire meal, very versatile and deliciously intriguing.
- NV Pruno Nero Cleto Chiarli (Lambrusco di Modena) ($15.99). This is an incredibly fizzy, very drinkable and food- friendly wine that deserves a place at your table, for everything from appetizers such as charcuterie and cured ham, sausages and meats, to sushi (a revelation), BBQ, spicy ethnic cuisines (Indian, Caribbean, Mexican, Asian). Works well at the end of a meal with strong cheeses, especially the blue-veined variety.
Bill Terranova of La Storia filled us in on his love story with Lambrusco, and we’ve enjoyed it many times since. “Back in the 1970s,” Terranova remembers, “Riunite was a widespread jug wine version of ‘Lambrusco.’ It was really Lambrusco in name only and was considered by many to be a cheap, overly sweet, soda-pop wine. It was made for the undereducated American market that, at the time, was into easy-to-drink sweeter wines, like White Zinfandel. It was also tank fermented; a true Lambrusco is usually fermented by the metodo classico, where the second fermentation is done in the bottle, establishing its characteristic fizz. This is the same method used with Champagne and Franciacorta.”
Since chatting with Terranova, we’ve enjoyed a few bottles of Lambrusco, and we like it because it combines the palate-cleansing sparkle of Champagne with the lush body of a red. It’s a perfect holiday wine because it works so well with so many different foods, but never so well as with Italian food.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org