Let’s play a game of association. I say, "Italian wine."
You probably said, "Chianti."
The world of Italian wines has so much more to offer than Chianti — or pinot grigio, the most popular white wine from that country. These two can be wonderful, but there are at least 1,000 documented grape varietals grown and 900,000 registered vineyards in Italy.
So why not branch out and try some new ones?
Dario Soldan, owner of Classico Wines, a distributor, is making the rounds to wine stores and restaurants over the next few weeks to introduce drinkers to all kinds of Italian wines. He’ll host tastings at House Wines and Cheese, The Wine Merchant, Epicurean Wine Service and Veneto Trattoria.
One reason wine consumers have been slow to catch on to Italy, he said, is that it got a bad rap years ago for producing cheap jug wines.
"We’re fighting against an older image," Soldan said. "With new methods of vinification and science, there have been some major advances."
Another problem is that the names are often intimidating. "When you say ‘montepulciano d’Abruzzo,’ it scares people," Soldan said.
And, like French wines, it’s not obvious from reading the label what’s inside. Chianti, for example, is not a type of grape — it’s a blend, usually of sangiovese, canaiolo (both red) and trebbiano (white). But in 2005, said Soldan, Italy will release a new classification called Chianti 2000, which blends the two traditional reds with either cabernet sauvignon or merlot. Just as in France, wines like these are being made to respond to American palates that prefer jammy "fruit-bomb" type wines.
But traditional Italian wines have definite characteristics that are worth understanding and appreciating. If you compare wines to women, California wines are the platinum blondes of the wine world, the kind that wear skin-tight outfits, gaudy jewelry and too much makeup. They make you sit up and take notice, but generally, they’re all made from the same mold.
Italian wines, on the other hand, are like those elegant, confident women who are exceptionally attractive and put-together without screaming, "Look at me!" Each has her own sense of style. But overall, Italian wines tend to have much softer fruit and higher acidity than domestic wines, so they’re made to pair with food instead of being the star of the show on their own.
This can make for a tough sell, because many Americans order their wine before even glancing at the menu, Soldan said. If you can try Italian wines with food, it will enhance the experience exponentially. I tasted a selection from Soldan’s portfolio with lunch at Veneto Trattoria and was amazed at the quality. (In addition to Veneto, Scottsdale’s Grazie and Kazimierz have good selections by the glass and good munchies.)
We began with the La Vis pinot grigio 2001 ($14), which paired beautifully with the balsamic vinaigrette on the caprese salad. Looking for a screaming deal on pinot noir? Try the La Vis pinot nero ($14), which is the same grape.
Soldan’s San Fabiano Calcinaia Chianti Classico ($23) was also excellent with my lasagne Bolognese, but if you’re looking to break out of the Chianti rut, try the Ada Nada dolcetto d’Alba Autinot 1999 ($17). It’s a young, relatively fruity, mediumbodied red that drinks easily and is a sure bet with pasta and light meats.
Want something bigger, with rich, dark fruit? Go for the Fattoria Nicodemi montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2000 ($17), which is less acidic and more tannic than the dolcetto or Chianti, but with a soft, lingering finish. And if you’d like a wine that is completely different, try the Reno Farina Valpolicella Ripasso ($15), which is like a baby Amarone (at a quarter of the price) with raisinlike fruit and good structure.
Many of Soldan’s wines are available at the stores hosting tastings, and you can always special-order.
Italian tastings Dario Soldan of Classico Wines will host the following tastings:
• 6:30 p.m. Thursday at House Wines and Cheese, 7001 N. Scottsdale Road, No. 141, Scottsdale. $10. (480) 922-3470
• 7 p.m. Friday at The Wine Merchant, 4142 E. Chandler Blvd., Phoenix. $12. (480) 706-9885
• 5:30 p.m. Feb. 28 at Epicurean Wine Service, 7101 E. Thunderbird Road, Suite 101, Scottsdale. $10. (480) 998-7800
• 3 to 5 p.m. March 8 at Veneto Trattoria, 6137 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, in conjunction with AJ’s Fine Foods; includes at least 15 wines and Italian food; $25. Buy tickets at AJ’s Fine Foods: 23251 N. Pima Road, Scottsdale, (480) 563-5070; 10105 E. Via Linda, Scottsdale, (480) 391-9863; and 15031 N. Thompson Peak Parkway, Scottsdale, (480) 314-6500 Italian wine in the far East Valley: Head to Sanguigni Pasta Co., 6707 E. McKellips Road, Mesa, (480) 654-1054.