Summer is just around the corner, and if you’re like me you’ll be looking for an excuse (any will do) for a get-together with friends and family. Grilling steaks with the neighbors for the 4th of July? Having a clam bake or a fish fry for Labor Day? No matter what summer festivities you have planned, here are 5 workhorse Italian wines that are sure to please you and your guests.
My wine selections here are based on simple criteria:
- They’re reasonably priced. You shouldn’t have to pay more than $15-25/bottle for a decent Italian wine. Paying more means you’re likely paying for cache or marketing hype. Save your money and go with these reasonably priced bottles.
- They’re widely available. You should be able to find reliably good wines at your local wine shop, or order them online for quick delivery. These wines fit the bill.
- They please all palates. It’s probably a safe bet that your friends and extended family aren’t very familiar with Italian wines, so I’m skipping the obscure and unusual wines and going with popular and food-friendly wines that are ready to drink today.
Reds that rock the house.
OK, I know that red wine fans will moan when I say this, but park your penchant for massive, tannic red wines till the Autumn season, because Summer is all about light and medium bodied reds, whites and pinks. The last thing you’ll want on a hundred degree day is a heavy, powerful red with 15% alcohol. Trust me on this one.
Here are two medium-bodied Italian reds that pair well with summer food fare — grilled and roasted meats, in particular. Your party guests will love them, and they just might be good candidates for your everyday “house red.” I keep a half dozen bottles of each of these around and pull them out for spontaneous dinners with guests.
Felsina arguably makes the most popular, food-friendly Chianti Classico ever crafted. You’ll find this very quaffable red on the menus of Italian restaurants in America everywhere. Save yourself time searching for the perfect party red and reach for Felsina’s Riserva 2007 – you can’t go wrong.
On the nose you’ll find ripe red fruits like raspberries and bing cherries, light fennel and a hint of smokiness from the aging barrels. The palate goes wild with more raspberry, crabapple, a touch of cranberry, and aromas of violets. The acidity is balanced with the fruit and tannin, and the finish is smooth and long.
You’ll notice that this wine evolves beautifully in the glass over time, becoming more elegant with expanding aromas of leather and more fennel.
Felsina’s 2007 riserva is truly a classic in the Chianti style. It’s sure to be a talking point as your guests savor this wine.
Where is it from? Felsina is in the southeast corner of the Chianti Classico DOCG region in Tuscany, about 30 minutes due east of Siena and just outside the town of Castelnuovo Berardenga. You’ll find more about them on their website.
What’s in the wine? While some Chianti Classico producers use Sangiovese blends in their wines, Felsina’s riserva is 100% Sangiovese from 50 year old vines. They age the wine for 16 months in small and medium oak barrels, then finish the wine in bottle for the required 27 months.
How is it rated? Antonio Galloni at Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate gives it a 91. Gambero Rosso rates it a 2 bicchieri wine.
How much does it cost? The Riserva wine is a bargain at about $22-25/bottle. Don’t confuse this wine with their good-but-not-great Chianti Classico Berardenga “normale” wine. Look for the word riserva on the label.
Where can I buy it? Felsina’s Chianti wines are everywhere – wine shops, restaurants, and online. You can reliably buy it on the web at Wine Library (New Jersey), Wine Exchange (California), and K&L Wines (California).
What can I pair with it? Chianti loves to be paired with tomato- and meat-based pasta sauces, like bolognese ragu or my favorite tomato, butter and onion sauce. If you’re grilling, Felsina’s wine pairs well with marinated chicken, game hens, pork chops, and Tuscan-style sausages. If you’re adventuresome, you can even pair this wine with grilled tuna or swordfish — give it a try.
The Aglianico (“all-YAH-nee-co”) wines of the deep south are some of my favorite value reds in all of Italy. This gem comes from Basilicata, the province located in the instep of the Italian boot where the land and the people are rugged, but the wines have a degree of power and finesse.
At the base of the extinct volcano Monte Vulture (“VOOL-too-ray”), farmers have been planting the black-as-night Aglianico grape since it was brought to the area by Greek settlers thousands of years ago. The searing hot sun of Basilicata summers makes for complex, fruit forward tastes, and the dark, volcanic red soil in the area leaves a distinctive mineral impression on the wines.
Not all that many bottles of Aglianico del Vulture DOCG make it out of Italy for sale here in the States. Luckily for us, Bisceglia (“bee-SHAYL-yah”) is exporting more of their production these days, and at remarkably affordable prices.
If you’re a fan of big reds, you’re going to love this wine. Bring a glass of Gudarrà up to your nose and you’ll sense dark plum and blackberry fruits, dried savory herbs, and earth – lots of it. Sip this jet-black wine and be prepared for the explosion: jammy dark fruits and leather, tobacco and wild fennel, lots of dark earth and a hint of violets. Fantastic. There’s a reason they call Aglianico del Vulture the “Barolo of the South.”
Biceglia’s Gudarrà Aglianico del Vulture 2006 is a huge value for what you get in the glass, and you can’t go wrong pulling this one out for your next barbeque. Give it a try.
Where is it from? Bisceglia’s Gudarrà is produced on the Puglia-facing slopes of dramatic Monte Vulture in northern Basilicata, deep in the south of Italy. Maurizio Angeletti manages the Bisceglia cellars in Lavello north of Potenza, creating some of the best Aglianico wines in the region, on par with much more expensive wines from neighboring Paternoster and Basilisco. You’ll find more about Bisceglia on their website (which unfortunately won’t display well on your iPad).
What’s in the wine? It’s 100% Aglianico grapes, by DOCG regulation, and they’re grown in vineyards stretching east of the extinct volcano Monte Vulture. Bisceglia ages their Gudarrà wine 12 months in oak, then finish it an additional 12 months in bottle before releasing.
How is it rated? Antonio Galloni at Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate gives it an 92. Gambero Rosso rates it a 2 bicchieri wine.
How much does it cost? This wine is a great value at $20/bottle, and I encourage you to stock up while the 2006 vintage is available. If you find the Gudarrà 2005 vintage, it’s equally good and worth buying.
Where can I buy it? Bisceglia’s wines are distributed in only a few local regions in the US, so the best way to get your hands on a bottle is online. One of my favorite online wine shops, K&L Wines (California), usually has it in stock. It’s also available at MacArthur Beverages (DC), and Sherry-Lehmann (New York).
What can I pair with it? Dark, inky Aglianico wines pair naturally with grilled steaks, chops, and sausages. In Basilicata, grilled, braised or roasted lamb is a popular pairing for Aglianico – I’d grill lamb chops marinated in garlic, rosemary and olive oil. You can also pair this with a rich ragu-based lasagna. My summer fun pairing of Gudarrà: spicy sausage pizza!
Whites born for summer.
Young white wines were meant for summer (and so are pink wines, but that’s another post). I have two knock-out whites to recommend to you for your lighter summer meals. You’ll want to keep drinking these into the Fall months, but they’re best enjoyed with summer food fare.
I must admit, most Italian Pinot Grigio wines are too light bodied and haven’t impressed me – until now. This one knocked my socks off.
Russiz Superiore is a big producer in the Collio Goriziano DOC zone (Collio for short), way up in the northeast corner of Italy in the province of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. They make a gaggle of mono-varietal wines that are quite good, but my favorite is their Collio Pinot Grigio 2009.
Take a sniff of this wine and young red apples, bosc pears and carnation flowers immediately hit you. I’m content just to enjoy the nose on this wine, but it invites you in for much more. On the palate you’ll find all that fruit, plus honeydew melon and a tartness of lime that give it a crisp flavor that pairs wonderfully with summer food fare.
One thing you’ll note with this wine, and most Friuli wines, is the significant minerality. The growing region was submerged in the Mediterranean in ancient times, and the soil today has layers of limestone, sandstone and clay that pleasantly come through on the palate.
Pinot Grigio is super-easy for pairing with food. If you’re frying or grilling shrimp, fish, or chicken, this vino is the bomb. I use Russiz Pinot Grigio as a perfect pairing for pre-dinner antipasto – roasted red peppers, bresaola, mild and creamy cheeses, marinated artichokes. Pair it with gnocchi con pesto or any pasta dish with clams or mussels, it’s a great alternative to Ligurian white wines (which also love to party).
If you’re a Pinot Grigio fan, and I know many of you are, you’ll adore this wine.
Where is it from? Produced in the Collio DOC region in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Russiz grows the Pinot Grigio grapes outside of Capriva del Friuli, 140 kilometers due East of Venice and just a few kilometers from the Slovenia border. Check out the Russiz Superiore website for more info.
What’s in the wine? Russiz makes mono-varietals, so this is Pinot Grigio in purezza from grapes grown in the gently sloping Collio Goriziano hills. Roberto Felluga, owner and winemaker at Russiz, ferments 15% of the grape must in oak, and the balance in stainless steel vats. The wine is aged on the lees for 8 months, and then briefly in the bottle prior to release.
How is it rated? Antonio Galloni at Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate gives it an 88, but he’s too picky on this one – he thinks the august heat wave of 2009 hit the grapes a bit too hard. Gambero Rosso rates it a 2 bicchieri wine, which seems more appropriate.
How much does it cost? At $20-24/bottle, this Pinot Grigio is a pretty good deal. Be sure to buy the 2009, these wines are meant to be drunk young. While the 2008 is still available, it’s already past its prime.
What can I pair with it? Pinot Grigio is the ketchup of white wines – it pairs well with all kinds of lighter meats, seafood, shellfish, vegetable dishes and cheeses. You almost can’t go wrong. Grilled & roasted chicken, fried fish, grilled shrimp all sing in harmony with this Pinot Grigio. I like serving it with antipasti, soft pecorino and creamy goat cheeses before the main meal. Try it with pasta dishes like linguine & clams or gnocchi con pesto. Steamed mussels are a match made in heaven.
OK fellow wine lovers, if you’ve every tasted a Roero Arneis wine before, raise your hand. Hmmm. Anybody? Bueller? Not too many have tasted this obscure native Italian grape varietal, but that’s about to change. You’ve gotta give this pretty white a try.
If you like my more elegant Russiz Pinot Grigio recommendation above, think of Vietti Roero Arneis as its more fresh, extroverted friend – the perfect guest everyone likes to have around at a party. Crisp green apples, grapefruit, and pears come through on the palate of this off-dry (not sweet) white, and the nose has sexy (yes, sexy) hints of mint and jasmine. If you’re a fan of Pinot Grigio or like Sauvignon Blanc, you’ll fall in love with Vietti’s Roero Arneis.
Roero Arneis likes to be consumed young, so it’s perfect for summer food fair so long as you’re drinking the latest vintage. Pair this lovely with anything you’d pair with Sauvignon Blanc – Grilled and roasted chicken and game birds, sautéed scallops, anything with goat cheese, and summer vegetable dishes like insalata caprese, grilled peppers, roasted asparagus. This even goes with many Tex-Mex dishes.
Enlighten and impress your guests by adding Vietti Roero Arneis 2009 to your shopping list. I’m pretty sure you’ll become a lifelong fan of this wine.
Where is it from? Roero Arneis DOCG comes from the hilly Roero area around the town of Alba (of white truffle fame) in Piemonte. Vietti, based in Castiglione Falletto, is a powerhouse producer of fabulous Barolo and Barbera red wines that are cellar worthy and can set you back financially. If you like this little white gem, explore the rest of their many wines – check out the Vietti website to learn more. (Note: the curious label looks much better after you drink a few glasses).
What’s in the wine? Well, it’s 100% Arneis, of course. Fresh wines like these are made simply, and Luca Currado at Vietti doesn’t go crazy – once the fermentation in stainless steel is completed, the wine is held there until it’s bottled, then promptly shipped to you for summer sipping.
How is it rated? This wine rates as a quaffable white, with Antonio Galloni at Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate giving it an 88, and Gambero Rosso rating it a 1 bicchiere wine.
How much does it cost? It’s pretty darn cheap for what you get in the glass, running about $16-20/bottle. Buy a case and make it your house white for the summer.
Where can I buy it? Vietti wines are everywhere, even though their production isn’t really all that big. You’ll regularly find their Barolo and Barbera wines in shops, but the white may be a little more challenging to hunt down. Ask your local shop owner if they can get it – they probably can with a few days’ notice. If you can’t find it locally, buy it online at K&L Wines (California), Wine Exchange (California), or Garnet Wines (New York).
What can I pair with it? Like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, this is a gregarious wine that pairs well with lots of dishes. Try grilled and roasted chicken, grilled or sautéed scallops, summer vegetable starters like insalata caprese, and creamy goat cheeses. Crazy as it sounds, you can pair this with Thai curry and noodle dishes, and even some Tex-Mex. When you want something easy to prepare, you can serve it with herbed and grilled pork loin chops.
Oh, and don’t forget dessert!
I love my next recommendation, and so will you. Trust me, just buy it. I don’t import it, but it’s probably the most amazing sweet wine in all of Italy (some of my producers will cringe when they read this).
Off the southern coast of Sicily, smack dab in the middle of the Mediterranean and a stones throw away from rebellious Tunisia lies the tiny, sirocco-swept island of Pantelleria. This island is heavenly to visit on holiday in July and August, but there’s a drying wind that constantly blows late in the fall, desiccating the Zibibbo grape (think Moscato) grown here into nearly raisins. It gets so windy here that the wine producers grow the grapes in low, circular bundles to protect the grappoli (bunches) from being knocked off the vine. This is extreme wine making at its most passionate, and Pantelleria has a long history of making mind-blowing sweet wines.
Donnafugata makes about 10,000 bottles of this rare and extraordinary wine, which they named Ben Ryé, from the Arabic “Son of the Wind”. The nose has a whole lot going on, with sweet spices, brown sugar and stone fruits wafting up from the glass. On the palate it’s a kaleidoscope of flavors – apricot, grilled peaches, vanilla, baking spices, and remarkably balanced acidity that makes for a not-too-sweet experience. I drink this as a dessert in itself, but you can pair it with panna cotta, crème brulee, or just dip little almond biscotti in it. If you’re into bleu cheeses, pair them with Ben Ryé.
Both the 2007 and 2008 vintages are fantastic, so pick up whichever one you can find. If this wine doesn’t blow you away, I’ll turn in my Sommelier certification.
Where is it from? Ben Ryé is born on the tiny speck of an island Pantelleria, south of Sicily and right in the middle of the Mediterranean sea. This is a fascinating producer – check out more about Donnafugata on their website.
What’s in the wine? 100% Zibibbo grapes, also known as Moscato d’Alessandria, and a member of the Muscat grape family. Pantelleria is regularly buffeted by the drying, sandy sirocco winds of the Sahara desert, making for perfect conditions to desiccate the Zibibbo grapes for making sweet wines. Ben Ryé is aged in stainless steel tanks for at least 4 months and 6 months in the bottle. Check out this interesting Ben Ryé profile for more info on how the wine is made.
How is it rated? Antonio Galloni at Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate loves this wine, giving it 90 points for the 2007, and 91 for 2008. Wine Spectator gives Ben Rye 94 points for 2007, and 93 for 2008.
How much does it cost? This beauty will set you back a little more than the reds and whites listed above, running $30-35 for a half-bottle. It’s worth every penny.
Where can I buy it? Wine Library (New Jersey) has this wine online, but check your local wine shop. If they don’t have it, nag them till they stock it. You’ll want this wine around. You can also find Ben Ryé at K&L Wines (California) and Astor Wines (New York) at a slight premium.
What can I pair with it? Serve Ben Ryé to your party guests as an after-dinner dessert wine, all by itself where it shines best. You can also pair it with panna cotta, crème brulee, or tiny almond biscotti. Ben Ryé paired with bleu cheeses is divine.
Care to share your favorites?
I’ve listed 5 dependable, delicious Italian wines, but no doubt you’ve run across some that you really like. Care to share them with the rest of the class? Take a minute and post your favorites in the Comments section below.
Hey! We’re now on Facebook! Come visit us and if you like what you’re reading there (and here), then Like us and tell your friends!