Wines of the Month

January, 2000

Chow Bella

Forget the morning after. The real holiday hangover starts when the bills pile up and the balance in your checking account is less than the price of the Champagne you bought for the big New Year's Eve blowout. For many people, the elaborate, festive holiday galas give way to hearty, homey and budget-conscious comfort food. It's easy to understand, then, why many people are reluctant to shell out the big bucks for a fancy bottle at this time of year. But winter (along with spring, summer and fall...) is one of the great times of year to drink wine; nothing completes a heart-warming January meal like a robust red. So how can you eat and drink well without breaking the bank?

Well, when anyone says the words "red, wine, food, and bargain" in the same sentence, my first thought is usually Italy. When I was visiting Florence several years ago, I struck up a conversation in a restaurant with a local resident who told me, "The French make their wine to be admired by itself. We make wine to be admired with our food." Now, I'm sure that there are several million French citizens (and probably an even greater number of French wine fans worldwide) who would take issue with that statement, but whether you believe it is true or not, it does express an attitude which I found to be widely held. Italians take their food seriously, and their wines tend to reflect that attitude in their ability to enhance, and to be enhanced by, a good meal.

Indeed, many Italian reds do not show their best when tasted alone, often seeming overly acidic and tart, particularly on the finish, or sometimes seeming to lack intensity of flavor. However, when paired with the right foods, they often come alive, with new flavors seeming to pop up out of nowhere. Figuring out the best matches isn't always easy, but at least in this case, practice can be fun! And you can always look to the experts, such as wine writers, cookbook authors and chefs, for advice. While this tip may not help most of you, if you would like to see what an expert can do and you happen to be in Boston on a weekday (perhaps for the Boston Wine Expo next month), I highly recommend visiting Marcuccio's, an Italian restaurant in the North End, for their tasting menu. Chef Charles Draghi is serious about both food and wine; for a set price, he offers four or five courses, each matched with a different, often obscure, Italian wine. At a recent dinner, I had only previously heard of one of the types of wine he poured, and didn't know any of the producers. While some of the wines seemed undistinguished, or even neutral, by themselves, they all paired beautifully with his food, gaining in flavor and depth. (Note: As of 10/1/00 Charles Draghi has left Marcuccio's.)

But what about the prices? In my opinion, that's one of the best arguments for Italian wines. Sure, you have probably read plenty about the super-expensive Super Tuscans, or pricey bottles such as Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello, but for every high-priced trophy wine, you can easily find several genuine bargains. Especially with a recent string of fairly successful vintages (including the excellent '97 -- from which I have not yet found an Italian wine I really dislike), it's easy to find reds with plenty of flavor and character, and still get change back from a twenty (and often from a ten). The trick is to look for the wines that aren't the "flavor of the day". Forget the Super Tuscans, and look at lesser known regions like Umbria. Even Chianti Classico and Chianti Rufina prices are staying reasonable while the collectors all snap up the new Tuscan trophy wines. Instead of Brunello, look at other Nebbiolo wines from the Piedmont, or check out some of the new Barbera d'Alba or Dolcetto d'Alba offerings. Even better, look for some of the many indigenous Italian grape varieties that are largely unknown in other countries; Teroldego is one of my new favorites. The southern regions of Italy are another hot spot for bargains. While they have had a reputation for poor winemaking in the past, quality is improving, and you can find some great deals, particularly on wines made from the Negroamaro grape.

With so many different grapes, wines and an increasingly confusing classification system, it would be easy to feel overwhelmed by Italian wines. I'm sure that I'll never remember the names of all the different Denominazione di Origine Controllata (similar to France's AOC) regions, much less those of all the different grapes used in the wines. But on the other hand, experimentation with wine is much of fun, especially when you don't have to empty your wallet just to try something new. I find that the best approach to Italian wines is not to worry too much about the specifics, but just to "eat, drink and enjoy."

Cantina Sociale Cooperativa Copertino Riserva '94 -- From the Puglia region in Southern Italy, this wine has an assertive character that may not please everyone, but it definitely pleased me. Made from 95% Negroamaro (and 5% Malvasia Nera), a dark-skinned grape indigenous to the area, whose name means "black, bitter," this wine starts you out with a big bacon-scented nose which leaps from the glass, along with game, leather, and plum aromas. With more air, the rather strong bacon and game smells fade and more plum, tobacco and spice aromas appear. The wine shows definite bricking at the rim, and has a deep garnet color. On the palate, bacon and gamy flavors dominate at first with secondary notes of plum and anise; later, the plum fleshes out along with some cherry flavors, and the gamy notes move to the background. Finishes with a long taste of somewhat tart cherry and plum, along with game. Pronounced, somewhat rustic tannins are also evident at the somewhat astringent finish. Shows much better with food, where the finish mellows and the fruit flavors expand. An excellent value at around $8.

Taurino Notarpanaro Rosso del Salento '90 -- Another wine from Puglia, made by a producer known for good values. Another wine from Taurino, the Salice Salentino, has long been one of Italy's most consistent bargain reds and should run less than $10. The Notarpanaro is slightly more expensive, but I found this one on sale for $11, which is an excellent deal for a wine nearly a decade old. Like the Copertino, this wine is also made from Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera, but the Notarpanaro is a more refined rendition of these grapes. The aromas are impressive, with lots of tobacco, earth, leather and black cherry. It seems a bit lean at first, when drunk alone, but really starts to express itself with a little air time and when drunk with food. Suddenly it's packed with black cherry, tobacco, leather and spice flavors. The medium-length, slightly tart, finish extends and becomes fuller and rounder with food, expressing red cherry, tobacco and plum flavors. One surprisingly successful food match (and one which I would never have considered, before trying it) is Brie cheese. Traditionalists will probably decry the pairing, but the cheese softens the rough edges in the wine, bringing the cherry fruit to the forefront.

Falesco Vitiano Umbria IGT '97 -- Moving on to central Italy, this red is an excellent value from an area which isn't particularly famous for its wine. Most people wouldn't think of this land-locked region of Italy when choosing a wine, but are more likely to pick something from it's better known neighbor, Tuscany, home to much more well-known wines such as Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. This wine is a blend of Sangiovese (the main grape of those more famous Tuscan regions), along with the not-so-typically-Italian Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Upon opening the wine, I detected a worrisome whiff of ethyl acetate. However, with just a little air, it blew off, revealing a shy nose, which could be coaxed into revealing a complex mixture of plum, leather, cherry and blackberry along with a hint of cedary oak. Alone, the wine seems slightly lean and simple, with cherry, leather and meaty flavors leading to a short, tart cherry finish. However, with food, the flavors flesh out, with ample cherry, plum and blackberry fruit as well as leather and a touch of mint. The moderate tannins and shy nose suggest that a year or two in the bottle couldn't hurt. At around $8, this wine is yet another Italian bargain that will leave you warm and satisfied on a cold winter night.

As always, comments are welcome.

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Copyright 2000 by Marcel Lachenmann.