As many of you know, I had the immense good fortune to spend nearly a year living in northern Italy when I was 17. I fell completely, irrevocably in love with la bella Italia, learning to speak Italian, forging lifelong friendships, and eating and drinking with (occasionally too much) abandon.
One of my Italian host sisters, Cristina, is a sommelier. Her dual citizenship means she’s living the dream of splitting her time between the U.S. and Italy with her husband and young son. Cristina was kind enough to offer some tips and insight into exploring the varied and wonderful world of vino Italiano.
What makes Italy’s wine and winemaking philosophy unique?
As [is true of] most of the Old World wine philosophy, Italian wine is made to be enjoyed with food. The whole experience of wine is never meant to be by itself; there is always food with wine, and this food has to be specific to the region and type of wine.
To give you an example, last year I went to a Wine festival in Valtellina, north of Lake Como. For something like $15 we had access to 20+ wineries, each serving at least 4 different types of local wines in these Roman-era cellars, which you could only reach by walking down several flights of stairs. Everywhere there was free food served to accompany the wine: salami, prosciutto, cheese, bread, etc.
Many Italians keep “house wine” on hand, often traveling to wineries to bottle their own sfuso. When it comes to everyday wine drinking, what are your favorite red and white varietals, and why?
My answer depends on the season. This summer all we had in the house was Vinho Verde from Portugal. It’s a wonderful light, crisp, and slightly sparkling white wine. It goes great with almost anything you eat, especially BBQ and spicier summer foods. Now that the seasons are changing I am finding myself drawn to light-bodied Pinot Noirs from various regions. As the weather gets colder I will try to get some good Tuscan wines on sale, as well as Argentinian and Spanish wines. All under $12 of course.
Brooklyn Wine Exchange; Photo from the Village Voice
Unfortunately, nothing compares to vino della casa (house wine) that you can get sfuso directly from the local vineyards, so I just resort to buying great wines at affordable prices. Fortunately, there are a lot hidden treasures in the best wine shops.
*A word from Hilary: If you happen to live in Brooklyn, you will find no better resource for wines both exotic and familiar than Brooklyn Wine Exchange on Court Street. They even have a “$12 & Under” table of affordable, delicious wines from around the globe.
Are there any Italian grape varietals that are perhaps not well known but deserve wider appreciation?
I would say there are a lot of varietals that are not well known outside of Italy and definitely deserve attention. Some of these are not necessarily grape varietals, as much as location-based varietals. To name a few: Tocai Friulano from Friuli, Lugana from Lake Garda region, once again Franciacorta wines, Sauvignon from Italy (known as Sauvignon Blanc in other regions), Muller Thurgau, Pinot Bianco (much better and much more interesting than Pinot Grigio in my opinion), Lagrein and so many more….
Autumn is here; what are your favorite varietals for fall’s heartier braises, stews, and pastas?
Fall is a great season for wine drinking (not that the other three are bad) because it is warm enough to still enjoy whites and rosés, while it is already cold enough to open up those mouth-filling reds. Of course, I can never go without a nice Prosecco for all those holiday gatherings with lots of appetizers. I also enjoy Pinot Noirs in the fall because they can be light but comforting at the same time, while pairing very well with all the roasted turkey and poultry of the season. I also like to change things up a bit sometime with a nice rosé. I can also assure you that bottles of Rioja will be always present in my house, along with Valpolicella, Montepulciano D’Abruzzo and Tuscan reds.
Cristina, grazie mille for your time and expertise! Now, let’s all raise a glass of Italian wine and toast autumn’s arrival!