As we approach the day that honors Italian-born Christopher Columbus, it’s easy to toast him with his country’s own stuff. Italian wine is America’s favorite foreign tipple; trade surveys say it makes up 30 percent of our wine imports.
It makes sense. Americans also like Italian food – even better than our own American cuisine, by 30 percent to 27 percent, according to a survey by San Pellegrino.
Pizza over hot dogs? Makes sense to me.
And what’s the best pizza wine? Chianti.
I think Americans love Italian wines because they’re user-friendly, even hedonistic – a liquid Dolce Vita.
Italians also are good at giving compelling names to their wines. Consider Lacrima Christi – literally “tears of Christ” – from a local legend that Christ looked down on the vineyards of the Campania region south of Naples and was moved to tears by their beauty.
Or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano – “the noble wine of Montepulciano.” It was given that name in 1930 by winemaker Adamo Fanetti, out of pride for its quality. (You have to say it out loud to get its full effect.)
Italy makes hundreds of varieties beyond the familiar chianti, pinot grigio and barolo, so there are always new ones to discover. And with wine consumption falling in Italy, producers are increasing efforts to sell in the big, lucrative American market. The result: better prices on excellent wines.
Italian winemakers are going out of their way to make their wines accessible to Americans. For example, Tuscan winemaker Bibi Graetz is taking a wine that in earlier days might have been called simply Toscano Rosso or Tuscan Red and giving it an odd but U.S.-friendly name: It’s a Game! (Actually, it’s mostly sangiovese, the chianti grape.)
One little-known Italian white worth getting to know is made from the mineral-scented grechetto grape. It dates to the Renaissance, and is made by only a few producers today.
Also little known in America is vermentino. It’s pale yellow-green and nicely crisp, with flavors of green pears, limes and minerals. Good with seafood and white-sauced pastas.
Italy also makes good-value sparkling wines, often in the cool climate of the foothills of the Alps. The wine region Franciacorta has nearly 7,000 acres of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot blanc, the approved grapes for its crisp and fruity bubblies.
So next time you’re in a good wine shop, seek out the Italian wine section and see what you can find that’s familiar, and what you can find that’s new. And lift a glass to old Chris.
2010 Bibi Graetz “Soffocone di Vincigliata” Toscana IGT (90 percent sangiovese, 7 percent canaiolo, 3 percent colorino): dark ruby color, hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black plums, full-bodied and hearty; $45.
2011 Mazzoni Pinot Grigio, Tuscany (100 percent pinot grigio): pale yellow hue, aromas and flavors of lemons and limes, hint of minerals, crisp and dry; $20.
2009 Fattoria Selvapiana Chianti Rufina Riserva “Bucerchiale,” Tuscany (100 percent sangiovese): deep red color, aromas of earth and oak, powerful, spicy black cherry and mineral flavors, very rich, almost viscous; $35.
2012 Attems Pinot Grigio, Venezia Giulia IGT (100 percent pinot grigio): pale yellow hue, intense white-flower aromas, flavors of ripe apricots, spice and minerals; $16.
2010 Fattoria Selvapiana Chianti Rufina DOCG (100 percent sangiovese): ruby color, crisp and dry, with aromas and flavors of red raspberries and anise; $17.
2011 Arnaldo-Caprai Grecante Grechetto dei Colli Martani DOC (100 percent grechetto): pale yellow color, aromas and flavors of peaches, citrus and minerals, crisp and tart; $20.
2010 Bibi Graetz “It’s a Game!” Toscana IGT (80 percent sangiovese, 10 percent colorino, 10 percent canaiolo): medium body, aromas and flavors of tart cherries and tobacco, ripe tannins, smooth finish; $33.
2007 Franciacorta Brut Millesimato (100 percent chardonnay) DOCG: bright yellow color, lots of tiny bubbles, aromas and flavors of lemons, limes and honey; $23.
2011 Mazzoni “Bianco di Toscana,” Montalcino (75 percent vermentino, 25 percent chardonnay): pale yellow color, light and crisp, with aromas and flavors of pears, spice and minerals; $20.
Fred Tasker writes about wine for the McClatchy News Service. He can be reached at fredtaskerwinegmail.com.