Italy is one of the world’s leading wine countries. From the relatively cool mountainous north, down to the hot southerly tip, it’s a source of diverse, delicious wines at every price point. Here, I want to explore some of the Italian red wine types, and look at some of the best pairings with them.
Tuscany: form Chianti to Brunello di Montalcino
It’s hard to say what Italy’s most famous red wine is, but right now I’d suggest that it is Chianti, from Tuscany. Chianti is a big area, split into Chianti Classico, the historical heartland of this wine, and then the broader area of Chianti. This is a beautiful region of rolling hills and it enjoys a Mediterranean-style climate, with warm, dry summers that never get oppressively hot, with most of the rainfall occurring during winter. For this reason, it’s ideally suited to making high quality wines. The main grape for Chianti and Chianti Classico is Sangiovese, and this is a variety that matches well to the soils here.
Chianti is predominantly a red wine region, and the wines are often fleshy yet structured, with black cherry, blackberry and sometimes redcurrant fruit, coupled with some sour cherry, a touch of damson, and some tarry, balsamic notes in the more ambitious wines. The cheaper wines are fruity and food-friendly and work well at the table with most red wine-friendly dishes. The pricier wines are best paired with roast beef or rare-cooked steak: their savoury intensity makes them a good match.
Staying in Tuscany, we have to mention two other famous wines. First, Brunello di Montalcino, which is another Sangiovese-based wine from a specific location – the vineyards around Montalcino. This is a really interesting area and the wines from here are becoming collectable. For early drinking and a lot of pleasure, turn to the Rosso di Montalcino, a younger version of the more famous wine.
Heading to the Tuscan coast, we have the region of Bolgheri, home to the Supertuscans. Famous wines like Sassicaia and Tignanello have put this region on the map. Here, varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are combined with Sangiovese (although not always) to make ageworthy reds that have become world famous. These are also best paired with a good T-bone or ribeye steak.
The King of Italian wines: Barolo
Next, we head to northwest Italy for another wine that competes with Chianti Classico for the title of Italy’s most famous: it’s Barolo, from Piemonte. This beautiful region of rolling hills and beautiful villages is where the red grape Nebbiolo is the boss. It fashions beautiful wines in the communes of Barolo, and also Barbaresco, and the best are now among the most sought-after reds in the world. They are lighter in colour than many reds and combine ethereal aromas with firm tannic structure and good acidity to make long-lived wines that are celebrated the world over. These pair beautifully with game and even roast chicken, as well as red meats. Another great option is with a mushroom risotto.
But Piemonte also makes some lovely and more affordable red wines from other grape varieties, including Dolcetto and Barbera. They are worth seeking out, as is the lesser known Freisa variety. For bargain hunters, look for Langhe Nebbiolo from good producers, which offers some of the character of Barolo and Barbarescoat a fraction of the price.
Valpolicella: great red wines in the heart of Veneto
Staying in the north, but heading eastwards, we have the red wines of Veneto. Valpolicella Classic is probably the best-known here, which blends together grapes such as Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella to make a juicy, fleshy, cherry-scented wine that goes down easily and works well with a range of foods – whether you are eating regional cuisine or not.
Valpolicella also makes wines from semi-dried grapes, including Ripasso, where the new wine is refermented on dried grapes, or Amarone, where the wine is made from semi-dried grapes. The grapes are harvested at the normal time and then taken and laid on bamboo racks to dehydrate for a few months, concentrating the flavour, sugar and acidity. Amarone can be very special: concentrated, bold and intense, often with a hint of sweetness, and perfect with semi-hard cheeses or even parmigiana.
South of Italy, from Apulia to Sicily
Let’s head down to the south of Italy now. This is where we find the Primitivo grape, in Apulia. This is a hot region, and Primitivo is well adapted to the climate here, making bold, rich wines with lovely intensity, and often a hint of sweetness, because sometimes they part-dry their grapes before fermentation too.
Sicily, the large island off the boot of Italy, is also famous for its wines, such as Cerasuolo di Vittoria and also Frappato, while Etna – the wine region on the slopes of the volcano – makes surprisingly elegant wines from the local varieties grown there.
This is just a very brief introduction to the diversity of Italy’s red wines, and it’s missing the likes of Aglianico from Campania, the sparkling red Lambruscos from Emilia-Romagna, and Lagrein from the mountainous north. There’s a lot of diversity out there to discover.