Italy is one of the largest and oldest wine producers in the world and the wines of Italy are fair contenders to occupy some slots in a list of the best wines in the world.
Did you know that the oldest winery was found in Armenia? From there, wine expanded across Western Europe thanks to both the Phoenician and the Greek Empires. The wine was produced not just in their territories but also across the Mediterranean. This is how the tradition of growing grapes expanded to France and Spain.
But although its origins precede the Roman Empire by a few hundred years, we can all agree that after the Greeks, with their God of Wine Dionysus, the Romans truly perfected the art of drinking and partying. Bacchus, the Roman God of agriculture and wine, features in most Roman parties and brings his most prized goods with him. With such an illustrious past and pedigree, it should come as no surprise that wines Made in Italy have maintained the highest quality.
Most people who are familiar with the wines of Italy will have paired a rich creamy pasta dish with a fabulous Chianti Classico or with an elegant Brunello di Montalcino which receives its name from the beautiful historic Tuscan village.
When I was younger, I used to love drinking Lambrusco, such a light and floral wine, perfect for those hot summer months as an aperitif.
There is a high-quality Italian wine for every occasion and in this article I want to tell you more about 5 great Italian red wines and how to drink or pair them with fabulous Italian food. Let’s look at some of the most premium red wines of Italy.
Lambrusco as an aperitif
As I mentioned, Lambrusco used to be associated with an affordable bubbly wine in a funny bottle when I was a teenager. This has changed a lot in the last 20 years since my teenager time (ahem) and today there are a lot of premium Lambrusco bottles that can hold their own among the best aperitifs.
Lambrusco is usually frizzante, that is, lightly sparkling, a bit less than champagne or cava, and this is why I loved it. I am not a big fan of fizzy drinks so I don’t particularly enjoy champagne but I always loved the more gentle bubbles in Lambrusco.
To produce a great bottle of Lambrusco Italian winemakers use the Charmat, Classico or Ancentrale methods. Historically, Lambrusco was produced en masse, using industrial processes to tame the incredibly high yields of the vines which can produce four to six times more grapes than the allowed amount in places like Bordeaux. This did nothing to position Lambrusco as a high-end wine being more the choice of teenagers like me or of casual occasions.
However, this has changed in the last decade when Lambrusco producers started to focus on quality more than quantity and launched bottles that deserve to be paired with the exquisite dishes of Emilia Romagna.
Where Lambrusco is made
Lambrusco is made in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, to the south of Veneto where Venice is located. The capital of the region is Bologna, where the oldest university in the world is located. Needless to say, Bologna comes with its own historically rich past and intellectual heritage, which has now been transferred to Lambrusco wines.
Emilia Romagna may not be one of the most famous regions of Italy but everybody knows some of its best products: Prosciutto di Parma (parma ham), balsamico Modena vinegar, Bologna’s mortadella or Parmigiano Reggiano (parmesan cheese). An Italian meal can hardly be complete without at least a few of these typical foods from Bologna.
The best way to drink and pair a Lambrusco wine
Coming from Emilia Romagna, a region so well known for its food, the best accompaniment to a good glass of Lambrusco should be some of its most famous foods: Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese cubes, some slices of Parma ham and freshly baked bread with olive oil and maybe some vinegar. What better way to start a meal?
As an aperitif, Lambrusco is also a great companion to the best of Venicce’s cichetti, or assorted starters, similar to Spanish tapas, if you are visiting the romantic city of canals in the summer, there is nothing better than finding the right local restaurant and sitting outside to people watch.
Lambrusco, like in the memories of my childhood, can also be enjoyed on its own, before a meal, as a summer long aperitif. Whether it is served with some nibbles or on its own, give Lambrusco another chance and I am positive it will surprise you.
Chianti Classico with a Pizza Margherita
Chianti Classico wines have been made since the 13th century, and the tradition of winemaking in the region dates back to the Etruscan times. The wines are made with at least 75% Sangiovese grapes in order to qualify for certification, and are unique in their ruby red color, full-body experience and personality.
Chianti Classico wines are easily picked from the rest because of the black rooster seal on their bottles that is a unique sign of authenticity. The long roots and incomparable heritage of Tuscany are forever embedded in the wines of Chianti Classico in a way that evokes romance, literature and Renaissance art.
The black rooster seal originates in a Medieval legend. The legend talks about a territorial dispute between the villages of Siena and Florence over the Chianti region.
To solve it, both villages agreed to a horse race. Two knights were to leave their villages at the crack of dawn, as soon as the rooster would sing, and meet their contender at the border point. Wherever that line was would be the future border between Siena and Florence.
While the rooster from Florence was kept in a cage and hungry for a few days before the race, the Siena one was not. On the day, the Florence rooster, angry and hungry, was released and sang much earlier than sunrise and so the knight left earlier and managed to ride farther than the Siena knight, defining the new border between the two villages much closer to Siena’s walls.
Where Chianti Classico wines are made
As you may know, I spent a few days in Tuscany a couple of years ago and had the privilege of visiting a few Chianti Classico wineries to learn more about the Chianti and Chianti Classico regions from the hands of the producers themselves.
Chianti Classico wines are produced in a smaller region within the Chianti appellation, and are considered more exclusive and premium wines. The sub region includes some areas within the Florence and Siena provinces, in particular, the historical and medieval villages of Greve in Chianti, Castellina in Chianti, Gaiole in Chianti and Radda in Chianti, a part of Barberino Val d’Elsa, San Casciano in Val di Pesa, Tavarnelle Val di Pesa and a part of Castelnuovo Berardenga and Poggibonsi.
Some of these villages may sound familiar as they have been the backdrop of famous movies and plays. What they all have in common are stunning cobblestone streets, bell towers, quaint piazzas and romance. It is impossible not to tour the Chianti Classico wineries and fall in love with the area and its evocative past.
Chianti Classico is also the region where two of the 10 oldest wine businesses are located, dating back to the 14th century, so drinking its wines is a bit like taking a sip of history.
The best way to drink and pair a Chianti Classico wine
You can’t go wrong with some delicious cheese or salumi, the Italian word for cold cuts or cured meats, and red Italian wine. Sangiovese-based wines and Chianti Classico in particular pair fantastically with some other Italian crowd-pleasers like pasta, pizza or just a slice of bread with the famous olive oils and tomatoes of Tuscany. It couldn’t be simpler!
In fact, the locals see the Chianti Classico and Sangiovese wines being so versatile and befitting of the local food that they usually drink it throughout the meal, as I experienced when visiting one of the oldest wineries and villas in Tuscany and staying for lunch.
If you want to truly enjoy the wine with the recipes that are most famous of the region, try a hearty Florentine steak with your Chianti Classico, I promise you will be in heaven.
Brunello di Montalcino with a Florentine steak
We spoke about Chianti Classico, a more popular and well-known wine made in some specific parts of Tuscany. But there are other premium grapes grown in the same area which produce some incredible wines. Tuscany has very fertile and conducive soil for wine production, so the local grape varieties have the perfect environment to thrive. Brunello di Montalcino is one of them.
Also produced from Sangiovese, the Brunello di Montalcino wines are made from a clone of Sangiovese called Brunello, hence the name combining the town the grape is grown in with the type of grape, easy.
The Brunello grapes have a thicker skin than the regular Sangiovese and that gives them higher acidity and tannins, something which makes them highly age-worthy and gives them their unique DNA.
What makes Brunello di Montalcino an even more exclusive and premium wine is the regulations to which it has to adhere. Brunello di Montalcino wines cannot be released into the market until they have completed 5 years of aging. That means that there are no young wines available because the appellation has strict rules on their aging. Younger Brunello wines from Montalcino are classified as Rosso di Montalcino and can be released with just a year of aging.
So when you are drinking a Brunello di Montalcino you know you are enjoying some of the most premium and oldest wines, even at the entry level.
Where Brunello di Montalcino wines are made
Brunello di Montalcino wines are made in the southern part of Tuscany, in the area around Montalcino. This is not a large area and so the production is small, making the wines even more exclusive. Brunello di Montalcino are sure to be the choice of the more experienced wine connoisseurs.
The best way to drink and pair a Brunello di Montalcino wine
Because of its tannins, its acidity and its longer aging process which results in higher prices, Brunello di Montalcino wines are not for everyone and are usually reserved for special occasions. These are some of Italy’s most premium wines and also some of the most complex, so bland dishes will not do.
A Brunello di Montalcino requires a fair partner in crime so it is best enjoyed with simple yet hearty Tuscan dishes like a roasted leg of lamb or a Florentine steak like the ones made from the local Chianina or Maremmana cow that I had the pleasure of trying to find in the wild forests of Tuscany. Italian wines in general do best with sauces made of fresh ingredients like salsa verde (with capers, lemon, parsley). The ingredients in Tuscany are of the freshest quality and they shine with simpler cooking methods that highlight their flavors, although pairings are more often than not a very personal decision
Barolo with a mushroom risotto
Barolo wines have been compared to the world-famous regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy and given the status of wine royalty in Italy.
They are made entirely of Nebbiolo grapes, a small thin-skinned type of grape that gives it a very unique flavor. The grapes are not picked until the end of the harvesting season, usually in October, when they are finally ripe and the Piedmontese fog starts to roll in.
Despite being full bodied, Barolo wines are lighter in color, similar to the Pinot Noir wines of Burgundy, and need to be aged a minimum of three years according to the rules, two of which need to be in oak.
Where Barolo wines are made
Barolo wines get their name from one of the communes in the region of Langhe, in the province of Piedmont where the Nebbiolo grapes are grown. The word Nebbiolo derives from fog in Latin and eludes to the weather of the Piedmont region, which is so characteristic of the region and gives Nebbiolo its personality.
There are 10 other communes where the grapes are grown and the soil can change quite a bit across them. The Piedmont region is known for its verdant landscapes that are a more rugged version of the undulating soft hills of Tuscany and for the changing and mysterious weather.
The best way to drink and pair a Barolo wine
Despite its cache, Barolo wines are not necessarily very expensive, or at least not as expensive as Burgundy, so they are good both for aging as well as for special occasions. Look for bottles that have a little extra age if possible.
When pairing a Barolo wine, look for creamy earthy dishes like a mushroom risotto or a barbecue with friends.
Super Tuscan wines with Italian food
All of the above Italian red wines are classified under the official DOCG, that is the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, the highest qualification for Italian wines. Below the DOCG level is DOC, Denominazione di Origine Controllata and then there is another set of wines that do not meet the strict requirements of either and are classified as IGT, the Indicazione Geografica Tipica.
This classification gives a wider range of choices in terms of wine production, aging and grape varietals to be used by the winemakers so the final product can differ significantly from winemaker to winemaker. There is also a lower denomination for the lowest quality wines called Vino di tavola or table wine. These classifications are the same across all wine regions in the world.
In the 1970s, when the IGT had yet to be defined and the DOCG did not exist, winemakers in the Chianti region wanted to update the old definitions of the DOC which stated that Chianti Classico wines had to be made with Sangiovese in conjunction with white grapes. This gave the resulting bottle a fruity character that did not age well and positioned Italian wines below the French equivalent in international markets.
Some revolutionary winemakers at the time decided to forgo the DOC denomination and produce wines which paired Sangiovese with other international grape varietals like Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. The term Super Tuscan was born like that, as an expression of the winemaker’s rebellion against Italian bureaucracy and their willingness to play in the international markets.
The choice of an English word was not a coincidence as the US market was booming at the time and the producers wanted to appeal to that consumer. Because of the international varieties used, Super Tuscans were priced much higher than the DOC bottles and have always been positioned as premium wines in the US.
Fast forward to today and Super Tuscan wines can still be defined by a wider range of grape varietals, from 100% Sangiovese to 100% Merlot. Some of the originally created Super Tuscan wines today qualify as DOCG now that the stricter rules have been amended and up to 25% of the grapes used for a Chianti Classico can be foreign varietals like Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, but many established brands proudly eschew adhering to an official appellation.
A lot of winemakers think that Super Tuscans are losing importance as a concept because the existing DOCG rules allow for fantastic wines to be produced, as proved by my four previous wines.
However, some winemakers still prefer to call their wines Super Tuscan rather than Chianti Classico, especially in the international market like in the US.
Identifying a Super Tuscan in a wine store is not easy because they sometimes fall under the IGT classification, sometimes as Chianti Classico, sometimes as Chianti. However, there are specific wines that have become famous Super Tuscans and which the public identifies with this concept directly. Some of them became more powerful than any DOC, DOCG or region of origin and are bought and drank by wine connoisseurs regardless. A sommelier may suggest a Super Tuscan at a restaurant, or a wine pairing dinner may use that label and now you know where it comes from.
Where Super Tuscan wines are made
As the name indicates, Super Tuscan wines come from Tuscany, anywhere in the region, although traditionally they were more prominently grown towards the coastal areas of Tuscany where the international varietals being grown to make them were first planted.
The best way to drink and pair a Super Tuscan wine
It is hard to give specific advice on the best pairing dishes for a Super Tuscan wine given the wine range of alternative grapes and productions methods used. Depending on the grapes that each bottle was made with, the recommendations from the previous sections will come in handy. Or you can just slice some sausages and bread and enjoy the bottle in its purest form. You can never go wrong with a good Italian wine and a flavorful salumi spread.
Learn more about the Wines of Italy at the newly created website.