Deciphering the Italian wine world

By Lorn Razzano
For the Tidings
Posted: 2:00 AM March 06, 2012

Italy’s wine regions and subregions, inconsistent labeling and hard-to-pronounce names can be confusing to the average wine drinker. Having spent quite a bit of time working in Italian vineyards and wineries, I sometimes forget that their wines can be a problem on many levels.

But the variety of grapes, approaches, soil and temperatures are what make this country a treasure trove of wines — and well worth the time and effort to understand them.

Italian wines have been around for centuries and continue to please palates all over the world, regardless of differences in culture and cuisine. It is true that other wine-producing countries in the European Union remain chauvinistic to their own producers, but things are opening up. The United States, on the other hand, has embraced Italian wines for decades. I believe that Portland, per capita, still holds the record for the most Italian wine consumed.

The diversity of flavor components throughout the peninsula means there’s an Italian wine for every cuisine. Years ago I attended a “stump the wine guy” dinner at which a variety of cuisine was supposed to be matched with a wide range of wines. I chose all Italian wines, including crispy whites from the north for seafood and medium reds from Tuscany for the hearty soup. For a spicy meat dish, I brought a massive Barolo from the Piemonte region, where my family comes from. I also brought ubiquitous Asti Spumante from that region for a chocolate dessert. The crowd loved it.

For a quick study of Italian wines, consider reading anything by Burton Anderson, an internationally recognized expert who’s been writing about Italian wines for 40 years, and either of two highly regarded wine magazines, the Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate.

The monthly Wine Spectator is a standard for folks wanting to know what’s happening in the world of wine. Its panel of tasters rates wines from about 80 points to what would be a perfect score of 100. The magazine rates new releases from around the world and does retrospectives on certain viticultural regions. It has done an admirable job covering the Italian wine scene, and I have to admit that I agree, for the most part, with its scoring on Italian wines. The Wine Spectator’s in-depth reporting on specific winemakers is really well done. Occasionally, the magazine will do a thorough piece on a little-known Italian region that I’ll find illuminating.

The Wine Advocate does a marvelous job covering the Italian wine scene, writing in-depth descriptions of wines and pieces on types of grapes and what should be expected from them. I am not always happy with this newsletter-journal, as I believe it tends to like red wines from certain areas to be bigger and more extracted than I personally enjoy, but I also understand this to be personal preference. It, too, rates wines up to a perfect 100.

Another, more personal way to delve into Italian wines is to attend a wine dinner. The Peerless in Ashland just hosted Nicola Argamante from Corsini winery in the Piemonte region, and I understand it was a huge success. I had an hour visit from the winemaker before the dinner and tasted all of his releases, and I am sure they went superbly with the wonderful cuisine. Before this, New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro hosted a luncheon and I understand that it was spectacular.

Many very nice Italian wine dinners are held in Portland, Eugene and throughout the valley and are well worth the time, money and effort to attend.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at [email protected].

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