Are You Afraid of Italian Wines?

A shocking confession: Even the experts find the country's wines daunting
Jul 20, 2010

At first it seemed almost shocking. I was talking with a fellow wine writer. It was the usual shoptalk and tip-trading. "Did you ever try ... ?" The guy knew his wines. He'd been around. Somehow the talk turned to Italian wines. I told him about how I'd lived in Venice for eight months and Piedmont for a year. He was gratifyingly envious.

Then he said something that stopped me cold. "I'm afraid of Italian wines," he confessed. "It's not that I don't like Italian wines, " he said. "It's just that they're so damned complicated. When I first started with wine, everybody told me how difficult Burgundy is, how mastering Burgundy could be a life's work. I'll tell you one thing: Burgundy is a breeze compared to Italian wines. Burgundy has order, hierarchy.

"Italian wines seem chaotic," he continued. "I hate it when I get handed the wine list in an Italian restaurant. I'm supposed to know all this stuff about wine, but if it's any kind of extensive Italian wine list, I'm lost. Oh, I'll order something like a Barolo, and everybody thinks I'm a genius. But really, I'm clueless. That's why I'm afraid of Italian wines."

At first I was astonished by this confession. After all, wine writers tend not to tell their colleagues (and competitors) about their professional inadequacies. In fact, I discovered that I was holding my breath, so amazed was I by this admission.

But then it began to sink in. And I saw what he meant—and why it was not merely a personal confession of his, but something likely true for nearly all of us. And when I say "nearly all of us," I most emphatically include myself.

Now, I'm not going to suggest that I don't know about Italian wines. I do know them—and pretty well, if I may say so. I've banged out a book on Italian wines. I've written more newspaper columns recommending Italian wines than I can count. And my wine cellar is plumped—stuffed, really—with Italian wines. I've lived there, seen quite a lot of Italy and I am not afraid.

That said, let me tell you what happened to me a few weeks ago while dining at A-16, which is one of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco. Not only does A-16 serve spectacularly fine food inspired by the Campania region of southern Italy, which is where Naples is located, but it has a wine list of southern and central Italian wines that has no comparison to anything that I, anyway, have seen in this country—or in Italy either, for that matter.

When I go to A-16, I always ask them to serve me by the glass whatever wines they like. Invariably the wines are terrific. And just as invariably, I have never had most of them before. In some cases, I've never even heard of the wine; in other instances it's a producer whose name is utterly unfamiliar.

For example, on this latest visit I was handed a superbly flavorful dry white wine: 2008 Pecorino Colline Pescaresi from the producer Tiberio. I don't mind telling you—well, actually, I do mind telling you, but my colleague's confession has given me spine—that I had never heard of the Pecorino grape variety, the Colline Pescaresi district or the producer Tiberio. Other than that, I'm an expert.

Mind you, this Pecorino wasn't just some bland white wine mouthwash, which Italy all too often produces. This was really dazzling stuff, zingy with minerality and scents of herbs such as rosemary and sage delivered with an impressively dense texture. There wasn't a trace of oak, by the way, and none needed. It was a "where have you been all my life?" white wine.

Of course, when I got home I raced to the computer to become a know-it-all about Pecorino. It turns out that the grape variety wasn't even isolated as such until the 1980s and that the first varietally labeled Pecorino appeared only in 1996.

The second wine I was given was another dry white, a 2008 Biancollella Frassitelli from Casa d'Ambra. "A who? What?" I heard myself saying as the sommelier announced what she was putting in front of me. "It's a wine from Ischia,” she explained patiently. "The producer is Casa d'Ambra. It's grown on very steep slopes at nearly 2,000 feet above sea level." Considering that Ischia is smaller than Manhattan, that's a vertical rise unseen since Michael Jordan.

Here again, I had never heard of the grape variety (I later learned that Biancollella is a specialty of Ischia). And Casa d'Ambra was new to me too. I've never been to Ischia. This wine alone put Ischia at the top of my travel list. Not as pungently flavorful as the Pecorino, it had a finesse and a subtlety that made it, well, classy.

With the pizza, out came a red wine and—you guessed it—I was once again in my now-familiar state of Italian wine bafflement. "It's a Damiano Ciolli Silene Cesanese Olevano Romano, from Lazio," I was told. The only thing I understood was "Lazio," which is also known as Latium. It's the region where Rome is located. Beyond that I was clueless.

This red wine, from the unknown-to-me Cesanese grape variety, was lovely: soft, delicate, suffused with scents and tastes of herbs as well as an attractive earthiness, and meant to be drunk young. It was utterly delectable, a far cry from today's palate-stomping reds that overwhelm your mouth (and meal) with over-intense fruit, unsubtle oakiness and scorching alcohol. The producer, Damiano Ciolli, took over the family winery, which is located in the village of Olevano Romano, about 35 miles east of Rome, in 2001. Silene, I learned, is the name for a bottling that sees a brief amount of oak aging.

Has this sort of thing happened to you? It was, I'm sure, just the sort of thing my colleague feared—especially if he didn't have the informative assistance of sommeliers such as those at A-16.

Are you, too, afraid of Italian wines—their complication, head-spinning variety and sheer unfamiliarity? Are the Italians to blame for making everything so incomprehensible? Or do we have a responsibility as students and lovers of wine to, as the British would say, swot it up?

Italy Opinion

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