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Drinking Out Loud

Are You Afraid of Italian Wines?

A shocking confession: Even the experts find the country's wines daunting

Matt Kramer
Posted: July 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?

Chris Haag
vancouver, bc —  July 20, 2010 12:56pm ET
Matt, I agree with you 100%. Other than a few select regions in Italy, there is not much hierarchy in Italy and so many grape varietals one truly has to be adventurous when ordering/buying Italian wines. I also understand hierarchy does not equate to quality but it least gives a guage or benchmark to work up and down with on price point and quality. As such, we drink far less Italian wine than we probably should. I echo your sentiments on A16, it is a fantastic restuarant. We are heading to SFO for vacation in October and A16 is on the top of the list of restuarants for us to go to.
Ed Chin
Bay Area —  July 20, 2010 1:34pm ET
I feel much the same as you concerning Italian wine. It is one thing to remember a French region and the varietals grown there, it is a whole different ball game with Italy. So many regions and varietals and the tough part is remembering the spelling since pronouncing it is impossible for me. As far as A16, a fabulous restaurant but choosing a wine is best left to them to help you decide. I do commend you in remembering all the wines you have mentioned. Me after a few glasses I would say forget it, and then have another glass. Cheers!
Richard Gangel
San Francisco —  July 20, 2010 1:38pm ET
I, too, must admit that Italian wines can be intimidating when it comes to ordering them in a restaurant. We were recently turned on to a small Sardinian restaurant in San Francisco called La Ciccia. Aside from a small percentage of the grapes and producers with which I was familiar I was opened up to a number of wines with which I was totally unfamiliar but pleasantly surprised. They do not have a sommelier, but their wait staff is quite knowledgeable about the wines and so far I have not been misled.

All too often I have been in an Italian restaurant in which the wine list was intimidating with unfamiliar varietals and have been misled by the staff with inferior wines. It does not create a good dining experience and turns me off to consider returning when the food was quite good. My only other option is bring wine from my cellar the next time I go.
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  July 20, 2010 1:57pm ET
Mr. Chin: Thanks for "commending" me on my being able to remember which wines I drank, but the truth is very different. I, like you, can't recall the details either. So I always ask the sommelier (A-16 has several of them, all women, by the way) to write down what they served. Otherwise, I'd never be able to keep it all straight. And A-16 is a noisy restaurant, as you know. Sometimes I have a hard time even hearing the names, let alone remembering them!
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  July 20, 2010 2:44pm ET
Mr. Gangel: You write: "All too often I have been in an Italian restaurant in which the wine list was intimidating with unfamiliar varietals and have been misled by the staff with inferior wines."

I know exactly what you mean. It's a challenge. And the odds are often not in your favor.

As it happens, I received an e-mail from a clever friend who has had exactly the same problem as you with finding good Italian wines on restaurant wine lists. Here's his trick:

"When it comes to Italian wines on restaurant wine lists, if I haven't heard of it, that's the one I order," he says. "Why? Because in non-A-16-type restaurants--which is to say, less sophisticated places--restaurants, the Italian wines you HAVE heard of tend to be the usual (typically underachieving) suspects.

"On the other hand," he continued, "if you see some oddball wine on the list, somebody had to go to the trouble of putting it there, probably because they really liked it. It's kind of like finding rabbit or quail on a menu. It's usually there because the chef really likes to cook it, not because he has to."

I thought that's terrific tip--and a good insight.
D Fredman
Malibu, CA, USA —  July 20, 2010 2:49pm ET
I see the diversity of Italian wines not being intimidating as much as I view it as an opportunity to expand my horizons and maintain my overall wine curiosity. The "Three Bs" (Barolo, Barbaresco, and Brunello) are a great start and there's lots of information out there about each of them, but I see it as a challenge to get a handle on the more unusual varieties found around the country. I received most of my education by finding Italian regional cookbooks and then tracking down wines from that region that were unknown to me. The combination of local wine with local cuisine makes it easier to retain the information, plus my cooking skills improved immeasurably.

Although a lot of these wines are difficult (or impossible) to find at your local wine shop, they're readily available via the internet from any number of specialty wine retailers around the USA. The obscure country wines tend not to be as expensive as the trophy bottles from Tuscany and Piedmont we all know and love, making it even more fun to taste through a box of unpronounceable wines made from grapes you've never heard of and from parts of Italy you hadn't preveiously thought of. I find the experience can be entertaining, humbling, educational, and oftentimes inspiring.
Rob Lentini
Alexandria, Virginia —  July 20, 2010 3:06pm ET
I'd wager those wines were relatively inexpensive, too. I LOVE Italian wines, precisely because there is always another corner unexplored, an unknown quality producer, and unbelievable variety. I'm not afraid... I'm excited by Italy. My recent new experiences were with Vitovska (a new grape to me), Inama making a wonderful Cab Sauv from the Veneto (a new producer, but also a new concept for me - good cab from Veneto), and very serious sparklers: a sparkling rosé from Les Crêtes in the Valle d'Aosta and another sparkler from Bellavista in Lombardia. I almost unintentionally avoid regions like Piedmont because I feel I know what to expect there.
Richard Gangel
San Francisco —  July 20, 2010 3:52pm ET
Matt, thanks for the tip. However, there is still a 50-50 chance that the wine might not be good. Whether the wine list is chosen by the chef, restaurant owner or wine director, the consumer is at the mercy of the taste of someone whose predilections might be diametrically opposed to his own taste. It comes down to a matter of trust.
Douglas Thomson
San Diego, CA —  July 20, 2010 5:18pm ET
Hi Matt. I'm heading to SF next week, and I just noticed that two of the three wines you mentioned are still on A-16's wine list. I'll give them a try, so thanks for the recommendations and the gift of a little humility in the process! It makes me happy as a relative newcomer to wine to know that I'll always have more to learn.
Austin, TX —  July 20, 2010 6:13pm ET
I've had some bewildering experiences looking at Italian wine lists, and with a date in the opposite chair it can be unnerving.
Ultimately realizing that Italy is a treasure trove of underproduced originality in obscure varietals and techniques, with significant history behind each, I took a new approach to these wine lists : choose something I've never tried before just for the experience. It may or may not be fantastic, but it will very probably be unusual, fun, and interesting.
I really hope Italian producers maintain their rich viticultural diversity, and that we continue to source their wines here in the US. I would truly feel sick if the entire world produced only chardonnay, cabernet, and syrah, et al.
Ed Chin
Bay Area —  July 20, 2010 6:30pm ET
If you are ever in the area again and want to try some hard to find of the wall wines from Italy I would suggest going to www.primapalate.com in Tiburon. A friend suggested this place because I was tasked to find something different to bring to a dinner. Come to find out also that they were former sommeliers at A16. I have never visited the place but they sent me some varietal that was thought to be extinct. Supposedly only an acre of this is available for harvesting.
Scott Oneil
Denver, CO —  July 20, 2010 7:02pm ET
Perhaps those most interested in mastery may be discouraged by Italian wines, but for those of us who are in this for the thrill of exploration and the appreciation of diversity and variety, THIS IS HEAVEN. Hierarchy... HIERARCHY?! We don't need no stinking hierarchy! :D

When I started collecting wine around 1998, Italians were (to my perceptions) the best wines I could afford, so my love affair with wine largely developed around Italians and continues likewise today. Continuing to hear about unique, sometime idiosyncratic wines which I have yet to try (like those you wrote about above) is where the real interest is for me. Thanks for helping folks like me to explore further. Seriously, thank you!
Austin, TX —  July 20, 2010 11:40pm ET
As a followup note, I would mention that an exceptionally promising restaurant failed here in Austin, I think, substantially due to Austin (American?) unfamiliarity with Ital wines, and the various DOC(G), IGT, and unclassified appellations. While the food was fantastic, the list was unrecognizable, containing not a single reference to Napa, Barossa, Bordeaux, Burgundy, or the Rhone. As Mr Kramer describes, the average diner might feel intimidated by this... not really the experience they seek when dining out.
I think two things would help marketing Ital wines in the US tremendously : introductory tastings (shouldered by wholesale/retail/restaurant providers) and somewhat more literal identification of the constituent varietals on (back?) label.
Not every diner is willing to go home and Google search "Sagrantino de Montefalco" or "Notarpanaro" to understand what they just drank or why they liked it.
Marco Laico
charlotte nc —  July 21, 2010 9:09am ET
italian wines varietals ..the excitement continues
greco, fiano,pecorino,falanghina , cortese (gavi),
muller thurgau start here everybody..

get a bottle each from your favorite retailer ;

is this A FEAR ? AFRAID OF WHAT ? pleasure of discovery?
Stewart Lancaster
beaver,pa —  July 21, 2010 10:22am ET
One of my best friends is Italian and like you, an expert on Italian wines. He turned me on to Pecorino about 2 years ago. To remember it, he told me to think of the cheese, pecorino. He alwys amazes me with a new wine I've never heard from Sardinia, Sicily,etc.
Maurizio Tafani
Firenze, Toscana, Italy —  July 21, 2010 12:44pm ET
You're right. But don't afraid. Actually in Italy we have about 450 different kind of vines producing wine. And don't worry, a lot of italian native don't know one third of them. All of us had to swot up very hard!! By the way no far from Pecorino area production there is also the Passerina grape and in Ischia a nice red: Per'é palummo. and what about Catalanesca grape in Vesuvio...
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  July 21, 2010 12:59pm ET
Mr. Laico: You're point is well taken: "Afraid of what?" I think that what my fellow wine writer was voicing was more a "fear" of the confusing array of Italian wines than of anything relating to the wines themselves. As you know, it's a strong human instinct to gravitate to the familiar. And collectively, Italian wines are more "unfamiliar" than any others on the planet!

Personally, I'm with all the folks here who are exhilarated by the fabulous variety--and sense of discovery--available with Italy's wines. But I can understand, and sympathize with, more "normal" sorts who want at least a vague sense of knowing the terrain when looking at a restaurant wine list.

By the way, part of the problem lies with the wine lists themselves. Typically, there's no information that gives diners any sort of information about wines likely to be new or unknown to the vast majority of restaurant patrons. But that's another column for another time.
John Hazard
New York, NY —  July 21, 2010 5:55pm ET
Great discussion all around. I would add only that the sommelier knows best and I trust him, but I give him a hint or two, suggesting wines I like that are on the menu and mentioning the food we have ordered. I ask for something different, perhaps unique to the restaurant, and have always been happy with his choice.
Christopher Cribb
Kansas City, MIssouri - USA —  July 21, 2010 8:17pm ET
In a challenging global wine environment I truly respect this article and give my kudos to you and your colleague for contributing. After my first visit to Piedmont I realized that just as understanding the world of wine is an ever unraveling onion, the world of Italian wine is a really big onion that can produces great "tears of joy" as you dig in! Trust your knowledgeable establishments and keep enjoying the nuances in the world of wine that is what makes it interesting!
Bert Pinheiro
Baltimore Maryland —  July 22, 2010 5:20pm ET
matt what a great job you did on this topic. I really enjoyed your article. There is no one who has not been there,especially with Italian wines. It is always a great joy for wine lovers to find one of those thousand grape varieties in Italia that you have never tasted and say to yourself that this was a find.
Juan Manuel Solis
Los Cabos, Baja, Mexico —  July 22, 2010 6:25pm ET
Matt, I understand what you say about Italian wines been very confusing, but we also have to give them a lot of credit, specially to those new producers that have lifted the quality of Italian wines to a new level. I think that there are three important factors that make people afraid of Italian wines, first the language, well we do not all speak Italian right !!, two the diversity of Italy´s grape varieties and wine regions “the largest in the world”, and three, the customers lack of adventure to experiment new and exciting wines when dinning out, there for, it would take us more time to get a grasp of what Italy is all about if we don’t take a chance, just like you did on A-16 restaurant.
But still, I seriously believe for quite some time now, and been a sommelier myself, I can tell you that 8 times out of 10 Italian wines please the customers pallet 100%, and that is very difficult to find in wines from other countries around the world, Italian wines are changing dramatically from what they use to be, Italian wines still offer great value at any price but the quality has evolved tremendously in the past 10 years, they are listening to what the world wine consumers want “More Fruit”, they have the widest variety of grapes for any pallet, from the delicate, mineral and fruit forward whites from northern Italy, to the powerful reds of Piemonte, Tuscany with its Brunello´s, Super Tuscans and new Chianti´s, to the amazing reds of Campania and Sicilia. I think that Italian wines will be the ones to look for in the near future when considering drinking a bottle of European wine at any price along side with Spanish wines. We need, “as people from the new world” to move back a little from the classics, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and experience what Italian wines have to offer a part from Pinot Grigio, even when we cannot properly say the name of the wine, the producer, the appellation or specially the grape. Cheers !!!
Jason Carey
willow, ny usa —  July 22, 2010 10:20pm ET
We should encourage and celebrate all this diversity in styles and grapes. If it is too confusing for you, then ignore it, but we should embrace these wines and maybe we are the issue.. Italy has the biggest variety of grapes and we need to encourage all of them to continue to be used.
Stephen Kratzke
Rockville, MD —  July 22, 2010 11:09pm ET

The good thing for me is I don't have to impress anyone, since I'm not a critic. My wife is very tolerant of trying new wines, so I am very lucky. Italy is my favorite wine-producing country, because no one else grows these grapes and one cannot possibly be an expert about all of Italy IMHO.

Campania is my current "crush" region in Italy. I have shown at least a dozen friends my three whites from there - Falanghina, Fiano di Avellino, and Greco di Tufo. Always a positive reception. I'm just moving on to the reds from there.

Sicily is my current exploration - especially the Etna wines, which remind me of Barolo and good Pinot - medium body, but concentrated etheral flavors. Even the Cerasuolo wines are good.

I can't afford the Barolos, Barbarsecos, and Brunellos mentioned by a previous poster, and the super Tuscans moved out of normal wine drinker pricing about a decade ago. Even Amarone, which I love, but can afford once a year, is impossible to really explore.

If people want to explore (and most don't), I think they should focus on Italy and choose grapes and producers they've never heard of. They won't like some of them, but they will find some treasures they can always go back to. I think that exploration and expansion of your personal wine experience is a part of what makes people love wine.
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  July 23, 2010 12:21am ET
To All: Thanks so very much for your insightful comments. I most certainly agree with all of you who point out, in your respective, individual ways, the sheer wonderfulness and variety of Italian wines. This is why I, too, am enthralled with them. But I do sympathize with anyone who finds himself or herself daunted by the dazzling scope of what's on offer.

If you all came to dinner chez Matt I can assure you that Italian wines would be on the menu, as it were. And not, as some seem to imagine, the likes of Super Tuscans. (Anyone who has read my book, "Making Sense of Italian Wine" will know that I'm no fan of Super Tuscans).

One of these days we lovers of Italian wines should nominate, say, our three "most favorite Italian wines that everyone should know about".

For example, every summer I buy and drink (and recommend) a magnificent rosé or rosato called Cerasuolo “Montepulciano d’Abruzzo” from the producer Torre dei Beati.

Made from the Montepulciano grape variety it's made a little differently than other rosés. It’s a blend of two different musts or unfermented grape juice where one part comes from Montepulciano grapes selected for their higher acidity and another part comes from a “saignée” or bleeding-off of juice from riper Montepulciano grapes meant for their regular red wine. Also, it does not undergo a malolactic fermentation, which insures a bright, refreshing acidity. I love this stuff. It's got a touch of minerality (which is pretty rare in rosé) along with berry tastes.

Only in Italy!
Bert Pinheiro
Baltimore Maryland —  July 23, 2010 10:13am ET
I would love to hear about those wines that we all would like to know about.
David Weitzenhoffer
NYC, NY —  August 2, 2010 12:10pm ET
Hi Matt,
Much needed article. Everytime I think I know most all of the Italian varietals another one pops up-- and some of them really delicious. AND I import Italian wines. In fact we import the Ciolli Cesanese. So happy you liked it! A16, and San Francisco on the whole, is a great place to find restauranteurs and retail stores reveling in the diversity of wacky Italian grape varietals. Kind of have to close your eyes and jump in.

Romano Sims
Loudon, TN, USA by way of Trieste, IT —  August 2, 2010 4:42pm ET
meraviglioso! Italian wines are like Italian dialects: each different, impossible to master but each exquisite and a wonderful experience to discover. hope you were able to enjoy "fragolin" and "terran" (Trieste) during your Venetian sojourn.

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