As part of an ongoing quest to introduce people to some exciting, most likely never heard of wines from Italy, I’m going to write about a couple every week or so. With most experts agreeing there are somewhere around 2,000 indigenous and international varietals growing in Italy, divided up into just under 50 DOCGs (and counting), upwards of 450 DOCs (and counting) and countless IGTs (and counting), I could be at this for a while.
I spent about a year doing the wine buying for Pizzeria Mozza here in LA, and probably tasted in the neighborhood of 2,000 Italian wines in that time. I was continuously exposed to wines I’d never heard of, despite being a devoted wine aficionado with a penchant for all things Italian for 12 to 13 years at that point. In fact, my very last week there I tasted a Biferno DOC wine from the most obscure of Italy’s 21 regions, the Molise, a wine I had never heard of or encountered before (it was a blend of equal parts Montepulciano and Aglianco, and quite delicious, the last wine I bought for the restaurant). I bring up this little anecdote to demonstrate that exploring Italian wine can be a lifelong endeavor, which never loses its potential for excitement and new finds. I’d like to get started with just a couple.
Arneis is a white grape from the Piemonte region in the northwest part of Italy. There are a handful of wineries in North America that grow it (the Ponzi family in Oregon’s Willamette Valley make a wonderful one), but its rightful and soulful home is the Roero, across the Tanaro river from the Langhe, the heart of Piemonte. The name Arneis in the Piemontese dialect means “rascal” or “rascally”. This is due to the fact that the leaves of this vine are lacy, ornate and quite pretty, but generate barely enough photosynthetic power to ripen the grapes, and is therefore a rascal to grow. But I’ve also been told it’s used as a term of affection. The Piemontese people adore a little glass of Arneis as an aperitivo, or as a lunchtime salad wine. Most Arneis is very aromatic and floral, not in an aggressive Muscat or Gewurztraminer fashion, but with more subtle white flower aromatics (honeysuckle, jasmine and citrus blossom come to mind). I also get a lot of slightly under-ripe pear and other tree fruits like white peach or yellow apple. People often claim they get an almond skin or bitter almond quality, but I’ve never really encountered that. The better versions tend to be light to medium bodied, with a soft mouthfeel and just enough acidity to give the wine a raciness and crisp finish. There are a few producers that oak age their Arneis, but to me this is akin to drowning a perfectly cooked Kobe filet in catsup. I opine, it’s best to let the varietal shine on its own, and let all those subtle, delicate aromas and flavors express themselves. One of my favorites comes from the Currado family of the Vietti ($19.99) winery in Barolo. One of the world’s coolest wine labels too, this wine. Check it out. Marco Porello’s Arneis ($15.99) is another sure bet for this varietal.
Another grape varietal I’m a huge fan of, also from Piemonte, is Pelaverga. It makes up the majority of the blend of the Verduno DOC. Verduno is actually the northernmost of the 11 communes of Barolo, so there is some prime Nebbiolo grown there, but there is, I’m told, about 100 hectares of Pelaverga planted there as well. And it’s the only place in Italy, and therefore the world, it’s grown. I just came across a new one that blew my mind, and was gushing about it in my staff review on our website. It’s the 2008 Castello di Verduno "Basadone" ($24.99) and it’s 100% Pelaverga. The Pelaverga grape is what I call the "aromatic" red varietals of Italy, along with such grapes as Ruche, Lacryma and Nero di Troia, among others. It has a distinctly floral aroma (I’ve heard everything from chrysanthemum to white rose to geranium), but also a lovely sweet cherry aroma and flavor, with gobs of black pepper and a mushroomy, forest floor quality reminiscent of a great Chambolle or Vosne-Romanée. The wine is not dense, but has a firm texture, a nice streak of acidity, and a beautiful weight and balance. The mouthfeel is akin to the better wines of Etna in Sicily, which in turn remind me of great red Burgundy. And I would be remiss to not acknowledge the curious name of this grape. Anyone with an understanding of Romance languages should be able to figure out what it means. I’ve queried a number of Italians on how it got this name, and while none know for sure, it has something to do with a count back in the 18th century who lived in the castle at Verduno and his parties, fueled by large quantities of wine, made from grapes now called Pelaverga, would have a tendency to degenerate into massive, all night, drunken orgies. So please, try this delicious wine, you’ll be very glad you did. Just be careful, if you find yourself in mixed company, when opening that third bottle.