Holly Howell
May 5, 2010 | Holly Howell

Re-Discovering Italy - "Off The Beaten Path Italy" - By Holly Howell

I have always been a fan of Italian wines. Not only can you find great values, but these wines are ultimately the best food wines you can buy. After all, an Italian winemaker MAKES wine to go with food. In Italy, to drink wine without food is the equivalent of murder!

For years, my Italian repertoire was limited to the white Pinot Grigio and the red Chianti. And between the two, there is a sea of good wine out there to choose from. But more recently, I have been searching to go off the beaten path to find some of Italian's best kept secrets, and I am happy to report that you can now find more and more of them appearing on American wine shelves today.

Italy's top three wine regions are considered to be Piedmont, Veneto and Tuscany. These regions are home to some of Italy's classiest and most sought-after wines. Piedmont lies in the northwestern corner of the country and stakes claim to the famous wines of Barolo and Barbaresco, both made from the worshipped nebbiolo grape. Veneto, in the northeastern corner is best known for its red blends like Valpolicella and Amarone. And Tuscany, smack dab center of Italy, is the land of Chianti and Brunello, where the grape sangiovese is king. These are the wines that stud the Italian shelves across the country.

But Italy is home to over 1100 grapes! As hard as it is to believe, there are great quality wines being made in every one of Italy's 20 provinces. And the fun part is heading out into the countryside to taste them all.
First and foremost, the southern part of the country is HOT right now. Literally. Warmer climates, lots of sun, and strategically placed vineyards are cranking out some incredible stuff. Just like the cuisine, each province has its own specialties in wine.
Puglia (or Apulia in English) has intrigued me for years. Fondly referred to as "the heel of the Italian boot", Puglia has an incredible history of winemaking. Although they produce more wine than any other province, there are not as highly touted as the northern regions. For that reason, this is the place to find some hidden high quality wines at very reasonable prices.

The two big red grapes are negroamaro and primitivo. You'll find negroamaro in many of the blends from the sub-region of Salice Salento. The primitivo grape has been linked genetically to the red zinfandel grape of California.

Last night I opened a Natale Verga Primitivo 2008 ($10) with some friends. It was the epitome of a rustic, delicious Italian red. With flavors of dark cherries and chocolate, it was balanced with just the right amount of acidity to make your mouth water. Of course, it screamed for food, and food is what it got. A Mediterranean cheese platter and a bowl of freshly made hummus brought out the inherent earthiness of the Primitivo. Absolutely yummy and a great bargain!

Interestingly, we opened it next to a California Napa Valley Zinfandel, and it was amazing how different the two cousins were. The Zinfandel was more fruit-laden, concentrated and higher in alcohol, though delicious in its own right. It was unanimously decided that the Primitivo was much more food-friendly (not to mention wallet-friendly).
Tune in next time for more "Off The Beaten Path Italy".


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