Ask any sex columnist the best way to get out of a rut in the bedroom and they will recommend role-playing. Ask this wine columnist the best way to get out of a rut in the wine shop and I’ll recommend the same thing. No, I’m not suggesting something involving rubber boots and a barrel thief; rather, discover your wine alter ego in another country. Where do I go for wine adventure? Italy, certamente! Home to 2,000 grapes, Italy offers an exotic answer to everything from oaky Chardonnay to beefy Cabernet.
Chardonnay is the most widely drunk wine in the world. Unfortunately, the grape lacks a distinct flavor, so unless it is grown in very mineral-rich soils (as in Chablis), Chardonnay takes on the flavor of wherever it has been aged (which, is too often a heavily toasted American oak barrel). Chardonnay’s good points—full body and ripe fruit—can be found in Sicily’s indigenous Grillo. Able to withstand the sun-baked island’s high temperatures, Grillo is a big wine with a fat texture, but its piña colada flavors come through without oak to distract them.
In the mid-1990s, when Chardonnay suffered the inevitable backlash from over-exposure, Sauvignon Blanc became the new darling on the white scene. Herbal and punchy, Sauvignon Blanc makes you want to smack your tongue after every sip. Italy does grow Sauvignon Blanc (and all of these other varietals I am urging you to take a break from), but its more interesting local equivalent is Soave from Veneto. When Soave’s Garganega grape is handled well, the result resembles a lemon-melon-mint sorbet intermezzo. It loves food and food loves it.
Four ways to get out of your rut
Feudo Arancio Grillo Sicilia 2008. Market Street Wineshop Downtown. $9.99
La Cappuccina Soave Classico 2009. Wine Warehouse. $10.99
Grotta del Sole Aglianico 2008. Market Street Wineshop Uptown. $12.99
Crivelli Barbera d’Asti 2008. Mona Lisa Pasta. $15.99
Those who crave brawny red wines with serious tannin and oak usually swear by Cabernet Sauvignon and are reluctant to stray for fear of ending up with something less potent. But, with Cabs (especially ones from Napa Valley) going for beaucoup bucks, cheaper alternatives, like Malbec and Rioja, have begun serving the Cab-obsessed/income-recessed. Italy has several indigenous answers to Cab, but none quite as intriguing as Campania’s Aglianico. A derivation of the Greek word, Hellenica, simply meaning “Greek,” Aglianico is quite possibly the world’s oldest grape, and really tastes like it. Dense and inky, Aglianico comes from the soils around Mount Vesuvius and explodes with tannin, acid, and flavors of black currant, chocolate, and volcanic ash. And, just like Cabernet, Aglianico begs for either steak or more time in the cellar.
Finally, I come to those who think that every wine should be Pinot Noir. This grape’s popularity hasn’t waned since Sideways’ Merlot-bashing, Pinot-raving Miles catapulted it into stardom. But, all of this attention (as well as Pinot’s finicky nature) has sent Pinot prices into the stratosphere. To get all of Pinot’s bright fruit, acidity, and elegance, opt for a less expensive Barbera from Italy’s Piedmont region. What the locals of Piedmont drink as their everyday wine, Barbera has ample red fruit, racy acidity, and hints of sweet anise and butterscotch. I drink Barbera with everything from pumpkin risotto to pork tenderloin.
Old habits die hard, but what would you do if you were in Italy? You’d put on your best Italian shoes and explore what the country has to offer. So, there’s no reason that Pinot Noir Bob can’t be Barbera Roberto right here at home.