A perfect pair: Barolo to Vermentino, Italian wine brings out the best at dinner

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The Elisabetta Toscana Vermentino is a great complement to the panko-crusted fried oysters and red pepper aioli at Duner’s. Photo: John Robinson The Elisabetta Toscana Vermentino is a great complement to the panko-crusted fried oysters and red pepper aioli at Duner’s. Photo: John Robinson

Like Italian food, Italian wine has an innate, comforting presence that draws you in and keeps you coming back for more. Regardless of where in Italy it comes from, good Italian wine (and food) speaks to the soul.

Once simply cheap jug wine and basket-wrapped bottles of Chianti, Italian wine has morphed into a respectable, drinkable, and lovable product. On recent trips to New York and San Francisco, I was shocked at how many non-Italian restaurants featured mostly Italian wine lists, but I shouldn’t have been: Many Italian wines (both white and red) are affordable, complex, and extremely versatile with food.

While Tuscan darlings like Chianti and Piedmont showstoppers like Barolo and Barbaresco were introduced and admired initially, the jewels of southern Italy are on the rise. The wines from Apulia (Puglia in Italian), like Negroamaro, Primitivo, and Nero d’Avola, are perfect examples of full-bodied, spicy reds with dried fruit characteristics. The Fatalone Teres Primitivo (found at Tastings) is lighter in style than most Primitivos, with notes of dried flowers and blackberries, and is a real treat with antipasti.

Campania is a southern Italian region surrounding Naples that makes intriguing whites like Greco di Tufo, with honeyed aromas and bracing acidity. Wines from this region, such as Falanghina and Aglianico, have been accepted and adapted for their uniqueness and versatility. The predominant red wine of this region is Aglianico (pronounced al-YAHN-i-co), which tends to have full tannins, a leathery texture, and pronounced smokiness. Like nebbiolo, the grape in Barolos and Barbarescos—or sangiovese, the main ingredient in Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino, Aglianico—can be rough when opened young. Its tannic structure and notes of tar and chewing tobacco make it a wine that’s better suited with food. At Orzo, you can sample the Grotta del Sole Aglianico (for $9 per glass) with the Bolognese with Italian rigatoni, pomodoro, chili flakes, and cream.

Barbaresco is the Piedmont twin of Barolo, but not necessarily its identical twin. Like Barolo, Barbaresco is made from the nebbiolo grape, which is thick skinned and grows on the hillside slopes of the region. Both have aromas of red fruits, rose petals, licorice, and tar, with good acidity balanced with fierce tannins. These wines need age, and a lot of it. They differ in size of the vineyards planted, with Barbaresco being only one third the size of Barolo. Technically speaking, Barolo must be aged for three years, with two in barrel before it can be released, where Barbaresco is required to age only two years, with one in barrel. Historically, Barolo is often portrayed as being the “masculine” and Barbaresco as “feminine.” Practically, this means nothing as they are often indistinguishable. Glass Haus Kitchen has the 2008 Montaribaldi Palaxxina Barbaresco, which pairs fantastically with the Best of What’s Around ribeye with “dirty oats” (which is a play on dirty rice made with Anson Mills heirloom oats), housemade malt vinegar, glazed shallots, celery, and red wine sauce.

But back to Chianti. Located in Tuscany, it’s widely known as a popular Italian wine region, and sangiovese is its star grape. It is also a region where the quality and style of winemaking differ substantially. These wines can be thin, soft, rough, and dull, or they can be some of the finest examples of Sangiovese made anywhere. The Buondonno Chianti Classico Riserva ($76 at tavola) is a prime example of what wines from this region taste like when they’re made well. Another example of the versatility of this grape can be found at Clifton Inn, where you’ll find Sassetto Sangiovese di Romagna 2009 by the glass for $11. This wine is unfiltered and lighter in body and oak than those from Chianti. It pairs delightfully with the restaurant’s rye spaetzle with housemade pastrami, pickled cabbage, and crème fraiche.

The white wines of Tuscany are often overlooked yet are affordable, quaffable, and versatile. The Elisabetta Toscana Vermentino ($32 at Duner’s) is a perfect complement to the panko-crusted fried oysters with red pepper aioli. Vermentino is typically grown along the sea in places like Liguria, where fish and seafood are prevalent, lending itself as an easy match. Red wines from Liguria are not as commonly found in the U.S., but Orzo Kitchen & Wine Bar has the Durin Rossese ($39), which stands up to the grilled octopus with potato gnocchi, chorizo sugo, green olives, and merguez sausage.

With the plethora of food and wine out there, my heart always seems to be drawn right back to Italy. I’m just glad to know I’m not alone.

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