As we approach the day that honors Italian-born Christopher Columbus, it’s easy to toast him with his country’s own stuff. Italian wine is America’s favorite foreign tipple; trade surveys say it makes up 30 percent of our total wine imports.
It makes sense. Americans also like Italian food – even better than our own American cuisine, by 30 percent to 27 percent, according to the San Pellegrino Fine Dining Survey. Pizza over hot dogs? Makes sense to me.
And what’s the best pizza wine? Chianti.
I think Americans love Italian wines because they’re user-friendly, even hedonistic – an ongoing liquid Dolce Vita.
Italians also are good at giving compelling names to their wines. Consider the wines called “Lacrima Christi” – literally “tears of Christ” – from a local legend that Christ looked down on the vineyards of the Campania region south of Naples and was moved to tears by their beauty.
Or take “Vino Nobile di Montepulciano” – or “the noble wine of Montepulciano.” It was given that name in 1930 by winemaker Adamo Fanetti, out of pride for its quality.
Given our love for Italy’s wines, it follows that we’re very familiar with many of them – Chianti, pinot grigio, brunello, Barolo. But since the country makes hundreds of varieties, there are always new ones to discover – vermentino, grechetto, Franciacorta.
These days, Italian wines are becoming even more accessible. With wine consumption falling in Italy, its producers are increasing efforts to sell in the lucrative U.S. market. The result: some better prices on excellent wines.
Italian winemakers are going out of their way to make their wines accessible to Americans. For example, Tuscan winemaker Bibi Graetz is taking a wine that in earlier days might have been called simply “Toscano Rosso” or “Tuscan Red” and giving it an odd but U.S.-friendly name: “It’s a Game!” (Actually, it’s mostly sangiovese, the Chianti grape.)
One Italian wine every American fan knows is pinot grigio. The grape is not exclusive to Italy, of course. But Italy’s version of the wine is distinct. Made of grapes grown at high Alpen altitudes, it’s crisp and lean, quite different from France’s richer pinot gris, even though it’s the same grape.
Italy also produces grapes and wines much less familiar to Americans. One is the mineral-scented white grape called grechetto. It dates back to the Renaissance, but is made by only a few producers today. It’s worth seeking out.
Also little known in America is vermentino. It’s pale yellow-green and nicely crisp, with flavors of green pears, limes and minerals. Good with seafood and white-sauced pastas.
Italy also makes good value sparkling wines, often in the cool climate of the foothills of the Alps. The wine region Franciacorta has nearly 7,000 acres of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot blanc, the approved grapes for its crisp and fruity bubblies.
So next time you’re in a good wine shop, seek out the Italian wine section and see what you can find that’s familiar, and what you can find that’s new. And lift a glass to ol’ Chris.
• 2010 Bibi Graetz “Soffocone di Vincigliata” Toscana IGT (90 percent sangiovese, 7 percent canaiolo, 3 percent colorino): dark ruby color, hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black plums, full-bodied and hearty; $45.
• 2011 Mazzoni Pinot Grigio, Tuscany (100 percent pinot grigio): pale yellow hue, aromas and flavors of lemons and limes, hint of minerals, crisp and dry; $20.
• 2009 Fattoria Selvapiana Chianti Rufina Riserva “Bucerchiale,” Tuscany (100 percent sangiovese): deep red color, aromas of earth and oak, powerful, spicy black cherry and mineral flavors, very rich, almost viscous; $35.
• 2012 Attems Pinot Grigio, Venezia Giulia IGT (100 percent pinot grigio): pale yellow hue, intense white-flower aromas, flavors of ripe apricots, spice and minerals; $16.
• 2010 Fattoria Selvapiana Chianti Rufina, DOCG (100 percent sangiovese): ruby color, crisp and dry, with aromas and flavors of red raspberries and anise; $17.
• 2011 Arnaldo-Caprai Grecante Grechetto dei Colli Martani, DOC (100 percent grechetto): pale yellow color, aromas and flavors of peaches, citrus and minerals, crisp and tart; $20.
Fred Tasker has retired from the Miami Herald but is still writing about wine. He can be reached at email@example.com.