We’ve all been there – you sit down to enjoy a meal at a new restaurant with a group of friends, and the waiter hands you all menus and fills your water glass. He then sets down on the table a hefty wine list – a binder full of sheets in plastic sleeves, a booklet of absurdly fine print, an oversized laminated card of indecipherable names, places, and prices. Your dining companions nudge it in your direction. “Pick whatever you want!” they say with cheerfully feigned innocence, happy to pass off the work to you as the wine enthusiast of the group.
You crack open the booklet and start to scan the list, and realize the enormity of the task before you. Somehow, you’re expected to quickly digest pages of information, and make a choice that will satisfy a group of individuals with different tastes, who will be eating different meals, all without missing a beat in the conversation.
And for all its merits, Italian wine can often be the most complex of all to understand. Italy has at least 550 native grapes – and by some estimates, up to twice as many more that haven’t yet been documented – which is more than the number of grapes native to Spain, Greece, and France combined. Add to that 20 different regions, innumerable microclimates, and a dizzying number of denominations, and the result can be difficult for even a seasoned wine pro to digest.
Dr. Ian D’Agata, arguably the worldwide expert on Italian grape varietals, has spent years exploring all those layers of Italian wine complexity; his research is compiled in his book Native Wine Grapes of Italy (University of California Press, 2014). “I think when it comes to Italian wines, the best thing to know is the grape varieties and what kinds of wines they can make. Everyone is comfortable with Merlot and Chardonnay because they know, more or less, what the wine they are buying will be like. It’s a comfort thing,” says D’Agata. “So you need to know the general characteristics of some of Italy’s best and most common varieties, such as whites like Pinot Grigio, Verdicchio, and Arneis, and red grapes like Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, and Nero d’Avola.”
Familiarity with various grape varietals comes with experience, which can be enhanced by wine tasting classes. D’Agata teaches seminars on Italian native grapes as part of the Vinitaly International Academy, an educational initiative aimed at increasing understanding of Italian wine around the world.
But for a basic introduction, Wine Folly has created a handy guide to deciphering an Italian wine list, by breaking down the four pieces of information contained in a typical menu description of a wine: producer, wine type, region, and vintage.
Producer – Knowing who the producer is – or even just what type of producer it is – will help you understand if the wine is rare, easy to find, organically produced, etc. In this case, Pievalta is the first and only biodynamic producer of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, so you know you’ll be getting a wine made according to the strict Demeter standards.
Type of Wine – A producer can give his or her wine its own unique name, but Italian wines are often named for a region, or a sub-region, which is classified according to certain production rules. Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi must contain a minimum of 85% Verdicchio with Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes rounding out the rest.
Region – Italy has 20 regions, and each one specializes in certain grapes or wine types. Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi is a traditional, and highly prized, wine of the Le Marche region.
Vintage – Like all produce in Italy, the climate conditions of each year affects the wine; and for red wines, generally the tannins mellow with age.
Mastering the rich complexity of Italy’s many wine grapes, styles, and regions would take a lifetime; luckily there is an Italian wine for every occasion along the way!