Wine is exciting because of its diversity. A chardonnay from California tastes different from one from Chile or Chablis. Cabernet sauvignon blended with merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot can taste unctuously fruity from Napa, restrained and earthy from Bordeaux, and exotically spiced from Australia. I feel the anticipation of exploration with every pop of a cork or twist of a screw cap.
(This sets aside the mass quantities of bland wines made in a technically correct “international” style that are pleasant and cheap enough to please but lack any foreign or regional accent to tell you where they’re from. Wine appreciation is the abhorrence of the least common denominator.)
The sense of adventure extends to wines made from obscure grape varieties. That brings me to Italy, which has the greatest varietal variety of any country. America has its zinfandel (of Croatian origin, through Italy), and Argentina has malbec (French), torrontes (Spanish) and bonarda (Italian). Portugal has a handful, but some of them are aliases for the Spanish tempranillo. Italy has ruche, dolcetto, barbera, teroldego, lagrein, Montepulciano, aglianico, sagrantino, negroamaro, monica and, of course, the sangiovese of Chianti and Brunello and the nebbiolo of Barolo, to name a few. And those are just the reds.
For now I’ll stick to northern Italy, from Piemonte over to Veneto, with special attention to the mountainous regions of Trentino and Alto Adige and their less familiar red wines. This area is best known for crisp whites, and pinot nero (the Italian name for pinot noir) has a following. But some inherently Italian varieties also produce delicious reds worth searching out.
Lagrein, for instance. Grown in the northern Italian region of Alto Adige, lagrein produces an inky wine with an earthy sensibility and flavors of dark cherries and berries. Its tannins are fairly soft, making it drinkable while young, but its structure gives it ageability. It is not near the top of anyone’s list of best red wine grapes, yet I find the better examples quite charming. Two lagreins I recently enjoyed, from Tramin and J. Hofstatter, continued to improve over three days after opening. That durability makes them an excellent value for anyone who prefers to stretch a bottle over two or more days rather than finish it all at once. (I merely shoved the cork back in the bottle and left it on the counter; no gas, pumps or silly preservation systems needed.) I also liked a sparkling rosé from lagrein, the Bortolotti Lagrein Spumante Rosato, which is hard to find except in fine Italian restaurants.
Another delicious northern Italian red is teroldego, more effusively fruity than lagrein yet similar in structure and inherent energy. (The grapes share a similar parentage, according to the Oxford Companion to Wine.) Teroldego grows in Trentino, also in northern Italy, where the wines take on a slight Germanic accent, and it might easily be mistaken for a zweigelt from the Austrian side of the border.
Most American drinkers may not have heard of the corvina grape, because its name rarely appears on a label. Corvina is the grape of valpolicella, both in its quaffable, fun-loving form and its high-class cousin, Amarone. Both are grown in the Veneto region north of Venice. It’s easy to overlook valpolicella because of its reputation as a simple table wine, but that would be a mistake. In summer, we eat simple meals most of the time, so why ignore simple wines? Slightly chilled, valpolicella is an ideal red to partner with burgers, pasta and pizza. Besides, you can’t really say its name without smiling.
So branch out and embrace wine’s diversity. And when you go to your wine cellar, rummage in your closet or reach for your wine rack, maybe you’ll sense adventure ahead.