The challenge stills lies in figuring out the labels. When Italy joined the European Union in 1995, the country had to adopt a more stringent wine classification system. It now has a controlling structure similar to that in France to tell consumers what quality level lurks in each bottle. On the label, look for: Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) & Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG). However, unlike France, Italians still can grow any grape, anywhere.
But, there are some guidelines that might help sort out the Italian nightmare. As California's wine producers are discovering, there are some regions where the grapes grow better. For instance, the Nebbiolo [NEB i O low] grape, the robust, tannic fruit used to produce bold Barolos and Barbarescos, reigns in the northwestern Piedmont region. Due to the high tannic content, these two wines are better aged, so drinking them at less than five years old creates a mouth-puckering experience. Two other exceptional, less expensive, everyday red wines from Piedmont are Dolcetto [dol CHET to] and Barbera. For Piedmont wines, look for producers like Gaja, Ceretto, Vietti & Bruno Giacosa.
White wines aren't exactly what Italy is famous for, but there are plenty of good ones to explore. In the Alto Adige region in northeastern Italy, you'll uncover fabulous Pinot Grigios and Pinot Blancs (or Bianco). Look for the producer Santa Margherita. Soave (SWAH vay), from the Verona region of northern Italy, is a pleasant, good-value picnic white wine. Try one from Anselmi.
Under-appreciated Chianti is perhaps the best-known wine in Italy. After years of humiliating display in bottles with cheesy straw baskets, this red wine from Tuscany is finally getting respect. Made predominantly from the soft flavored Sangiovese grape, it ranges from fruity to full-bodied, depending on the producer and blend. Look for Chianti Classico ($12-$16) or Chianti Classico Riserva ($16-$22) on the label for your best bets. Scope out these excellent producers: Frescobaldi, Dievole, & Ruffino.
Brunello is a relative newcomer to the general public eye. A bolder, more intense version of Chianti, this wine is stunningly luscious when aged at least 10 years or more. For those who can't wait, stick to Chianti.
If you really want to dive into Italian wine snobbery, enter the arena of "super Tuscans." A darling of the wine world, these full-bodied, expensive Cabernet, Sangiovese, and Merlot (among others) blends are truly masterpieces of wine art, but come at such a high price, only the elite can afford them. A name of an excellent super Tuscan is Sassicaia, but save up your lunch money for at least a year.
Other wines to play around with are the fun red ones called Valpolicella, Bardolino, and Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. All are light, drinkable and best served chilled. Usually less than $15 a bottle too.
They may be confusing, but Italian wines are well worth checking out. Get on your Vespa and toast to the good life.
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