BY HEATHER THUESEN
In a small hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant, I once fell in love with a dark, rustic & brooding character over a dish of spicy cioppino. Surrounded by low-light ambiance and amazing food, by the end of the evening I had a flush to my cheeks brought on by my companion’s bold and expressive intensity. From the moment I touched my lips to that glass of Primitivo wine, I was instantly enchanted with the ripe and powerful fruits, well structured tannins and delightful lushness. That moment started a love affair not only with that astonishing glass of wine, but also with Italian winemaking as a whole.
Entering into the month of February, where people have love on their minds and in their hearts, it seems only fitting to explore a region that is renowned for its romance, food and wine. Italy’s deep cultural roots are steeped in love; the Romans promulgated through art and literature the worship of Venus, the Goddess of Love and Beauty, whose abundant nude statues still seduce Italy’s visitors and beckon them to enjoy the grace and sensuality of Italian culture and landscapes.
With twenty wine regions to boast about, there are more than 350 grape varieties recognized by Italy’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MIRAF). Some of the oldest wine producing regions in the world are on Italian soil, which incidentally, is some of the richest and most diversity-friendly terroir for winemaking. From “rustic” table wines to higher end wines, it is not difficult to find something truly exceptional to drink at any price point.
Historically, the Etruscans and Greek settlers were producing wine long before the establishment of Roman vineyards, and wine production flourished as the Greek settlements expanded in the 2nd Century BCE. As plantations sprang up along coastal Italy and winemaking became prohibited outside of Italy itself during that time, provincial exporting became more prevalent desire for wine unrestrained. Drinking wine soon became a natural Italian custom as it was mixed with otherwise unpalatable water, and today’s modern times provide a touch-point on history, as the wines produced now are designed to be enjoyed with food and good company.
It is rare to find an Italian meal without some sort of complementing wine, which is often matched by richness and texture. You’ll find chewy wines will be paired with chewy foods, as the powerful tannins found in Cabernets and Merlots actually help to break down the proteins in meat and game dishes. Sweet desserts will find loving matches in a lighter, sweeter wine such as a Moscato, or on the opposite spectrum, be presented as contrasting taste sensations. For example, a saltier dish might be paired with a more acidic Chianti or sweet Lambrusco, with each taste profile balancing the other. The possibilities are as endless as Italy’s varietals, which makes me fall in love with this beautiful peninsula even more. And despite recent reports that modern Italians have a waning interest in viewing wine as an important gastronomical presence in Italy’s culture, it is still one of the largest wine-producing countries on the planet. Italian traditions still include pairing wine with family meals and social gatherings, and this extends outwardly to non-Italians pairing the ideas of romance and wine with Italy itself.
A terrific way to explore some of the wonderful wines that Italy has to offer is through an amazing importer called Small Vineyards. They quickly captured my heart not only through their wine selection but also with their philosophy that they call “tappo-a-tappo,” which is the Italian expression meaning “cork to cork.” Simply put, it is the connection that they create between the winemaker who corks the wine all the way to the wine consumer who uncorks that same bottle. Because all of the estates that Small Vineyards seeks are small production wineries, this means that each consumer buying these wines is getting a product that came from hand-picked grapes grown with sustainable growing methods from a family-owned vineyard. Small batch wineries typically are steeped in family pride and rich attention to detail, which means that not only are you getting a fantastic bottle of wine, but you’re also imbibing a piece of Italian pride and culture, sip after sip. I have been so impressed by the different wines that this importer has literally brought to my table that I can’t even pick a favorite. I can easily recommend the Marchetti Verdicchio for its refreshing and playful citrus profile, which would be delightful with herbed shellfish or even fried chicken. Of course then there is the Arcangelo Primitivo, with its spiced lushness ensconced in dark red fruits and balanced tannins that begs for a rich Italian pasta. Fattoria Bibbiani estate’s Poggio Vignoso Chianti is also exceptional, rife with intense dried cherry and floral notes, and perfect for that Friday night pizza or Saturday’s red meat dish.
But don’t just take my word for it. I’m not the only one in love with these sexy wines; there are many staffers at Liquid Planet that have placed these wines as their own personal picks. They are even easy to find on the impressively beautiful wine globe, as each one of the Small Vineyards wines have their Gold Discovery Seals boldly placed on the bottles.
I encourage you to invite this oenophilic love into your wine palate because it’s a great way to experience Italy right in your home. The Italians have an expression that aptly ties together life, love and culture: “L’amore è nel vostro cuore, non di rimanere, ma per essere condivisa.” Love is in your heart not to stay, but to be shared. And so I can say this about sharing my love of Italy’s incredible wines with you.