Italian Wines are Simply Great

20131030_151856The problem with a good trade tasting is that most of the wines we tasted are not available to the public. Yet. At least, we hope that eventually most, if not all, of the wines we tasted at Simply Great Italian Wines will be available here in Los Angeles and in other parts of the U.S. very soon. That’s one of the reasons that earlier this week, we packed ourselves into the room at a Beverly Hills hotel with about 200 other importers, buyers and press.

It was an event put on by IEEM (International Event & Exhibition Management), a public relations firm that, among other things, represents wine makers from Italy and puts on event connecting the wineries with the people who buy the wine. According to the U.S. Director of Operations, Mariana Nedic, this event included 35 wineries representing about 10 different regions of Italy. In this case, they were mostly from the North, with the greatest representation from The Veneto (which is not Venice).

These days, if you’re thinking Italian wine, you’re probably thinking of Chiantis, Super Tuscans and Barolos from Piemonte, maybe an Amarone or two. And Prosecco. You’ve barely scratched the surface. For one thing, more varieties of grapes are grown in Italy than pretty much anywhere else in the world (except maybe the U.S., but there’s a heck of a lot more land space here than in Italy). So, if you see a white wine called Grecchetto, that is a grape variety grown in Umbria and it is darned tasty.

We’ll try to write more about the specific varieties in the weeks to come, but for now, there are two important things to remember. One is that there is a lot of very good wine being made in Italy and even if you don’t recognize the name of the grape, it’s well worth giving it a try, anyway. In fact, it can even be fun to try wines from places in Italy that you’ve never heard of. A lot of those great little wines don’t often come to the States.

Dry proseccos - Yum!
Dry proseccos – Yum!

“You have to produce a lot to come here,” Nedic said, pointing out that we’re a pretty big market and growing. Many wineries in Italy don’t produce that much, so when you do find one here it’s a treat.

Secondly, try it with food. We can’t emphasize that point enough. We had tried several wines that we had liked a lot, but it wasn’t until we went back with a bit of cured meat that the wines really began to sing. Italian wines are made with more acids because they’re meant to be drunk with dinner or lunch. So if it’s an Italian wine and it tastes a little tannic (that dry sensation) or flat, try it again with a bit of food. If it’s still tannic and/or flat, that’s one thing. But we’re willing to bet it will be a lot better than by itself.

Dinner at Aventine Proves Matching Theory

The media table at the Vino California wine dinner at Aventine Hollywood. Yes, we're in there somewhere.
The media table at the Vino California wine dinner at Aventine Hollywood. Yes, we’re in there somewhere.

The thing about wine dinners is that they are generally pretty pricey affairs, and it’s understandable, since a lot of time and effort goes into planning the menus and matching the wines, plus the cost of the wines, since you’re generally drinking a different wine with each course. We were, fortunately, the guests at a recent dinner at restaurant Aventine Hollywood, as part of the Vino California Italian Wine Classic – a wine event featuring a grand tasting and dinners around Southern California, put on, in part, by the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce West.

The idea of the event is to introduce American audiences to Italian wines beyond Chianti and the other super-Tuscans. And trust us, just about every region of Italy has a trademark wine of its own, most of them very good, but rather hard to find here in the States.

As noted, such dinners are usually pretty pricey – ours would have been $60 a person, if we hadn’t been guests and that’s on the cheap end. We’ve seen prices as high as $200 per person, but most wine dinners run around $100 a head. The advantage of paying that kind of money is that you’re going to try a little of whatever is served. That means you’re going to get exposed to some stuff you might have been convinced you wouldn’t like and either find out that you were right or discover a new fave.

But what really struck us that night was how important the food was to the whole experience. Seriously. Italian wines, like French and other European wines, tend to not be as fruity as American wines do, and usually are a bit more acidic. Which means they’re not quite as tasty by themselves. They’re not meant to be. They’re meant to be consumed with food because that’s how most Europeans drink wine. It’s part of dinner. You drink Campari and soda before dinner or Pernod or some other aperitif. You save the wine for the meal.

We started with a Calabrian white, Statti Grece I.G.T., to go with our Arancini and Bruschetta. Now, it’s important to note that there’s only one wine here, but two different hors d’oeuvres, and each had a slightly different flavor profile. The Arancini were fried rice balls stuffed with fontina cheese and featured a bell pepper sauce for its major flavor. The Bruschetta used fried artichokes as its strong flavor, played off the milder flavors of a poached egg, a mild melted cheese sauce and the grilled bread. And yet, the same crisp white wine – reminded Mike very much of a sauvignon blanc – paired brilliantly off both.

There was a Apollonio Casa Vinicola Only Rosso Salento 2011, a blend of red grapes that showed a nose of cherry and spices but was more subtle in the mouth. The radicchio and arugula salad with a mild burata cheese and blood orange honey dressing still worked well, as did the tuna tartar, baby octopus and shrimp, frisée and lemon vinaigrette. Truth be told, the citrus and bitter greens elements were common to both salads, but the seafood was an additional bit of flavor.

Now, they did pour separate wines for the two entrees, a swordfish with eggplant and oregano white wine sauce, and lamb chops with kumquat confit and balsamic mint reduction. The rosé, yes the pink stuff, was a delicious Le Moire SRL Shemale Savuto 2011, but the Alovini Alvolo Aglianico Del Vulture 2008 was freaking amazing – and with the lamb… Anne was almost in tears. The rosé paired with the swordfish, the lamb AND the cannoli with candied orange and pistachios. Talk about spanning a range of food and flavors.

The first lesson, of course, is not to blow off a wine just because it seems a little bland and mildly acidic. Try it with some food. If that doesn’t help, then you’ve got a bland, insipid little wine and we hope you didn’t pay too much for it. But chances are, it might actually be a great food wine, the trick is finding the right food to go with it.

The second lesson is not to get too anal about matching the wine. Yes, a great food and wine pairing is worth a lot – that’s another reason prices tend to be so high for these kinds of dinners. But as we made a point of noting above, two of those wines perfectly accompanied slightly different flavor profiles. It’s about picking a balance and just having a good time with it.

Admittedly, there are those times when you want everything to be perfect and wonderful – an anniversary dinner, pleasing the boss, whatever. But the food and wine are only part of it. The rest is the company – and we have to say, the company at Aventine was spectacular. Lovely, lovely people and we hope to run across them again soon.