Exploring the incongruity of Italian wines, their names and labels.

Posted9/27/2017 5:57 AM

The maxim: "If you're not a little confused, you're not paying attention," applies to Italy's wines.

Take Italian wine labels.


Italian wines may be named for a grape (such as pinot grigio), the same as in the U.S. They may also be named for a region (Chianti), as in France. Italian wines may also be named for a grape tied to a growing region (Moscato d'Asti), a process (Spumante) or just something someone thought up (such as Est! Est! Est!, meaning "I am! I am! I am!")

And all of the above varies, region to region.

The key to the fractured nature of Italian wines is the land itself, basically a 750-mile mountain. Negotiating steep passes by modern Ferrari or Frecciarossa high-speed train is hair-raising but doable; not so much on a donkey. So folks stayed put, developing the culture in separate city-states. In fact, Italy unified as a country in 1871, when Ulysses S. Grant was our 18th President.

Here's another Italian paradox:

Today, Italy is the world's leading wine supplier, with wines in all prices praised by critics and consumers alike.

But until the mid-1900s, when France and Germany ruled wine lists around the world, and California was beginning to boom, Italy sold most of her wine locally and in bulk, with no reference to grape, region, producer, vintage or quality.

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To learn more about Italy's rocky path to wine quality, join "The Italian Renaissance of Wine" class 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 29, at The Chopping Block. The class is at the Merchandise Mart outlet, 222 Merchandise Mart Plaza, Chicago. The class includes a tasting of five prominent Italian styles, tips on reading Italian wine labels and how one Chicagoan became the catalyst to Italy's modern wine industry. Fun and informative discussion led by yours truly. For more information, or to register, visit: http://www.thechoppingblock.com/take-a-wine-class.

In the meantime, here are two more (of many) Italian wine quirks:

Of all the 450 styles of French cheese, do any share its name with wine? No! Do we have a wine called "Cheddar"? No! But in Italy, Pecorino is both cheese and wine, the first produced from ewe's milk, the second from the white Pecorino grape, grown in eastern coastal regions, including Marche and Abruzzo.

"Merlettaie" Percorino Offida, Ciu Ciu, 2016 (Marche): Light on the palate but powerful in mineral, herbal and citrus zest flavor. The wine is bone-dry, so avoid any sweetness in food; instead lean toward complements of minerals (oysters), vegetal flavors, including my spinach and feta dip or the regional olive all'ascolana -- stuffed, fried green olives. ($18)

Pecorino Terre di Chieti, Niro 2016 (Abbruzzo): Crystal clean with flavors of white peach and blanched almonds, delicate minerality and a nearly salty tang in the finish. Allow flavors to open in the glass, or in an opened bottle overnight in the fridge. Sweetness on par with sun-dried tomatoes balanced by acidity, to serve with antipasti and "sweeter" seafood. ($18)


You may think that Montepulciano is Montepulciano, but it ain't necessarily so.

Montepulciano is a red grape, widely-planted throughout Italy, but associated with the southeast region, Abruzzo. The grape is believed to have derived its name from the town Montepulciano in central Tuscany.

Here's the rub: Tuscany's Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is not the Montepulciano grape, but the Sangiovese (which is locally called Prugnolo gentile).

Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Riserva, Caroso 2010 (Abruzzo): Deep ruby color pushes against the glass. Plush, juicy entry evolves to deep flavor of plum and mulberries, tobacco and exotic spice. 32 months age in barrel and bottle. For red meats with earthy seasonings, especially truffles or mushrooms. ($24)

Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Riserva "Marina Cvetic," Masciarelli 2013 (Abbruzzo): Dense and fleshy, with ripe plum and currant flavors, spiced by 18 months in new oak and acid to keep the palate wanting more. ($30).

Possibly adding to the confusion, but worth attention: Masciarelli also offers a great value, non-riserva Montepulciano d'Abruzzo for about $10.

• Mary Ross is an Advanced Sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers), a Certified Wine Educator (Society of Wine Educators) and recipient of the Wine Spectator's "Grand Award of Excellence." Her classes on wine and food are offered through The Chopping Block, Chicago. Write to her at food@daily herald.com.

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