When it comes to the wine ‘greats,’ we’ll always have France and Italy. However, in the world of renowned wine, doesn’t it always seem like the former is discussed more than the latter? For this month’s edition of The Grand Tour, I not only want to shed light on the wines of Europe’s beloved ‘boot,’ but also hone in a bit more on those ‘outer borough’ regions. Don’t get me wrong, I love Barolo, Barbaresco, and Brunello just as much as anyone else; but, when it comes to Italy, there’s so much more than just those three ‘big Bs.’
For the sake of switching it up, let’s start from the south. In my opinion, Sicily is to Italy what Corsica is to France. Sure, it’s technically part of the larger country, but its isolation from the mainland gives the island a distinctly different feel, thanks to cultural, gastronomical, and even language differences. Basically, Sicily is like an even more complex Italy, and is filled with rich history, world class gastronomy, and winemaking roots deeper than you can imagine. Here, local varieties such as Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, Carricante, and Catarratto give way to mineral-laced, terroir-driven bottles oozing with a serious sense of place. The western coast of the island is also home to Marsala, known for its fortified wine production. And if you dig a little deeper, more hidden gems (perhaps even something sparkling!) are just waiting to be found.
Our next wine brings us to Friuli, the northeasternmost region of the country. Here, winemaking and gastronomy are heavily influenced by the neighboring countries of Austria and Slovenia, and white wine dominates the region’s production. To the north, Friuli is bordered by the Alps, and to the south, the Adriatic Sea, both of which create distinct microclimates in the vineyards. Most of Friuli’s vines are found in the southern half of the region, where there are warm days and cooler nights. Friuli is best known for its Friulano, Ribolla Gialla, Verduzzo, and Refosco production, though many international varieties, as well as other native Italian grapes, are also cultivated. The majority of Friulian wines are vinified varietally, meaning that the wines are crafted from a single grape variety. Many of the region’s wine labels also depict the word ‘ronco, ’ which means ‘terraced hillside’ in the local dialect.
Drive about seven hours south down Italy’s crystalline Adriatic coast, and you’ll find yourself in Abruzzo-- yes, the same region from which the grape ‘Montepulciano d’Abruzzo’ derives its name (not to be confused with the town in Tuscany). This coastal region is bordered by Molise, Marche, and Lazio, and it’s characterized by mountainous terrain. The Apennine mountains dot the region’s western border, and to the east, the Adriatic Sea moderates the region’s Mediterranean climate. White wine production is dominated by the Trebbiano grape, while most red wine production is based on, you guessed it, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.
Nestled between Rome and Tuscany is Umbria, where we’ll conclude this month’s ‘outer borough’ tour. Despite its proximity, and rather similar climate, to Tuscany, Umbria only produces about a third of the amount of wine as its more popular neighbor. In Umbria, winters are rainy and cold, while summers are sunny and dry. The region is also characterized by abundant green hills and historical hilltop villages. White wines are mostly made from Trebbiano and Grechetto, while the region’s best known reds come from Montefalco, and are produced from the powerful Sagrantino variety. These wines tend to show exceptional ageability and food friendliness, thanks to the grape’s prominent tannins and robust structure.
Sticking to the classics is always a safe bet in the world of Italian wine, but why play it safe when there are so many exciting ‘outer boroughs’ to discover?
Dustin Wilson, Master Sommelier
Riofavara Spumante Extra Brut NV
Located in Sicily’s Noto Valley, Riofavara has been owned and operated by the Padova family since 1920. However, the family didn’t begin bottling their own wine until about 75 years later. Now headed by the younger Padova generation, the winery produces six different wines from 16 hectares of vines, all of which are farmed organically. Fruit is hand harvested and fermented with indigenous yeasts, creating pure, vibrant wines that are full of energy and personality. The ‘Spumante Extra Brut NV’ is 95% Moscato di Noto, with a smidge of Grecanico blended in, hailing from a small, 0.5 hectare plot. Fruit is destemmed, lightly pressed, and fermented at low temperatures for two weeks in steel, followed by six months of aging. Secondary fermentation takes place for 12-14 months in bottle, followed by disgorgement and bottle aging. The final wine is aromatic and bright, with notes of tropical fruit, white blossoms, and citrus, with stony minerality giving way to a thirst-quenching finish.
PAIRING IDEAS: Riofavara’s Spumante makes for the perfect aperitif wine, pairing gorgeously with raw fish and chilled appetizers.
Villa Alpini Pinot Grigio 2017
Villa Alpini is the latest project from renowned winemaker Giampaolo Venica, and is based in Italy’s Friuli region. For Venica, Villa Alpini represents a true essence of place, allowing him to convey his personal knowledge and percep- tion of the region through the juice inside the bottle. Vines are located around Buttrio and Rosazzo, bringing various ‘souls’ of Friuli into each cuvée produced. Fruit for this Pinot Grigio is gently pressed and fermented in French oak for 12 months, creating a richer, more textured expression of Pinot Grigio than most regional expressions. Brace yourself-- this isn’t your average bottle of PG!
PAIRING IDEAS: This weighty yet refreshing Pinot Grigio is both mouthfilling and textured, pairing impeccably with fatty fish, lemon chicken, or seafood spaghetti.
Perticaia Montefalco Rosso 2015
Perticaia, meaning ‘plow’ in Umbria’s ancient dialect, comprises 15 hectares of vines across the region’s gentle slopes, which are dedicated to an array of native Italian varieties. Headed by Guido Guardigli, the estate seeks to pay homage to Umbria’s rich past, while also executing vinifications in a contemporary winery, creating the perfect balance between antiquity and modernity. ‘Montefalco Rosso’ is a Sangiovese dominant (70%) blend that’s rounded out with equal parts Sagrantino and Colorino and fermented with native yeasts. It’s aged in a combination of steel vats (12 months) and bottle (6 months). The final wine shows notes of juicy red fruit, wild berries, and plums, brimming with bright acidity and well-integrated tannins.
PAIRING IDEAS: Perticaia’s Montefalco Rosso comes alive when served with traditional Umbrian cuisine, including hearty pasta ragu, rustic soups, grilled lamb, and a variety of cured meats.
De Fermo 'Concrete' Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 2017
Loreto Aprutino, located in Italy’s Abruzzo region, has been home to the De Fermo family for multiple generations, with family history dating back to the late 18th century. The winery is now headed by Stefano Papetti and his wife, Nicoletta De Fermo, who decided to leave the world of law to pursue winemaking. Since 2008, the duo has been farming 17 hectares of vines with biodynamic principles, including fermenting all fruit with native yeasts and leaving all final wines unfined and unfiltered. ‘Concrete’ is a varietal Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, fermented and aged for 8-12 months in concrete. The final wine is energetic and ripe, showing juicy notes of dark berries, cherries, wet rocks, and herbs.
PAIRING IDEAS: This gulpable, easy-drinking red pairs perfectly with grilled meats, red pasta sauces, and charcuterie.