There was a time I knew nothing about Italian wine. It feels like yesterday. When I say ‘nothing’ I mean absolutely zero. Less than a single thing. To put it in perspective, I didn’t even know Chianti and, well, everybody knows Chianti. I was drinking mostly West Coast Coolers back then. I blame them for all that was wrong in my life in those days. (If you must look up West End Coolers…don’t. It’s not worth your time).
Then, suddenly, I knew Chianti. I think of it as my Silence of the Lambs moment. To be more precise, at that point I knew of Chianti while knowing nothing about Chianti, aside from its suitability as a wine to enjoy with fava beans and brains. I don’t think I was alone.
Still, it was a beginning.
The real magic arrived with the contents of a Chianti bottle. Knowing the name led to trying the wine, which led to discovering the joy of sangiovese. Life doesn’t get more beautiful than that. But with beauty, inevitably, comes complexity and, as they say, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
“I mostly drink Chianti” I would say to anyone who’d listen. “I love Sangiovese. It’s wunnerful!”
Until, one day, somebody said “but not all Chianti is Sangiovese”.
It turned out Chianti is only sometimes 100% Sangiovese, is sometimes blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot and in the past was also blended with local white grapes. Apparently it used to be law. That same know-it-all also suggested that if I like sangiovese I must also like drinking Brunellos.
“Brunellos” he repeated. The look of confusion on my face must have softened his superciliousness. “Wines with Brunello di Montalcino on the label” he added, “are also sangiovese, from the area around the town of Montalcino. And nearby, in Montepulciano, they call their Sangiovese wines Vino Nobile di Montepulciano”.
“What? What happened to Chianti?”
“It’s still there, but they’ve broken it up into sub-regions because the growers in the original bit got snarky that other people were using their name, so they created the Gallo Nero or Black Chook to designate the original Chianti which they now call Chianti Classico.”
I was really starting to hate this guy. It used to be so simple, so perfect, but now I was starting to become confused. Yet, at the same time, I was begrudgingly admiring of this wine-savant who appeared to possess so much intricate knowledge.
“How do you know so much?” I asked him. He just shrugged his shoulders as if to say that how much he knew wasn’t really that important.
Instead he countered with “If you like Sangiovese, you should really try Barbera d’Alba from a little further north in Piemonte. Or maybe, something lighter like a Rondinella from the area of Bardolino near Venice. I also really enjoy some of the wines from the south of Italy: Aglianico from Basilicata or Nero d’Avola from Sicily. In fact, just last night….”
And there I was. At the foot of the great Italian wine mountain, it’s snowy peaks hidden behind high white clouds. It’s steep slopes a raucous confusion of different possible paths. It looked daunting. Did I really want to start this long trek? What was waiting for me at the summit? Would I even reach the top of this challenging peak? Clearly, I had a decision to make.
I fixed my eyes on my wine tormentor/mentor and in a voice that barely masked my nervousness I asked, “So where can I buy a decent bottle of Barbera?”
Why not start your journey at the wine tasting below?