Evaluating reds from Italian grapes

Wine Press NorthwestSeptember 2, 2013 

Dan Berger

Do you choose the wine first or the food?

Wine lovers I know pick the wine first and worry about the food later. This is pretty much the reverse of how most people do dinners. Many go to local food purveyors to see what’s fresh, and then begin to conjure up how the kohlrabi will work with the frisée and the infant carrots.

After the menu is vaguely fixed in their minds is when they begin to consider the kind of wine that will be used for accompaniment. And this can lead to some compromises that may not work.

I have often been at dinners when the chef chose to add a dot of sugar to a dish to ameliorate some sharp element. Just the smallest amount of sugar can change how the wine chosen for the feast suddenly becomes incorrect, challenging the food and the diners.

Wines made from Italian red wine grapes pose one of the worst challenges for chefs since most are pretty tart. It’s no secret to wine lovers that Barbera, Sangiovese, and Barolo (to name just three) can be truly challenging when they are made true to form. Acid isn’t instantly a likeable trait, and all three wines feature acid as a key component. As such they are best with foods compatible to their natures.

Most Italian wine producers still make red wines with their traditional acidity intact, so Italian reds have a more challenging nature to them and call for tart foods – which is why tomato-sauced dishes often are fine for Chianti and vice versa.

Yet when such grapes are transported across the sea to places like the Pacific Northwest, the climate, soil and terroir factors can generate wines of a quite different style. And this makes evaluating red wines from Italian grapes that are grown outside of Italy such a dicey issue.

Take Barbera. Not very dark and heavy on its own, the grape prefers to be made with less than 14% alcohol and to have acidity as its greatest trait.

Some wine makers want more, a lot more. They want more color so they “improve” it with the addition of a bit of Syrah, Petite Sirah, or even Mega Purple. They are also often dismayed when the wine comes in at 13.2% alcohol. That’s a bit light for today’s “bigger is better” market, so they “improve” the wine by letting the grapes hang on the vine for an extra week or two.

That should do it, they say. So although the alcohol rises to 14.2%, it often doesn’t do much to the acidity, which remains high, with a low pH. As a result, the wine is still pretty tart. So the fix-it wine makers fix that too by adding the alkaline substance potassium bicarbonate, a legal way to soften the wine.

So now what do we have? A dark, alcoholic, soft style of Barbera, otherwise known as a two-legged horse with wings. Not very functional with meals, especially where a light, tart red was expected by potential buyers.

You can apply this formula to most other Italian red grapes like Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, Primitivo, and Sangiovese. It’s a formula that is also used to make homogenous Cabernet Sauvignons, bland Merlots, and boring Pinot Noirs.

And such wines have a place in the market. I have had many Sangioveses that were made from New World grapes, and made in a New World style, where the oak in the wine made it smell like the coffee pot in sawmill. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this for many Americans who don’t know that Sangiovese – when it has its best foot forward – is supposed to be leafy, red cherry-ish, and delicately scented with nuances of berry fruits.

As a result, many people consider that the 15% alcohol in such a wine is there to offer more flavor than Merlot, and makes the wine inky, and concentrated.

When such wines are accorded high scores, one wonders who the judges were. And what they were thinking. Did they consciously think of which foods these oafish wines would be best with? Or was this simply an evaluation of whose wine was bigger?

Consumers have various ways to buy the best food-oriented red wine from Italian grapes grown in the Pacific Northwest. Here are a few tips.

Check out the alcohol. Since most Chiantis are in the 12.5% to 13.5% range, see if you can find a Sangiovese with a comparable alcohol. And beware any Italian red that lists its alcohol above 15%. (The result: you may wonder how anyone could make a wine out of prunes.)

See if the wine is mostly the varietal listed on the label. I have often seen Sangioveses that, on their back label, say that the wine is 25% of some other variety. If the other grape is Cabernet, Zinfandel, or especially Syrah, be prepared for an atypical version of Sangiovese.

Since no one tells you the acid and pH of any red wines these days, if you want to buy an Italian red for your cellar, call the winery and get those facts for yourself. If the pH is above 3.6, do not age the wine. (This is a gross simplification aimed mainly at getting chemists and wine makers to remind me that this is a gross simplification.)

Finally, remember that when well made, a red wine made from an Italian grape variety will not have a load of oak. If oak is your thing, buy a two by four.

Dan Berger is a nationally renowned wine writer who lives in Santa Rosa, Calif. He publishes a weekly commentary Dan Berger’s Vintage Experiences (VintageExperiences.com).

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