Vermentino. Nero d’Avola. Primitivo. Falanghina. Trebbiano. Grillo. Vernaccia. Chardonnay. If faced with these words on a wine label, which would you buy? Um, yea, it’s a trick question since 99 percent of people would say, “chardonnay” — the one people know. The rest are Italian native grapes, cultivated and drunk for thousands of years. But this indigenous fruit remains as unknown and misunderstood as Italy’s sacrosanct labeling system. So a few years ago, crafty wineries began planting French grapevines that appealed to the rich, thirsty masses. The problem is, they generally suck. Too often, chardonnay, pinot noir and merlot adorn Italian labels that don’t befit a country that once ruled the world. My recent tastes make me wonder if this native Italian sell-out makes sense?
I don’t begrudge a winery generating cash but if something isn’t made well, I can’t acquiesce. Perhaps remaining true to their native grape varieties would produce a more authentic wine. And just because people don’t know the grape names shouldn’t affect import decisions. Remember back when you had your first pinot grigio? Perhaps you swigged it from a paper bag in the back of a car? You were hip and cool, and probably didn’t pronounce it right the first time [PEE-no GREE-zho]. Someone corrected you and pinot grigio has been your touted favorite wine ever since. But how did you learn about it? A friend? An advertisement? An article? Your knowledge of pinot grigio came from somewhere. So why didn’t the other really delicious wines from Italy make headway in the public conscious like American Idol? It’s tragic really because when made well, Italian native varieties taste magical.
Vermentino is a fresh, crisp alternative to sauvignon blanc, great paired with shellfish or salty cheese. Nero d’Avola, a red native to Sicily, has smooth tannins, luscious dark fruit and suave personality. Huge crowd pleaser, even for those who aren’t big wine fans. Primitivo – aka zinfandel in our parts – has the same powerful fruit and flavors of red zinfandel without the huge alcohol found in Californian versions. But why should you care about this Italian travesty? These wines are cheap, most hovering under $15. And they’re tasty, food-friendly and approachable. Not even Caesar can beat that.