With the approach of Thanksgiving and the holidays just around the corner, we start to think about what beverages we’d like to see gracing our tables with those festive meals. As I have just returned from a week-long odyssey through Italy earlier this month, it got me thinking about how great Italian wines are in terms of food-pairing, and in particular, how they are such an excellent choice to pair with our typical Thanksgiving fare. While many may extol, and rightfully so, the virtues of a good rosé, a pinot noir or the ever-present Beaujolais nouveau at this point in the year, I thought I would say a few words in favor of the wines of Italy and how the wines are meant for so much more than just pasta and red sauce.
First and foremost, I am thinking of the styles of wine represented in Italy and how well they compliment your turkey and cranberry sauce. It should be noted, while Italian wines stylistically speaking span quite a broad range from lighter wines to heavy, the wines as a whole generally show more of a medium body and intensity with restraint and nice balance between fruit and earthy or savory notes. So, these wines are not to be compared to the high-octane, black-fruited ink bombs we can sometimes get out of California or Australia these days. That’s not to say Italian wines cannot be bold and intense either, but these wines are generally not the ones best suited for the holiday table, which calls more for a really good food wine that has the versatility to go with a broad range of foods. These are the wines I have in mind because when dining on poultry and a variety of starches and vegetables, you do best with wines that will not overpower the food, but still show enough intensity and finesse to compliment the meal well.
For whites, I have in mind a great many options and while I’m at it, I would like to point out there is a whole universe of white wines coming out of Italy today that have nothing to do with pinot grigio. In fact, pinot grigio…at least in the style most prevalent in the market today…is not a favorite choice of mine for the holiday table precisely because I think it is TOO lacking in backbone. After all, at least for a white wine, we DO need some wines with richness and a good mouthfeel for the heavier fare. On the other hand, a wine like a vermentino is a really great choice, and as the wine-drinking public in the US becomes more acquainted with this very popular grape in Italy, I think you will see an increasingly strong presence on the market here. Vermentino is a great wine for that so-called “ABC” crowd (Anything But Chardonnay) to explore because it often has the richness, body and round mouthfeel of a chardonnay, but it is seldom oaked very heavily and is more fruit-forward like a New Zealand sauvignon blanc. The flavors are usually citrus-dominated with hints of apple and peaches, depending on where the wine is from. And the acidity always brings a fresh and bright quality to the wine that makes it a great palate-cleanser after a mouthful of gravy or mashed potatoes. Vermentino can be found up and down the western side of Italy from Piedmont and Liguria down through Tuscany and out onto the island of Sardinia. In the north, the grape is known locally by aliases such as “Pigato” and the style is a bit fresher and crisper, which still being quite fruity. The vermentino of Tuscany is similar, but the wines are a bit rounder. And my favorite Vermentino comes from Sardinia where the wines of Vermentino di Gallura have become the most famous representation. The Vermentino wines of Sardinia can be quite intense with notes of lemon cream, green olive and fresh herbs. While fruity and expressive, the wines often have a real savory quality that make them a perfect fit for the holiday meal.
To be honest, there are a plethora of other white wines I could suggest for you and I encourage you to explore these over the entire holiday season. From the south of Italy, you can find wines like a Fiano or a Falanghina from areas around Campania that with offer broad, round styles with opulent tropical fruit and little to no oak. And from the north, the wines of Gavi from the north east and Lugana from the vineyards around Lake Garda are as beautiful as the landscape from which they are grown. To the northeast, the area known as Friuli, once again offers wines that are perfectly suited for festive meals. Look for the Friulano and Ribolla Gialla from Colli Orientali. Friulano can be very fruity with bold aromatics along with notes of apple and peach. The wines are very fragrant. Ribolla is famous for sometimes being fermented with some skin contact that gives it some impressive structure and mouthfeel not usually found in a white wine. You would love this wine with your turkey.
As far as red wines go, I have in mind wines once again that offer an elegance in body, but with firm tannins and aromas and flavors of fruit balanced with notes of earth, mineral and savory. The wines of central Italy come to mind whether it is a Chianti or a Vino Nobile di Montelpulciano or even the bolder Brunello di Montalcino. These wines are all based on the sangiovese grape, or a variant of the grape. While Brunello can be a bit darker in profile, the wines are often red fruited with notes of cherry and dried raspberry with bright, mouth-watering acidity and firm, finely-textured tannins. This sounds tailor-made for poultry or light meats. From the south of Italy, I actually like the wines of Sicily for the holidays. A nero d’avola or the nerello mascalese found in a so-called Etna Rosso offer a broad mouthfeel with softer, more inviting tannins and wonderful red fruit of plum and baked cherries. From the north, a good barbera from Piedmont will offer a pleasing medium body and more dark fruit of boysenberry and black cherry with firm, but supple tannins and bright acidity. This is an excellent choice for roasted meats. And lastly, if we go back to the northeast to the area around Friuli, look for a grape called refosco. The grape is sometimes misunderstood because there are a few wines on the market that are somewhat bitter and very tannic. But, while the grape has an exceedingly thick skin and the wines are very dark, with the proper oak-aging and some bottle aging at the winery before release, the wines can be superb and offer wonderful notes of wild berries, currant and pomegranate along with a firm structure of tannin and bright acidity. This is an excellent choice with game or poultry and still will not overwhelm the other accompaniments on the table.
So, while you’re sure to not go wrong with your pinot noir or rose on this year’s holiday table, if you want to try a little something different, look to the wines of Italy and discover a world of wines that is much broader than just pinot grigio for whites and/or Chianti for reds. And perhaps most appealing of all is that so many of these great wines of Italy can be had for less than $20. So, you are able to explore without making a huge financial commitment. As they say in Italy, Cin Cin! And Happy Thanksgiving!
– Brian McClure, Food and Beverage Director at The Greenbrier. HashtagWV #95. November 2017