To prove the point that Italian wines are versatile and adaptable, I recall a business dinner a decade ago with Cliff Roberson, the colourful founder of Roberson Wines. Back then I was a supermarket buyer, and when invited out to dinner during the annual Vinitaly exhibition in Verona, I cheekily said I would only go if we could drink a wine which had a name ending in ‘-aia’. Unfazed by my request, Roberson took me to the most unassuming back-street pizzeria, where we duly consumed a bottle of Solaia 2004 with the cheapest margherita pizza. It was a memorable match, proving (to me, at least) that Solaia is the ultimate pizza wine.
Italy is a hugely diverse country, famously referred to by early 19th-century Austrian statesman Count Metternich as being ‘only a geographical expression’. From the mountainous north, through the agricultural lands in the centre, the rugged, volcanic south, and the sun-baked islands, Italy has a vast range of cultures, geologies, grape varieties and culinary specialities.
Food has always played a leading role in Italian life. Elizabethan poet Thomas Nashe referred to Italy (in his 1594 work The Unfortunate Traveller) as ‘the paradise of the earth and the epicure’s heaven’. Today, Luca Speri, co-owner of leading Veneto producer Speri, explains the close link between Italian food and wine dating back many centuries: ‘Food and wine have always been connected – wine has always been considered food for us.’
Speri believes that indigenous varieties and modern winemaking styles have created wines ideal for pairing with food: ‘We see hundreds of native varieties that have good acidity and fine tannins – great conditions for very food-friendly wines, not only with local dishes but with any kind of meal.’
Italy comprises 20 regions – Valle d’Aoste, Piedmont, Liguria and Lombardy in the north; Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Veneto in the northeast; Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Le Marche, Umbria, Lazio, Molise and Abruzzo in the centre; with Campania, Basilicata, Puglia, Calabria, Sicily and Sardinia in the south.
In the cooler, mountainous north, powerful Nebbiolo– and Corvina-based reds help cut through the rich, creamy characters of risottos and meat-based stews. Wonderful seafood from the Ligurian coastline is perfectly partnered with saline, fresh Vermentino, while the northern Adriatic has some of the Mediterranean’s finest fish – wonderful with a light, pure Pinot Grigio. The wooded areas of Tuscany and Umbria are home to powerful meat dishes, with Chianti wines (bolstered by the robust tannins of Sangiovese) a great match. Further south, olive oil becomes more dominant than butter, with fragrant, juicy whites (Falanghina, Fiano and Greco) and reds (Aglianico, Primitivo and Nerello Mascalese) matching roasted meats, fish and sun-ripened tomato dishes.
Unfairly, Italian restaurants were characterised in the 1970s as simple trattorias adorned with red-check tablecloths and pouring cheap Chianti from straw flasks. Today’s consumers can choose from delicious wines made in a modern style with balanced ripeness, tannins and acidity, and explore these with different foods. Jack Lewens, ex-sommelier turned wine producer at Vigneti Tardis in Campania, believes acidity to be a key factor: ‘Italian wines tend to be more food- friendly because they have higher acidity – a key factor in food pairing.’ It seems there is no better time than the present to experiment with Italian wine and food pairings.