Dozens of bottles stood at attention on my office floor — sparkling, whites, reds, desserts. A multicoloured map leaned —indeed, still leans — against one wall. And a big stack of books slouched — yes, still slouches — beside me. Not just books on wine — a couple of my favourite Italian cookbooks, language books, interior design books.
Why? I recently hosted my first all-Italian wine tasting.
The volunteers at the Parkland Community Association in Southwest Calgary (Canada) recently asked if I’d come talk at one of their community gatherings. One thing led to another, and, when it turned out they’d chosen Italy as the theme for the evening, I offered to host a tasting.
Oh, the research that’s involved when you offer to do such a thing. Prosecco or Lambrusco? Pinot Grigio or Soave? The budget was tight and I wanted to introduce people to new (to them) wines, but I also wanted to please people who, when they think of Italy, automatically assume Amarone or Chianti.
Ultimately, this is what I decided to pour.
(Insert drum roll here…) The first wine of the night: Paola Rinaldini, Pronto Lambrusco, non-vintage
About $22 at select stores including Co-op Liquor (Crowfoot location) and Kensington Wine Market.
Tasting notes: From one of Italy’s top artisanal Lambrusco producers (and definitely the top in our market in Alberta, Canada!) This dry Lambrusco — made by a female winemaker, Paola Rinaldini — has notes of licorice, graphite, dark chocolate and flowers. Serve chilled with charcuterie, especially mortadella, olives and a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The grapes are 70% Salamino, 15% Marani and 15% Ancellotta. A dry, fizzy (“frizzante,” in Italian) red that was new to almost everyone in the crowd. I figured it was a great alternative to Prosecco, as most people have tried at least a couple of Proseccos in our market.
About $17 at Kensington Wine Market.
Tasting notes: From a family-owned producer that started growing grapes and buying land in the region in 1630! The grapes are 85% Garganega, 15% Chardonnay, and all have all been picked by hand. Look for notes of almond and flowers. This dry white makes a great aperitif, or pair with seafood dishes or soft cheese. Serve chilled.
The third wine of the night: Cusumano Nero d’Avola, 2012
About $20 at Kensington Wine Market.
Tasting notes: From a young, family-owned winery that’s operated by two brothers, Alberto and Diego Cusumano. This unoaked red is made from Nero d’Avola, Sicily’s most important red wine grape and one of Italy’s finest indigenous grapes. Look for ripe, sweet black cherry and violet notes, plus a fair bit of tannin. And check out the very cool glass closure on the bottle! Pair with pizza or Italian sausages (mild or spicy!)
The fourth wine of the night: Barone Ricasole, Brolio Chianti Classico, 2010
(Chianti Classico, Tuscany, Italy)
About $24, widely available, including Sobey’s Liquor, most Co-op Liquor Stores etc.
Tasting notes: No, not Barolo. Brolio. Barone Ricasole — also known as Italy’s Iron Baron — was the second Prime Minister of Italy, and the man who codified the recipe for Chianti Classico (although it has changed a bit since then.) Gorgeous, with notes of plum and cherries, spice (anise?) earth, even hints of mint. This wine spent nine months in oak, so you can expect aromas of vanilla, too. Made from 80% Sangiovese, 15% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Pair with pizza, chicken cacciatore, pasta with tomato sauces.
I visited the Ricasole winery a couple of years ago, and it still stands out as one of my most amazing Italian tour experiences. The Iron Baron was a bit of a collector — an understatement, really — and the massive castello now operates as a museum, with room after room of swords and weaponry, rocks, gemstones and just generally cool things. Sort of a scaled-down Italian version of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. I loved it, and the views from the gardens are breathtaking, overlooking the entire valley. A storm was rolling in the day I was there, and we watched the sky rapidly change from bright Tuscan sun to thunder and torrential rain. Beautiful.
The fifth wine of the night: Tommasi Viticoltori, Valpolicella ‘Ripasso’, 2010
(Valpolicella, Veneto, Italy)
About $25, widely available, including most Co-op Liquor Stores etc.
Tasting notes: Ripasso-style wines are, by their name, very rich and full-bodied reds. (Some call them “Baby Amarones,” because they are made with the pressed must left over from the Amarone winemaking process.) I always think of Ripasso-style wines as the crowd-pleasers; red wine drinkers love them because they’re rich and big, and taste delicious even without food. They also love them because they aren’t as expensive as Amarone! Pair this Ripasso with roast beef or lamb, cassoulet, ribs, burgers, mushroom risotto, lasagna. Or just enjoy it by itself!
The sixth wine of the night: San Felice Agricola, Vin Santo del Chianti Classico, 2005
(Chianti Classico, Tuscany, Italy)
Price: About $25 at select Co-op Liquor, Kensington Wine Market and more.
Tasting notes: Vin Santo is a rich, sweet dessert wine and traditionally is a treat served to special guests and visitors. It’s often served with a tiny biscotti beside it, for dipping! This one comes from a well-respected producer in the heart of Chianti Classico; look for notes of almond and honey. Serve chilled in small glasses. No one had tried this one before, and while sweet wines can be a tough sell for many Canadians, I think they’re worth checking out and trying, even if only occasionally. Also worth noting that San Felice has many other incredible reds in our market, if Vin Santo’s not your style…