Dunne on Wine

How to explain the enduring popularity of Italian wine in the U.S.? ‘It’s made for food.’

Daniele Cernilli
Daniele Cernilli Mike Dunne

To market their wines in the United States, Italian vintners face the same challenges as their Portuguese, Spanish, German and French counterparts: a language unfamiliar to most Americans, complicated hierarchies of styles and quality, obscure traditions, puzzling labels.

The task may be even more formidable for Italian winemakers, given the 500 or so varieties of grapes they grow and the 400 denominations of origin into which the country is partitioned.

And yet, the Italian wine trade is seemingly immune to those kinds of obstacles in selling its wines in the U.S. How to explain the enduring popularity of Italian wine here?

Leave that to author/journalist Daniele Cernilli. His answer is fourfold: Look at all the Italian restaurants in the U.S. Look at all the Italian immigrants. Look at all the Americans who revel in Italian vacations. And look at how Italian wines, by and large, are made for the dinner table.

“Italian wine isn’t meant to be drunk alone. It’s made for food,” Cernilli says.

Curiously, he didn’t mention another factor that helps explain the appeal of Italian wine – their value, which almost invariably equates to big bang for the buck. But perhaps he recognizes that the same could be said of other European winemaking countries, even France.

At any rate, as a consequence of all these considerations, fully a third of Italy’s annual wine production is exported to the U.S., and Italy is the world’s most productive wine country, accounting for a bit more than 17 percent of the globe’s yearly output. (Because of spring frosts, hailstorms and heatwaves, that proportion will take a hit this year; Italy’s grape harvest is expected to be its smallest in 60 years, off 25 percent from a year ago, even more in such principal provinces as Tuscany, Umbria and Sicily, reports the British wine magazine Decanter. Still, enough grapes are being picked for 5.5 billion bottles, so no serious overall shortage is anticipated.)

Cernilli, who lives in Rome, spoke as he took a break after conducting a tasting of Italian wines in the sensory lab of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Sciences at UC Davis. He’d led a small delegation of Italian winemakers to the campus for an introduction to viticulture and enology collections at the Peter J. Shields Library and to tour the university’s environmentally oriented teaching-and-research winery.

Few people are as well-poised to survey the Italian wine industry as Cernilli, a philosophy, literature and history teacher and journalist who in 1986 co-founded what was to become Italy’s most influential wine magazine, Gambero Rosso. For years he served as editor-in-chief of the magazine as well as general manager of Gambero Rosso’s 24-hour-a-day TV channel. (Now there’s the measure of a country’s passion for food and wine.)

Nowadays, Cernilli, who also goes by the name Doctor Wine, heads a crew that publishes a sweeping, authoritative and entertaining annual book on Italian wine, the latest edition of which is “The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine 2017” (MD Communication, 581 pages, $20, available locally at Corti Brothers).

For the Davis tasting, Cernilli brought 14 wines to show off the country’s vast and varied range of regions, grapes and styles. Almost without exception, the wines did that with bravado and verve. As is the curious custom of foreign vintners promoting their wines in the U.S., however, many of the releases poured by Cernilli won’t be easy to find hereabouts.

Nevertheless, I came away with enthusiastic notes on several that I hope to see again in a wine shop or on a restaurant’s wine list:

▪ From Friuli Venezia Giulia in Italy’s far northeastern reaches, the vigorous and gripping Torre Rosazza 2016 Friulano Friuli Colli Orientali (around $20). The sharp minerality of this wine put me in mind of mussels and clams, but Cernilli likes it with spaghetti carbonara, probably for its agile acidity and solid spine. “We don’t drink the wine if we don’t eat,” he remarked while discussing the Torre Rosazza.

▪ From the exceptionally varied Marche along the Adriatic Sea, the strapping Velenosi 2012 Roggio del Filare Rosso Piceno Superiore (around $50). A blend of 70 percent montepulciano and 30 percent sangiovese, this is a deliciously juicy and complex wine built to evolve handsomely over the next decade, but don’t hesitate to pair it with succulent beef at any time.

▪ From Sicily, the dry and frisky Feudo Maccari 2016 Grillo Terre Siciliane ($12-$18). This is a fun and easy white wine, with the lift and crispness to pour with the sort of fresh and simply prepared seafood identified with Sicily.

▪ From Tuscany, the tense and insistent Querciabella 2013 Chianti Classico ($20-$25). The Querciabella has the juicy cherriness, angular build and zippy acidity to show just why Chianti Classico is on every thoughtfully set table in Tuscany.

▪ From Tuscany, the aromatic, sweetly fruity and olive-accented Poliziano 2014 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano ($25-$30). Entirely sangiovese aged in barrel and barrique, but the wood supports rather than upstages the wine’s aroma and flavor, which runs to fresh cherries and just put-up green olives. “Dangerously pleasant drinkability,” Cernilli aptly said of the wine.

▪ From Tuscany, the smooth, complex and persistent Casanova di Neri 2012 Tenuta Nuova Brunello di Montalcino ($70-$80). This wine represents the very definition of equilibrium, with each of its components working in a natural kinship, from its inviting aroma to its long finish.

After the tasting, I asked Cernilli to name the areas of Italy offering the best value in wine today. He pointed to several – Puglia and Sicily in the south, Abruzzo along the Adriatic in the middle of the peninsula, especially for reds, and Veneto and Trentino in the north, particularly for whites.

And which region does he find the most exciting for its modern winemaking? “I love Campania,” he says. “In the last 10 years it has improved dramatically.” Campania is along the southwest reaches of the boot, and though narrow, it is home to a diverse assortment of soils and microclimates.

Campania’s grapes are almost entirely indigenous, and likely unfamiliar to all but the most seasoned American wine enthusiasts – greco, fiano, biancolella and falanghina among the varieties for white wines; piedirosso and aglianico for reds.

To become acquainted with the wines of Campania, he suggests neophytes start with white wines made with the grape fiano, red wines made with aglianico, in particular aglianico from the Taurasi denomination of origin.

He is keen on several estates in Campania, none more so than Mastroberardino (“an example of the most authentic winemaking tradition not only in Campania but all of Italy,” he notes in his guidebook); Montevetrano (“Silvia Imparato is the princess of Campania wine, a cultured and charming woman who was once a successful photographer ... ”); and Pietracupa (“Sabino Loffredo’s wines are simply exceptional and do honor to him and all of Irpinia and sell like hot cakes worldwide”).

“Sell like hot cakes worldwide?” Not the most Italian of expressions, but in the U.S. we get the point.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.

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