words by Marc Millon
How better to spend Christmas than tasting some of Italy’s wonderful wines? Marc Millon is our guide.
When I was just 19, I travelled to Italy over the holiday season and stayed with family friends in Padova. It was a wonderful and impressionable time: the wonder of seeing Giotto’s magnificent frescos in the Cappella degli Scrovegni; going to the Basilica of Sant’Antonio on Christmas Eve; and afterwards returning to an extended feast, the centrepiece of which was baccalà alla vicentina. We drank wines from the nearby Colli Euganei that were as simple and as vivid and fresh as the foods they accompanied.
Christmas Day, by contrast, was an altogether quieter affair, a traditional family lunch of tortellini in brodo, followed by boiled capon with mostarda di frutta. The wine we enjoyed was as stunning as the meal was simple: a single bottle of Brunello di Montalcino riserva (I don’t remember the producer) that we all tasted carefully and considerately. It was not that the wine took centre stage: rather that in serving something special, the importance of the meal and indeed our enjoyment of the occasion was enhanced. I don’t recall any talk about wine: ‘sÌ, è veramente buono,’ was all that needed to be said. For Italians, the holiday period is above all a time to step back from the hustle of daily work and concerns to celebrate with family, always around the table with good food and wine. Indeed, this uniquely Italian attitude to life, I suggest, is something that we all can bring into our lives, wherever we may happen to be for the holidays this year.
Italian Wines For All Seasons
Wine, good wine, is an important means of celebrating, and a fundamental element in the Italian festive season. For most households, it’s as important to have a stock of good wines to enjoy with meals as it is to have a well-stocked larder in case unexpected guests drop by.
For the main celebratory meals such as Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and of course New Year’s Day, special wines will be brought out to mark the occasions. These might be purchased direct from the source; or else, increasingly, wine lovers may seek to visit a specialist enoteca (wine shop), the best of which will offer a considered selection of wines from throughout the country.
What to Buy
For those of us living outside of Italy, we are fortunate to have a vast and comprehensive selection of fine Italian wines to choose from. Independent specialists should be able to offer more individual wines that quite simply you won’t find elsewhere. Whoever you buy your wines from, a good rule of thumb for this time of year is to up your expenditure by, say, one or two pounds per bottle in order to have on hand wines that are vivid and exciting and just that little bit better than the everyday. And of course, for special meals, it is worth purchasing some really stunning examples of Italy’s top wines.
So what to buy? Quite simply wines that you enjoy drinking, not wines that you think you ought to enjoy drinking. Here’s an idea of the sorts of wines I’ll be enjoying this holiday season.
At this time of year, it’s absolutely essential to have good sparkling wine on hand, both for special meals and celebrations, as well as to be able to open when unexpected friends drop by. We particularly adore the Venetians’ favourite, Prosecco di Valdobbiadene. Pale colour, very fine and persistent bubbles, green apple fruit, and a full, dry finish. Mix with some white peach juice (about 1/3 peach juice to 2/3 Prosecco) to make the classic Venetian ‘Bellini’ cocktail.
For Italian whites what I am looking for above all are wines that demonstrate varietal character, tipicità (the term indicates a wine that demonstrates the personality of its zone of production), and full flavours that go with food. White wines for the holiday season must be able to cope with a range of foods and flavours- fish, shellfish, baccalà, creamy or seafood pasta, boiled capon or roast turkey. They need to compete, too, with everything else that is going on, the excitement, the animated conversations and arguments of the season. A good Verdicchio is up to the job: persistent cream and oatmeal nose, full body and structure, and an attractive slightly bitter finish. Another wine that demonstrates tipicità and character is Inzolia from Sicily: fresh, lemony, sapid and full in flavour, with sufficient body and alcohol to stand up to a range of foods.
There are essentially two types of reds to fill the house with for the festive season: mid-range, mid-weight reds that you can enjoy with both everyday as well as celebratory meals; and a few really special bottles of top notch red wines that may go with fuller foods or else which are best enjoyed simply on their own. Apulia’s Salento peninsula is the outstanding source of some excellent (and excellent value) reds that offer real character and personality. Primitivo is an ancient grape that thrives in this hothouse environment to produce wines with ripe fruit and mouth filling flavours. A good primitivo has a deep garnet colour, nose of wild berries and tar, intensely flavoured with soft, sweet tannins and a slightly bitter finish. Serve with full, gutsy flavoured foods for a taste of the south.
Piedmont to the north is similarly an outstanding source of excellent reds of all styles and qualities. A fine mid-range example to single out is Barbera d’Alba, a vivid wine with an attractive black cherry nose, rich mouth-filling flavours and smooth and velvety finish. Remember that the best Barberas have sufficient acidity to partner rich foods and so they would definitely be one to consider for the Christmas meal.
Vini da Meditazione
Over the holidays, I like nothing more than to settle down with a really great bottle of red wine (or two). Such wines may be served with the meal (particularly to accompany robustly flavoured foods such as game) or they may be best enjoyed afterwards, perhaps with a nugget of parmigiano reggiano or a handful of walnuts; or even just savoured while sitting in front of a fire and talking, such contemplative vini da meditazione adding to the mellow atmosphere of the season.
From Piedmont, Aurelio Settimo at La Morra produces just such a wine in his single vineyard:Rocche Barolo 2007. This is an excellent vintage, bright garnet red, and has an intense nose, with spicy hints of cinnamon and vanilla accompanied by sweet cocoa and coffee overtones. Nicely dry on the mouth, with good roundness and great structure.
Great reds also come from Tuscany. Since that first visit to Italy, I’ve always had a soft spot for Brunello di Montalcino. Enzo Tiezzi produces a classic uncompromising example from grapes grown on the Soccorso vineyard. His Brunello di Montalcino D.O.C.G. is an intense, austere wine, with a richly complex nose of mature fruit and damp vegetation. Mouth- filling tannins give it an initially harsh exterior that opens to reveal deeper layers of complexity and flavour. Aged in large Slovenian oak barrels, this is traditional Brunello and not for the faint-hearted. Both of the above wines, incidentally, should be opened or decanted at least a few hours before serving.
It is my hope that the above suggestions will give you some ideas for enjoying your holiday wines this year, Italian style. Remember, the numero uno rule is to drink what you like. And numero due is to share what you like with your friends and family. Auguri!