My buddy Gene, an American who has lived in Italy three times, makes the case that Italians have “basically perfected the art of the meal." This may sound like hyperbole but it rings true to my ears.
One premise of Gene’s argument is the idea that Italian food and Italian wine, when paired well together, can lift your meal to a whole new level.
Let’s call that item number one on the list of things I like about Italian wine: It makes your Italian food better. Simple as that.
Sure, the same can be true of other national cuisines and their wines. But if you eat Italian food as often as I do…
Actually, allow me to illustrate why I think it’s a pretty great idea to try to pair Italian food with Italian wine, whenever possible.
There we were, just last night, at a traditional restaurant in Rome. I ordered Rigatoni all’Amatriciana and Coda alla Vaccinara (oxtail), both of which have rich and salty tomato-based sauces.
The wines on the table: 2010 Frank Cornelissen Etna Rosso “Contadino,” purchased for 20 Euros; and a 2013 Hubert Ligner Morey St. Denis, 48 Euros.
The Contadino had an element of natural funk to it, but the wine was well-integrated and complex, with its earthiness, fruit and minerality all coming together on a long, slightly bitter finish. Best of all, it retained its expressiveness when paired with the two dishes, and added a new flavor dimension to both.
As for the otherwise excellent Lignier red Burgundy, it was oaky and sweet with the Amatriciana, and was only slightly better with the oxtail. I know better than to pair the red-sauced dishes with a mature Burgundy, but I thought a 2013, with its fruity, youthful vigor, might stand a chance. No such luck.
One friend had a breaded lamb dish (Abbacchio Panato,) and while it fared much better with the Burgundy, it too favored and improved the Etna Rosso "Contadino.”
Granted, these three pairing samples do not a conclusive scientific study make. But you get the idea. Can anyone name an Italian dish that shows its best form with a non-Italian wine? I'm not even joking; I need to know these things.
Item number two on my list of good things about Italian wine culture: The way you are treated at wineries in Italy. Has anyone else visited an Italian wine producer and left feeling like their family temporarily adopted you during the tasting? The generosity and warmth you encounter in Italian wine country is really something special. I've had great visits in the U.S., France, Spain, Germany, Australia, etc., but probably nine of my ten most memorable winery visits were in Italy.
Item number three: That you can still find affordable wine list options at most restaurants in Italy. Even in Rome, there are many restaurants where the mark-up is less than 50% over retail. Last night for example, we found two very interesting Italian white wines on the list and paid less than 20 euros a bottle. When was the last time that’s been possible in the U.S.? 1985?
Okay, those are my first few salvos, the things I like about Italian wine culture. I’ve got a few more in mind. Soon enough I’ll get to the things I don’t like. It’s a shorter list of course. In the meantime, what have I overlooked that's great about Italian wine?