Wine Tips from Sommelier Jeff Morgenthal of Drago - Santa Monica
Italy is transitioning from a nation known for overproduction of generic wines to a country producing a diverse range of wines at the highest level. These are my tips for learning more about and enjoying the true distinctiveness and quality that the region represents.
1. Diversity and individuality of producers. Josko Gravner- So what if Georgia is the only other civilized nation still burying clay amphorae in the ground as a vessel for extended macerations for white wines on the Slovenian border? Josko Gravner is the Italian equivalent to Chateaneuf du Pape’s late Jacques Reynaud: highly individualistic, idiosyncratic and both known for making wines that defied all odds because they were made with philosophies that went against conventional wisdom. These are unique wines that do not utilize the word ‘compromise’ as part of their philosophy. Ancient vinification methods notwithstanding, the real question is: Does he make good wine? For me, Gravner’s Friulian-blend Breg is probably the best white wine in Italy. His current Collio Chardonnay Riserva is from the 1991 vintage- about ten years later than most wines from this vintage have come to market. Other traditional producers who march to their own drum include Bartolo Mascarello, Guiseppe Quintarelli, Stanko Radikon and Marco DeBartoli to name a few.
2. Explore new wines as well as regional foods. What constitutes something beautiful about a particular wine? For me, it is the sense that a wine truly reflects the place from which it came. One thing that separates Italy from most countries is its proliferation of indigenous grapes. Native grapes that are inherent to a particular place, be it Vespaiola from Breganze, Galliopo in Ciró or more commonly, perhaps, Corvina for Amarone. Wine, for me, is about diversity and like life, all things should be experienced at least once so as to give one a rich background or a basis for weaving a tapestry that constitutes the ‘big picture.’ Does Italy make great chardonnay and cabernet? Of course. Will Bovale, Croatina, Uva de Troia or Chiavennasca show up labeled varietally on most labels? Normally, no. You probably have tried wines with these grapes blended but didn’t know it. The most appealing thing about Italy is the intellectual challenge that comes from dividing the country into 20 regions and looking at them as separate entities. 20 regions! France has about 7. North America has about 5. As a sommelier, I try to pair regional dishes with regional wines. If a dish has a Tuscan background, then go with a Tuscan wine. After all, this is how you would most enjoy the dish if you were in Italy.
3. Italy offers more bang for the buck. To further appreciate Italian wines- red, white, sparkling, fortified or sweet- one need to really shop only by price. Even if you didn’t care much about the beauty of native grapes in Puglia, you might still buy a bottle of Salice Salentino because it costs $8. Though I am the first to concede that a bad $8 wine is no better than a bad $20 wine from Italy or anywhere else. While there are lesser bad wines being made with today’s technology in the vineyard and in the winery, there is an ocean of innocuous wine in the marketplace today from many New World countries that routinely cost $25 and up. Italy’s $10 wines are often simple, hearty reds or light, easy whites. These are wines to be consumed on a daily basis with your pesce spada or bistecca alla fiorentina. A listing of Italy’s best value wines might include a hundred wines, some of which might include: Dolcetto, Barbera, Arneis, Valpolicella, Soave, Terre di Franciacorta, Sagrantino di Montefalco, Rosso di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montelpulciano, Fiano di Avellino, Salice Salentino, Nero d’Avola. These are all wines that fall within by-the-glass pricing parameters, generally speaking.
4. Buy a good book on Italian wine - there aren’t many. Though I will nod my hat to the great English writers such as Oz Clarke and Hugh Johnson for their knowledge on the classic wine regions of the world, their coverage on Italian wine still leaves something to be desired. If people feel intimidated by the sheer breadth of Italian wine, they will probably be content to stay with the familiar names from Tuscany or Piedmont. The Italian Renaissance is in full swing now in this country thanks to the pioneers like Felidia Bastianich and Piero Selvaggio. Now, you can go to New York and find on the menus at Babbo, Lupa and Esca, native Italian dishes such as Beef Cheek Ravioli, head cheese and stinging nettles. Throughout Italy itself, winemakers are making much better use of the country’s unparalleled natural gifts. To better understand the current state of wine in Italy and the wines and producers, I strongly recommend “Vino Italiano” by Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch and anything by Burton Anderson, the reference point for years on Italian wine being “The Italian Wine Atlas”. Right now, there’s always something new to discover with Italy and I think the best is yet to come.