We’re going north to south, which is what we should all be doing this time of year, right? Costa Rica anyone? Or how about Italy? Well, it’s not exactly warm this time of the year, but the land once known as Enotria, or “land of the vine,” cultivates hundreds, if not thousands of grape varietals. Everyone knows about sangiovese and nebbiolo, but other, more obscure grapes are making their way onto our wine lists and tables. This week, I chose four of my favorite lesser known Italian red wines, with a spritz of who’s who and what might pair well with them.
Tazzelenghe is a red Italian wine grape variety from the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of northeast Italy. The grape is predominantly found in the Colli Orientali del Friuli D.O.C. In English, that means … well, we know Colli and Friuli usually are thought of as classic cold-climates regions in Italy that produce crisp whites like Friuliano, ribolla gialla, sauvignon blanc and pinot blanc. So, Tazzelenghe, in English, means literally “tongue-cutting or -stinging,” which refers to a great combination of acidity and tannins, born from a long, cool growing season. Tazzelenghe is an indigenous varietal that disappeared and only saw cultivation and production as recently as the late 1970s/early ‘80s. It is related to the slightly less obscure refosco. Tazzelenghe pierces the palate with fresh, tart blue-black fruit and racy acidity; not necessarily an “American-friendly” wine, but I for one find value in fringe movements. Seeking out the “tounge slicer” is a bit of an adventure, but if you can locate the wines of La Roncaia, you are on the right path. And if the tazze is too sharp, try their Il Fusco, which blends in refosco, cabernet franc and merlot to gird the wine and soften the palate, as these grapes are vinified after being dried, in the repasso style. I would definitely be eating wood-fired pizza with fungi and cream, or maybe a fontina fonduta. That’s Italian fondue, which is certainly not too late to enjoy, as winter has roared back for a minute.
Aglianico is a black grape grown in the Basilicata and Campania regions of Italy. The vine originated in Greece and was brought to the south of Italy by Greek settlers. The name may be a corruption of vitis hellenica, Latin for “Greek vine.” Aglianico has always been one of my favorite Italian varietals, since traveling in Campania, and experiencing the textural pleasure of this wine. Classic woody Italian depth, flavor and acidity, backed by a plush, almost velvety mouthfeel. Try Fuedi Di San Gregorio, Mastroberardino (especially their long-aging Radici Riserva Taurasi) or — if I can locate it — De Conciliis’ ‘Naima’ Campagnia (preferably 2005). The ‘Naima” stuns with loads of silky, mature fruit and challenges and inspires with the cool white menthol shrubbery of garrigue. For pairing my aglianico, I love to turn out Italian-inspired lamb burgers stuffed with provolone, fresh mozz, a little garlic, oregano and fresh basil, with pan roasted roma tomatoes and greek yogurt.
Sicily gets two: Nero D’Avola and Nerrello Mascalese
Nero d’Avola is “the most important red wine grape in Sicily” and is one of Italy’s most important indigenous varieties. Light, lively, peppery and low in alcohol, like Occhipinti, coming in at 12.5 percent. Most cost around that too, per bottle. Colossi has a heathery floral label that is as pleasing to the eyes as the wine is to the senses.
Nerrello Mascalese is named after the area where the grape is thought to have originated. It is grown mainly on the northeastern side of Sicily and is used for both varietally-specific and blended wines. Straight from the hilsides of Mount Etna, this fringe wine, which has been grown and produced for centuries, has been long-overshadowed by the only slightly more well-received nero-d’avola. It is thought to be a close genetic relative of sangiovese, and is also made into a prosseco-style sparkler. Good news: A bottle of Nicosia Nerrello Mascalese will run you a good ten dollars, and will offer a moving flavor profile from the sour cherry and herbal side of the spectrum all the way to black plum, smoke and chocolate as it opens and evolves in your glass.
What to eat? Linguine ai Frutti Di Mare with the Nero D’Avola; a braised meat lasagna with the Nerrello Mascalese.
Boun Appetito and tanti baci. Cheers! Remember, wine reveals truth.
Drew Stofflet lives in Carbondale. Correspond with him at email@example.com.