Italian Wines Primer

Italian Wines

Italian proverb: Where wine reigns, silence does not.

If you have not yet discovered the ocean of wondrous Italian wines, there is no better time to take the plunge than with our Italian Wine Sale from April 27th through May 30th, where you can receive 15% off of 12 bottles, mixed or matched of 750ml or 375ml sizes only.

Italy has over 350 recognized wine grape varietals with hundreds more clonal variations, but really, if you know a few of the most important ones, and understand their characteristics, you can go a long way on your Italian wine journey while staying right at home. Though we will only cover a few areas here, it is still enough for years’ worth of exploration.


If you’ve enjoyed wines from Tuscany, or specifically Chianti/Chianti Classico, you are likely enjoying one of the most important red varietals in Italy: Sangiovese (pronounced San-gee-o-vase-eh). This incredible variety is sometimes known as an “iron fist in a velvet glove”. It can be a very powerful, tannic wine, but can also be a simple quaffer, depending on the style and hierarchy of the wine style. Italian wines that say “Toscana” (Tuscany) on them, are the simplest versions of Sangiovese. It is when you get into the wines from Chianti/Chianti Classico regions, that you can experience the finer versions of this varietal. Though the wines from these regions can use other varietals to form the blend and style the winery is looking to produce, they must be at least 80% Sangiovese. The wines of Chianti and Chianti Classico form the lowest tier of their respective three-tier group. From there, we can step up to Chianti Classico Riserva, which until fairly recently, was the top expression of these wines. However, wineries wanted another quality tier for their most very special bottlings. Thus, Chianti Classico Gran Selezione (Grand Selection) was created, which is the highest of the three tiers of quality. These wines must all be from a single estate. For a reasonable amount more in cost, you can find the ultimate expressions of Sangiovese in these wines.

But Tuscany makes wonderful white wine too! If you’ve never experienced Vermentino, now is the time. A little bit Chardonnay-like, but with brighter flavors, these Italian wines make your mouth gush with fruit flavors of pear, melon, and apricot. Ideal for whitefish on the grill or out of the pan.

Cecchi VermentinoLemon, lime, pear, melon, apricot abound in this delightful Tuscan white for the summer ahead.

Cecchi SangioveseWe are good friends with the Cecchi family, and several years ago we asked them to create a simple Sangiovese for our market. Ask and you shall receive responded the brothers Cecchi! This is a wonderful expression of Sangiovese that is garnet red, soft in tannins, and does not take itself too seriously (as most of the spectacular Cecchi bottlings do!) but rather, aims simply, to be like a friend that joins you for dinner. This wine is a workhorse for simple pasta dishes, pizza, and burgers. Buy this one by the case!

Tomaiolo Chianti Classico RiservaWhat an incredible wine for the money!  This has all the nuances of stellar Chianti Classico Riserva at about half the price. It is lush and plush with black fruits and medium, to full-bodied on the velvety pallet. It’s perfect with Veal Parmigiana, but also comfortable with a hearty steak. In Tuscany, the Italians drink Riserva’s with “Bistecca” which is an especially huge porterhouse steak cooked over an intense direct fire for five minutes on each side and 5 minutes standing up on the bone. Getting hungry?

Querceto Gran Selezione Il PicchioWhile harder to find, this incredible wine reached its vaunted Gran Selezione status only a year or so ago and is one of about 20 Gran Selezione’s in our stores. It is the ultimate expression of Sangiovese in Chianti Classico and worth seeking out. Serve with braised beef, or slow-cooked leg of lamb, white truffles, stews, as well as aged cheese.

Carpineto Chianti ClassicoWhile their vaunted Vino Nobile is perhaps the finest in the region, the Carpineto Chianti Classico shines its own light by offering both incredible value and quality. Drink this with grilled steak tips, lamb, or hearty, meaty pasta dishes.

Super Tuscans and Brunello di Montalcino

Sangiovese goes further yet with Italian wines affectionately known as “Super Tuscans” which can add noble varietals like Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah – to name a few – and no longer needs to be restricted to 80% Sangiovese, giving winemakers the freedom to make more international styled Italian wines. These wines are typically labeled IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica).

Querceto Il Sole AlessandroThis is perhaps Querceto’s finest wine. It is a Bordeaux-styled wine and considered a “Super Tuscan” wine using 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. With the aging potential of 20-25 years, it is a powerful wine with a phenomenally long finish that seems to last for minutes. Ideal for wild venison as the perfect partner.

The magnificent and regal Brunello di Montalcino, which must be 100% Sangiovese, is perhaps, the greatest expression of the varietal and can live a fabulously long life if you choose to age them. These wines are powerful and tannic and should be paired with high protein foods like braised or grilled beef and lamb or wild game.

Banfi Brunello Di MontalcinoThough Banfi is a huge producer of many high-quality Italian wines, they all have a small production feel about them with incredible attention to detail and respect towards varietal integrity. Banfi’s Brunello, is always sleek and powerful, with an abundance of juicy black fruit and complex spices with an overall earthy texture. It is at home with the heartiest of meat dishes including ragu of wild boar, (traditional in Italy) venison, braised beef, as well as, aged dry cheese like aged Piave and Asiago.


Perhaps the noblest of Italian wines are Barolo and Barbaresco; often thought of as the king and queen of Piedmont. Both of these wines are made exclusively with the Nebbiolo grape. Barolo is typically thought of as the most powerful of the two, with Barbaresco usually being a little more elegant in fashion, hence, their affectionate epithets. While it is perfectly fine to enjoy these wines upon their release, they are wines that will really improve with time. Seven to ten years beyond the vintage date will reward your patience and become a memorable wine experience. The best versions though can last for decades. Barolo is often paired with the dish, beef in Barolo which is a slow braise cooked in a bottle of Barolo (not an inexpensive meal!) Other, simpler wines from this region, include Dolcetto and Barbera. Each of these wines refers to its varietal names. Think of Dolcetto as Pinot Noir-like while Barbera is similar to Petite Sirah with a little more body than Dolcetto. Both are outstanding food wines to be enjoyed with chicken, pork, and light beef dishes as their alcohol levels are in check and they can be quite sublime and easy to drink.

Chiarlo Barbera d’AstiPerhaps our most popular Barbera, is comfort in a glass. Smooth and supple with dark fruits on both the nose and pallet. This is a workhorse of a food wine. Roast chicken to pizza and almost anything in between will be sure to make you happy. The fact that it is so affordable is a boon.

Marchesi di Barolo Gavi de Gavi DOCGFrom the same region comes a light a spritz white wine called Gavi. Gavi is made from the Cortese grape and is as bright as a ray of sunshine or a burst of lemon and lime. This is a perfect wine for shrimp or most shellfish, as an aperitif, or with simple salads. Consider trying this with chopped red leaf lettuce, canned mandarin orange pieces, and toasted almonds with a simple vinaigrette. Yum.


In the northeast, including the region of Alto Adige and Veneto, we have the largest production of Pinot Grigio. Pinot Grigio, (AKA Pinot Gris in France) is a light-bodied white wine that is easy to like but typically does not have a strong bouquet on the nose. It’s an excellent quaffer and is almost always affordable.

Valpolicella is a town near Verona and is also the name of a simple wine made mostly from the grapes, Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinera. This “Holy Trinity” of grapes also makes the legendary Amarone wines. These wines, however, are made in a unique way in the wine world and really cannot be replicated anywhere else on the planet with the same results. The grapes are harvested in the fall – as are most wines in the world – but there, the similarity ends.

Once picked and sorted, the grapes are collected and stored in small trays or baskets and housed in a cool storage area where they sit until late January or so. By comparison, most other grape varieties would simply rot in this way, but these three unique varietals hang in there. Through this time, the grapes “raisinate” and lose much of their liquid. They are then crushed and the result is a much smaller yield of juice that is both highly concentrated and intense. The wine process continues from there and it is several years before they show up in retail locations as finished wine. They are hedonistic, massively complex wines and a wine everyone should try at least once. With this complex process, however, comes a heftier price. Somewhere in the middle, are Valpolicella Ripasso” which runs its juice over Amarone skins picking up some of the complexities of Amarone along the way. These are perhaps, among the greatest price-to-quality wines available and almost always over-deliver for their relatively modest cost.

Ruffino Lumina Pinot GrigioA simple light-bodied quaffer from a great producer, offers freshness and good acidity; the Hallmark of good Italian Pinot grigio. This is one for the deck after a hard day’s work. Good with simple salads and grilled chicken breasts with herbs or an assortment of charcuterie.

Nicolis RipassoThis is a very affordable wine considering its incredible depth and concentration. Often called “Baby Amarone’s”, Ripasso wines do show the elements of their big brothers for much less money. This is an excellent version of Ripasso and will be a good pairing with grilled chicken or meats and gourmet burgers.

Bertani AmaroneAt around a hundred dollars a bottle, this wine would likely need to be for a very special occasion. That said, the special occasion will be remembered far more fondly, if this wine is a part of it. One of the most complex and ineffable Italian wines on the planet, Bertani Amarone is the stuff of legend. While most of the world’s greatest and most expensive wines can only be enjoyed by those with elite wealth, this wine is still reachable for many of us. It has flavors of baked plums, dark cherries, vanilla, clove, anise, and toasted hazelnuts, among finely grained, powdery tannins. The wine is released typically after 10-12 years of age at the winery (one of the very few wineries that age this long before release) and is ready to be enjoyed upon purchase, though they can also last for decades longer if properly stored. Memorable food matches include braised beef in Amarone, beef short ribs, and braised beef or veal cheeks. The wine also excels with a strong cheese like aged Parmigiana Reggiano. Yum.


Gordon Heins, Wine Merchandising Specialist NH Liquor Commission