BY JOSH SOLOMON
I recently read that there were some proposals kicking around Congress for ways to punish France for being so, shall we say, obstructionist on Iraq. Not surprisingly, the one that caught my attention was the notion of jacking up tariffs on French wines. Then, a few weeks ago, I heard John McCain say that France is “reminding me of an aging movie actress from the 1940s who’s still trying to dine out on her looks, but doesn’t have the face for it.” Really. He said that. I had Tivo play it back a couple times to make sure I got it right.
Now, I confess to having a soft spot for the French, particularly when it comes to their wine (“You think?,” asks the astute reader sarcastically, having noticed that I write about little else). And I defer to nobody on my belief in free trade. But I must admit to being a bit tickled by the idea of punishing France. While I’m not sure I fully understand Senator McCain’s metaphor, I do get the sentiment, and I agree. This Francophile is going Francophobe for a moment.
I could, of course, go out and join the newly formed “Students for Protecting America.” I could help them put up their fliers, which are bound to have a tremendous effect on the campus. Nay, the world. But alas, I am not activist — particularly when the activism, like so much activism, is a waste of time and so unlikely to accomplish anything at all. (Hey, look, I think I just angered both the liberals and the conservatives; now that’s a good day.)
By this point, you may be glancing at the byline to make sure this is Solomon’s week, and not that of those two other wine guys who sometimes forget to write about wine. But there is a wine point to all this. I urge you, when you make your next trip to the wine store, to stay away from the France section. I know, I know, it was a terrible thought for me too. But I did it. You can too. And to help, I am going to avoid writing about any French wines this week. Call it my little political protest.
Instead, I will focus on a good ally: our dear friend Italy. Italy is the world’s largest producer of wine in some years, making even more than that other country. Some of the best wines in the world come from Italy. Trying to capture all of Italy’s wine industry in the few words I have not yet flitted away is thus impossible. So I offer a taste that will hopefully tempt you to head a bit farther east and south on your next trip to buy wine.
Since the wine lists at Italian restaurants tend to bulge with Chianti offerings, Chianti is probably the Italian wine with which you are the most familiar. Wines labeled with the Chianti name must come from the Chianti zone, a specific area within Tuscany that surrounds and runs largely south of Florence. There are also sub-zones, or districts, some of which produce more prestigious wines than regular Chianti. The most notable of these are Chianti Classico and the far smaller Chianti Rufina. In all of these wines, the Sangiovese grape predominates and is often the sole grape used. Sangiovese, the most common grape in all of Italy, will often lend its noticeable cherry flavor to its Chiantis.
On the hierarchy of wines from the region, plain ‘ol Chianti is generally seen as the simplest and “less fine.” It varies significantly by maker, thus defying too much generalization. On the whole, though, it tends to be very dry, fruity and tangy — and made to drink young. Chianti Classico and Chianti Rufina wines are steps up. They will often require more age and will have more complex fruit flavors. Even finer than these are those labeled Chianti Classico Riserva.
Northwest of Tuscany is Piedmont. In south-central Piedmont are two zones that some say make the best of all Italian wines: Barolo and Barbaresco. Somewhat confusingly, wines from Barolo and Barbaresco take the names of those regions, whereas their Piemontese colleagues tend to take the names of grapes (e.g., Barbera and Dolcetto). Barolo and Barbaresco are red wines made from 100 percent Nebbiolo grapes. They are generally firm, tannic wines, which feature high levels of acid and alcohol, as well as high price tags. Complex and fragrant, they come with such varying flavors and aromas as leather, truffles and raspberries.
Finally, and because it is among my favorites, I want to mention a far less famous Italian wine: Moscato d’Asti. As translating the name will tell you, this is a moscato-based wine that comes from the area around the town of Asti (in Piedmont). Moscato (also called muscat in a place I don’t like right now) is a white grape that serves as the base for many great dessert wines. And Moscato d’Asti is one of them. Unusual for dessert wines, Moscato d’Asti is actually slightly sparkling. Imagine a wine that is ever-so-slightly sweet with delicate bubbles that make for a wine better described as tickly than fizzy.
In my France-free trip to Martignetti’s, I bought the following two wines to try out for you:
2000 Gabbiano Chianti Classico ($11.99) — This well-known Chianti Classico had a light ruby color that suggested a wine far lighter and simpler than it actually was. Its nose was surprisingly complex, with earth, cherries, pepper, and even a touch of chocolate. My wife, who has spent much time in the land of Ceaser and Benigni, said “it smells like Italy.” Indeed. Italy and Chianti are vitually synonyms. The taste was somewhat less complex than the nose, but quite enjoyable. Cherries were the most noticable flavor and, like most Chiantis, it was fairly tannic. On the whole, a very good value.
2001 Cristina Ascheri Moscato d’Asti ($11.99) — I love it! It had a wonderful tropical/citrus aroma, with apples and grapefruits. There was a light, tingly mouthfeel and a subtle sweetness. The flavors were apple, pear, a touch of lemon and, surprisingly, a great vanilla taste, particularly on the finish. I highly recommend it.