While on recent visit to the U.S. friends invited me over for an after-work dinner on a Friday night. My hosts were foodies, which means even a casual kitchen table dinner often involves restaurant-grade aluminum pots, the splashing and sizzling of cognac, and expertly sautéed foods made to fly through the air like flaming lettuce leaves.
Lee, the chef, called ahead and asked me to pick up the wine. He was preparing ossobuco, a traditional Milanese dish that required him make a detour to an Italian butcher 12 miles away and after that stop at an organic green grocer to buy rosemary, basil, parsley and fresh marjoram. He’d tie all this together in a tight bundle and put it inside what he called a “bouquet garni,” an herb bundle bag that looked to me like a bonsai drawstring version of what my panty hose goes in before I dump it in the washing machine.
I already knew Lee’s chefly calisthenics were on par with the white-aproned Gordon Ramsay-types that prowl the Food Channel. These food connoisseurs would scrutinize my wine choice.
Ossobuco is an aromatic dish in which veal shanks cut across the bone are dredged in flour and braised in white wine and a melody of herbs. From the perspective of a novice cook — me — it’s serious business. The dish calls for an hour of prep time followed by up to four hours of drooling as the mixed herbs mingle with a chopped garlic and lemon zest, a so-called gremolata, creating a heady aroma as they happily simmer. The scent always reminds of dinners with my nonna.
You can’t whip up such a meal on the fly. In fact, only the fact that Lee had a half-day off from work allowed it to happen at all. He could begin the preparation before his wife and I dragged in at around 7 p.m.
Knowing all this, two things sprung to mind as I cruised the aisles of the local wine shop. First, I wanted to find a crisp and light white to help keep our appetites at bay while we waited for the masterpiece; second, I sought a big bold red with enough structure and backbone not to get lost in the herbal richness of the meat.
Scanning the packed shelves I faced the inevitable quandary: How to select the right wine for the meal at hand, while at the same time deciding what price range to stay in?
Despite Lee’s Iron Man chef tendencies and the lengths he’d gone to find the proper Italian ingredients in America, this was still a casual Italian country dinner.
Should I buy a simple, honest, unpretentious wine that matched the food, or one that acknowledged that I was a guest at their dinner table, a “Wow! You went out of your way to prepare something special…” wine in the $20-to-30 range (minimum)? Going the second way meant picking a wine whose price tag underscored the ossobucco masterpiece, the four hours that went into preparing it, as well as the hefty price tags of some of the gourmet ingredients.
I finally chose two honest, mid-priced but simple wines — a fruity white and a tannic red — that I thought would be fine companions to the rustic nature of the dishes and good foils for the herbs.
The total price backed away from defining the meal as formal or stuffy. I picked a Californian white, for easy sipping, and a red, single-vineyard Primativo from Puglia that I considered big enough to carry off the meal. Together, they set me back $38, a U.S. price tag that I felt pulled my weight in the shared dinner and honored the chef and his toils.
But the cost gave me pause. Most of the price-conscious methods applied in the U.S. don’t really apply in Italy. Though the quality of American imports has improved in recent years, low prices still generally signal iffy quality, particularly if you dip below a certain price threshold.
This accounts for Stateside Americans usually going for expensive bottles over cheaper one, as a kind of insurance policy. While opting for higher prices may work well when it comes to rare or older-aged bottles, price is far less accurate a barometer when it comes to inexpensive and mid-range priced wines.
In Italy, I could probably approach the same ossobucco scenario with an €8 white and an €8 red. While the American side of my brain might scream “You’re going to look like a cheapskate,” my selections would certainly be right on the money — literally — in terms of food and wine pairing.
While in the U.S. I might worry about being seen as penny-pinching dinner guest, I’d know better in Italy. Wine here isn’t marketed just to middle or upper class buyers; it’s for everybody, making price secondary to the experience and the taste.
When you carry a bottle of wine to a dinner in Italy, you’re not brandishing a price tag. Instead, you carry a piece of yourself, of what you know and who you are. With that thought in mind, most Italian hosts focus on the fact that you brought a gift. If the wine pairs properly with the food being served, they’ll serve it. If not, they’ll put it aside for another occasion, and remember your contribution. In all but the rarest cases, your gift is judged the same way whether the bottle ran €7 or €20.
In that spirit, here are a few wine-buying tips in Italy:
- Bring a bottle that your hosts don’t know or haven’t tasted before, one that’s within the daily budget of your hosts. They’ll appreciate the consideration more than a 1997 Barolo.
- The luxury wine market is generally reserved for landmark meals celebrating wedding anniversaries or decade-passage birthdays. If the group knows wine, wait for that kind of occasion to spring for the special wine. If those you’re celebrating with have a less refined palate, consider selecting a couple of bottles of prosecco and put the difference into a small gift.
Back finally to the famous ossobuco. Here, I’d stick to wines from the dish’s region of origin, in this case Lombardy. Though ossobuco is cooked in white wine, it’s traditionally paired with a Barolo or Barbaresco. You can also go with a less expensive Nebbiolo/Barbera blend or a young Langhe Nebbiolo.