Every wine has its own distinct personality. Some taste as lively as Frank Sinatra singing “I Get a Kick Out of You” while others have the feel of an easy-going Sunday morning. Full-bodied wine tends to be more closely related to a rich opera aria — maybe “Nessun Dorma,” as sung by Pavarotti.
This three-part mini-guide will try to give you a basic sense of how a wine’s character can vary. I’m starting out with bubbly wines and lighter whites.
Rule 1 about sparkling wines is pretty simple: don’t sell it short by waiting until New Year’s Eve. Prosecco‘s character is light, flirty and fun, which makes it an ideal partner for a picnic or a barbecue. It’s also great for an outdoor aperitif. The larger bubbles in Prosecco and Lambrusco don’t last as long as the tiny ones in Metodo Classico’s Franciacorta, so drink up and pour some more. The best proseccos hail from Colli Asolani in the Trento region and Conegliano Valdobbiadene in the Italian northeast.
Variations abound. Take Casa Coste Piane Prosecco di Valdobbiadene “Sur Lie, a uniquely dry prosecco whose personality includes backbone and noticeable minerality. Try it with cured meats (think prosciutto wrapped in cantaloupe).
Want something red, tingly, fresh and fruity? Go for Lambrusco. But not just any bottle. This popular wine from Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy was long mocked as a kind of liquid bubblegum. In fact, there’s plenty of first-rate Lambrusco, both sweet and dry. On labels, Secco means dry, Semisecco is off-dry, while Dolce or Amabile are all-out sweet. Lambrusco is usually berry-oriented — wild strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, mulberries, and so on. It’s also light in alcohol content, a refreshing plus.
I like dryish Cà De Noci, Sottobosco . It oozes black fruit aromas and flavors, and matches up well with mortadella, pizza and grilled sausages.
Lombardy’s Franciacorta is often dubbed Italy’s “Champagne” because it’s made using traditional production methods and with its grape varieties, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Bianco. Its personality is defined by small, creamy bubbles, a buttery feel, and lemon zest. I go for Barone Pizzini’s Nature Franciacorta DOCG . a sumptuously rich and acidic wine that goes well with shellfish or fried fish.
Leaving bubbly behind, it’s time to turn to Italy’s array of lighter and drier wines, whose character is all about their youth. Many of these wines — including Vermentino, Soave and Pinot Grigio — are ideally suited to hot summer days. Vermentino, grown in central Italy and Sardinia, is a great seaside trattoria companion, particularly over a meal of fresh fish. You’ll notice lime, pear and white peach notes with a grapefruit or almond bitter finish.
I recommend Santa Caterina, Vermentino Colli di Luni Poggi Alti DOC , preferably with an appetizer of fried anchovies, calamari or pasta with pesto.
Want to cook Sunday pasta with fresh vegetables? Soave may be your best bet. Made from Veneto’s Garganega grape, young Soaves tend to be crisp, zippy and bring to mind white peaches and melon. Older vintages often deliver the flavor of baked apple, honey and preserved citrus fruit. Filippi Castelcerino Soave Classico — rich in white fruit aroma — is a lovely wine with light pasta dishes and grilled fish.
Pinot Grigio too often gets a bad rap. I remember it as the boring white wine that took center stage at my grandparents’ table and invariably tasted flat and fruity. In those days I knew nothing about the many deliciously dry Pinots from northern Italy. These wines gain a mineral edge thanks to cool northern temperatures. They’re crisp with salinity and citrus notes. If you like that crispness, look to producers from Trentino-Alto Adige, Veneto and Lombardy. Tuscany, Abruzzo, and Sicily tend to produce fruitier Pinot.
My own favorite is Livio Felluga Pinot Grigio Fruili Colli Orientali DOC . Its character is all about silky elegance and fruity aromas. Try it with flaky white fish.
— This is the first in a series on understanding the character of wine.