Salute! Raise a Glass to Italian Wines

09/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When many people think of Italian wine they think of Chianti Classico, but truth is, there are about 1,500 grape varieties in Italy--more than any other wine growing area in the world. Some, like Sangiovese (the grape grown in Chianti, which is a region and not a grape), Nebbiolo or Primitivo, are widespread and well known. Others are grown in small batches and produced by mom-and-pop growers who may only make enough wine for themselves and their friends and family.

Learning about Italian wines can be a heady undertaking, but if you grasp the basics, much of what you need to know falls into place. Many of the wines are named for regions or towns where they are produced, like Brunello di Montalcino (which is made of Sangiovese Grosso and grown in Montalcino in Tuscany) or Barbaresco (which comes from the Nebbiolo grape but is produced in the town or Barbaresco in the Piemonte region).

One way to dive into Italian wine is to drink a whole bunch of it. But to have some fun, I thought it could be interesting to compare some Italian wines to others you might be familiar with. I don't mean these are an exact match, but are similar in style and body and give you an idea of what to look for based on what you already like to drink.

2009-08-06-tignanello.jpgIf you like a meritage, check out Super Tuscans, which are often blended with Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and other Bordeaux-style grapes (like a meritage). These wines were first produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s after winemakers created wines that didn't fit within the DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) or DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) classifications set forth by the Italian wine governance. One winemaker in particular, Piero Antinori, whose family has been producing wine in Tuscany since the 1300s, created the first truly robust Super Tuscan in 1971. This was Tignanello (available at Binny's), and today is considered to be one of the best wines produced in Italy, if not the world. Since then, Super Tuscans, once considered mere table wines, have gained much respect around the world. For something more affordable, grab a bottle of 2006 Aia Vecchia "Lagone" Rosso di Toscana at Sam's Wines & Spirits. From the Bolgheri area of Tuscany, this blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese combines flavors of berries, raisin, earth and herbs with a long finish. It went great with pizza but can work with various meats.

Syrah, or Shiraz, has grown in popularity, especially through Australian wines. If you like these medium-bodied sippers that offer robust berry and sometimes chocolate notes, pick up a bottle of Nero d'Avola or Negroamaro. Nero d'Avola, which means the "black grape of 2009-08-06-tormaresca_neprica.jpgAvola," loves hot, arid climates and thrives in Sicily. It produces big, rich reds and goes well with lamb and beef. Negroamaro is also a dark, deep-colored grape producing hearty, earthy wines and grows primarily in Puglia, the "heel" of Italy's boot, where it is also hot and dry, especially in summer. It's often blended with Sangiovese or Malvasia Nera to add more fruit and aromatics. Binny's has the 2006 Ajello Majus Nero d'Avola, a bright and juicy wine with raspberry notes and a hint of spice, for $10.99. A kick ass blend that has 40 percent Negroamaro comes from Tormaresca. The Neprica, at Binny's for $8.99, which also includes Primitivo and Cab, beautifully combines berries with chocolate and hints of fennel seed. It's a perfect wine for a light pasta with sausage.

2009-08-06-LiVeli_Orion.jpgOne of my favorite grapes is Zinfandel and it was no surprise that when I was introduced to the "Mother Zin" a number of years ago, I fell in love with Primitivo. This is said to be the ancestor of modern California Zinfandel and it shows, especially in many of the old vines that produce some of the best wine in Italy. It's underrated and you can get some great deals on Primitivo, which offers up an explosion of blackberry, blueberry, spices and more. The Li Veli "Orion" Salentino Primitivo from Puglia has cherry and clove notes on the nose with a medium body, soft tannins and really obvious blackberry on the tongue; and it got bigger the more it was open. Grab it online at Snooth for $11.29.

2009-08-06-Boroli_madonnadicomo.jpgDolcetto is a good substitute for Pinot Noir, especially when you're looking for something that you can have with a light pasta lunch or an easy drinking wine on a warm summer evening. The name means "little sweet one," but many of the wines tend to be somewhat drier with noticeable tannins. This wine hails from the Piemonte region (usually from the town of Alba) and is often used as a typical table wine. Dolcettos produce nice cherry flavors with an earthy finish. Want a steal? For $9.99, pick up the Boroli Madonna di Como Dolcetto, a well-rounded beautiful wine that can drink now or after a couple years of storage and offers blackberry and spice with violet notes balanced with nice tannins and acid.

2009-08-06-marcofelluga.jpgWhen you're looking for white wines, a great place to start your exploration is near the Alps in the Friuli and Trentino-Alto Adige regions in the northeast corner of Italy. Due to its proximity to the mountains, this area has a climate that allows the grapes to remain on the vines for a healthy growing season, with warmer days and cool nights. The area produces beautiful wines that run the gamut from crisp and floral to peachy to nutty to rounded and buttery, coming from a variety of grapes, including Friulano, Pinot Bianco, Ribolla Gialla, Verduzzo and Pinot Grigio. Grab a bottle of 2007 Marco Felluga Collio Mollamatta Bianco, a golden yellow blend of Tocai Friulano, Ribolla Gialla and Pinot Bianco showcasing citrus, banana and guava notes. It's at Wine Discount Center in Chicago for $17.99

2009-08-06-Adami_prosecco.jpgWho doesn't love Champagne? If you're looking for a more affordable alternative that you can drink daily (because everyday is worth celebrating, right?!), try Prosecco. These wines, made from prosecco grapes, generally come from the Veneto region in the northeast part of Italy. These are generally crisp wines with nice floral notes and hints of apple or white peach and should be drunk young because they can go bad in the bottle if kept too long. Que Syrah in Lakeview carries a couple of Adami Proseccos for around $15-$20. These crisp and dry sparklers go really well with a variety of cheeses. Or grab the Adami "Dei Casel" for $16.99 from K&L Wines.

Think that's enough for the first lesson? Good. No go out and drink.