Italian-Style Wines Rival French Style in California

Many Californian wines are influenced by the French style of wine making. However, not far behind are the Italian-style wines.

The favorite Italian varietals include hearty red wines such as Barbera, Primitivo, Sangiovese and Dolcetta, as well as white wines like Pinot Grigio and sparkling Asti and Lambrusco. The whites are usually low in alcohol, but the reds may have an alcohol content as high as 15 percent.

Therefore, it’s a good idea to eat a hearty meal with Italian-style red wines. They are great with steaks and pasta.

And let’s not forget Chianti, which is a popular blend made mostly of Sangiovese grapes. Chianti doesn’t have to come in a basket to be authentic. Look for “Chianti Classico” for the best value. Chianti is a very dry, medium-bodied, moderately tannic wine with a tart cherry flavor

Lambrusco is a sweet, fizzy wine with delicious, grapey flavors. Asti is a sweet sparkling wine low in alcohol, with very fruity and floral flavors.

Pinot Grigio is light-bodied, dry and crisp with subdued aromas and flavors and no oak flavor. It’s tasty even when served cold with a picnic lunch. Usually low in price, it’s hard to tell the difference between an $8 bottle of Pinot Grigio and one that sells for $20.

Italian immigrants greatly influenced the California wine industry. Sebastiani, Mondavi, Martini, Gallo, Parduci and Martinelli are just a few of the Italian-style winemakers still producing great products today.

Barbera became very popular in the 1990s and was produced in great quantities at wineries such as Renwood in Amador County, Boeger in El Dorado County – both Gold Country areas – and Eberle in San Luis Obispo County, which is closer to the Pacific Ocean.

What do all these venues have in common? Intense, 100-degree summer heat and freezing winters are the reasons varietal like Barbera develop great complexity that translates into a bold flavor that clings to the palate.

Barbera originally was produced in Italy’s Piedmont region. It is dry, light- or medium-bodied, with intense berry flavor, mouth-watering acidity and not too much tannin.

Sangiovese has a tart flavor of cherry, red plum, strawberry and fig. It also has hints of roasted pepper, tomato, leather, clay and even tobacco, smoke, oregano and thyme. It’s usually aged in neutral oak barrels where it develops fairly high tannins and acidity.

One of my favorites is Dolcetto, a dark-skinned wine grape from the Monferrato hills of northwestern Italy. What is my favorite Italian-style winery? It’s Mosby in Buellton in Santa Barbara County. That’s where I first tasted Dolcetto and had great encounters with Barbera, Primitivo and even Chianti, which I rarely drink.

Mosby Dolcetto is made from estate-grown grapes that make a full-bodied wine that is great with everyday meals. It has brilliant nose that includes brown spice, herbs and white pepper. It has flavors of plum and cola with lingering finish. It’s great with cheese, hearty pastas, grilled meats or even pizza, although most Italians don’t drink wine with pizza. They prefer beer or soda with pizza, or so I am told.

Whatever you have with an Italian-style red, or most any other style red wine, DO NOT serve it cold or even chilled. That kills its flavor. Room temperature will bring out all the wine’s flavor. You might even consider decanting the red wine to “let it breathe.”

Many people dislike red wines because of the tannins in them. But some Italian-style reds such as Barbera are usually low in tannins and much easier for the novice wine drinker to taste.