Understanding Italian wines

It's not uncommon for someone to come into my shop holding an empty bottle of Italian wine and saying, "I don't know how to pronounce this or even what it is, but man, is it delicious. Have you got this wine for sale?"

Over the years I've been perplexed by Italian winemakers' reluctance to put on the back label some very basic information in English about what's in the bottle. When I'd make this suggestion at Italian wine events, importers would nod, smile and do nothing.

Thankfully, things are changing. Much to consumers' relief, Italian winemakers have begun to include on their labels not only an explanation of the wine and where it came from but often a taste description as well.

Even with an English description on the label, Italian wines can be confusing because they can be labeled as the grape varietal, a geographic location or both. For example, a neophyte would not know whether a wine labeled Barolo is a grape varietal, region or proprietary name. In fact, a Barolo is made from the nebbiolo grape and the wine is named after a small town in the Piemonte region of Italy. This is confusing stuff and obviously tough to get a handle on.

Unfortunately for Italian and other off-shore producers, the average U.S. wine drinker's obvious path of least resistance is to pick an American wine that's readily understood and accessible.

The Internet is a great resource for helping understand Italian wines. Type in "Barolo," and you'll see very good descriptors not only of what the wines characteristically are supposed to taste like but also the best vintages, good producers and information about the lovely town of Barolo.

One of the most important ways to understand Italian wines is to find a retailer who can provide a basic primer on this fabulous wine-producing country. There also are many "wine and dine" groups that will explore pairing Italian wine with food. This is the perfect way not only to understand the wine but also to see the magic of Italian wine with cuisine.

For the Italian people, drinking wine without food is as bizarre as eating food without wine. It is my opinion that to understand Italian wine well, one just has to pair it with cuisine. In this manner, all of the flavors from the food and the wine are complimented and the true spirit of the event is fully appreciated. For some very good Italian wine labeling information, go to www.wine-searcher.com/wine-label-italy.lml.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at razz49@aol.com.

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