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Italian Wines 101

As September nears, Italian farmers prepare to harvest the grapes for this year's vintage, which is expected to be of exceptional quality. The combination of a cold, wet winter and a scorching sun in July and August have created just the right conditions for a stellar harvest. Though we won't be decanting any '09 bottles for quite some time, you can still reap the rewards of the vintner's work even if a trip to Italy isn't in your future plans. While we all know of Chianti and Pinot Grigio, American consumers also have access to hundreds of Italian wines; in fact, the US is the biggest importer of Italian wines in the world. Take advantage of the wide selection to start your own collection, as a bottle of Italian wine is the perfect thing to have on hand for unexpected guests or an evening in. Even for the novice oenophile, it isn't that difficult to begin, with plenty of high quality bottles readily available at your local wine shop. Italian wines can often be confusing, however, because most are named after their region of production, so you'll see a wide variety of names that may not be as familiar as French classics like Merlot and Chardonnay.

To help you get started on your path to Italian wine enlightenment, we've asked for some advice from our dear friend, Andrea Tiberi. Tiberi has collaborated with Select Italy on various culinary services, including a NY-based food delivery and catering service, This award-winning, Umbrian chef has embarked on a new adventure -- opening a wine-cellar in the East Village of Manhattan called Cellar 58. Tiberi shares with us his recommendations for wine-tasting and collecting:

What is your favorite wine?
The Sagrantino di Montefalco: it is a wine of my home land, Umbria, and mostly is grown in the region surrounding Assisi, my hometown. It's a dry, strong, structured wine that goes well with red meats or strongly flavored cheese. If you add a fireplace and good friends... it can be happiness!

Italian white wines aren't as well known among Americans -- what is your favorite white wine?
I'm so glad that Prosecco is getting some appreciation with the American public. I love it: it is light, fresh, bubbly and I personally digest it easier than Champagne. It feels like a summer breeze and always lightens up the end of a long day.

Which region do you think will be the next big thing in wine-production?
Sicily has been doing amazing work with their wines in the last 10-20 years, both oenologically and commercially. Today, Sicily offers a variety of top level reds and whites: Nero d'Avola and Regaleali, to name just two.

In your opinion, what is the best dessert wine?
A good Passito di Pantelleria always carries along the taste and energy of all the sun it absorbs to become passito: despite the proliferation of many dessert wines in recent years, it remains my favorite.

Anyone starting a wine cellar or collection should include these three wines:

Well, that's a difficult one... but I'd make sure to always have [besides what I already mentioned]

  1. a warm Brunello di Montalcino as an important red for the winter
  2. an elegant Pigato from Liguria as a white for the summer
  3. and for those days when you feel a bit "cold inside," a bottle of top Amarone della Valpolicella, a good "meditation wine" to have on hand.

What wines should any serious cook have in his kitchen and why?
I like that question. I get it all the time and most often I find myself clarifying the rather common belief that one should cook with "lower quality" wines. It's not so. In general, a Chef cooks with the same wines served on the restaurant floor and, possibly, with the same wine that is going to be served at the table. Of course, this is not always possible or the case, but the concept of a symmetry between wines drunk at the table and wines used in the kitchen should be clear.

select italy Cellar 58 is located at 58 Second Avenue in New York, NY. Stop in to try Chef Tiberi's cuisine and one of these fabulous Italian wines. No reservations required.

Red Wine Risotto with Gorgonzola and Pears

For many people, Autumn symbolizes a return to normalcy after the long days of summer and vacation-time escapes. You'll return to the old grindstone, the kids will be back in school, but there's no need to snore with boredom! Cozy up for the coming chilly weather by spending some quality time in the kitchen with a good bottle of wine -- a Sagrantino di Montefalco to be precise. Take a moment to celebrate Fall with this recipe from Andrea Tiberi, chef of Cellar 58; a perfect treat for an evening at home alone or with friends.

Risotto with Sagrantino di Montefalco Red Wine, Gorgonzola Cheese and Fresh Pears

Ingredients (serves 6)
  • 1 lb Carnaroli rice CRESPI
  • 3 glasses (approximately 1.5 cups) Sagrantino di Montefalco
  • 1 cup Gorgonzola cheese
  • 2 Fresh pears, diced
  • 2 shallots, chopped
  • 2 cups Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 1 Tablespoon of Butter
  • 8 cups Vegetable stock
  • 1/3 cup Extra virgin olive oil
  • Sea Salt
  • Sauté 2 chopped shallots in a large pan and brown with about 2 tablespoons of the oil.
  • Add the rice and toast for 5 minutes over a low heat, then baste with 3 glasses of red wine (and pour yourself a glass of wine to drink as well!). Meanwhile bring 8 cups of vegetable stock to a boil in a large pot.
  • Let the wine evaporate, and then add boiling stock to cover the rice.
  • Every time the rice thickens, add more stock, stirring constantly and keeping the rice at a boil.
  • After the rice has cooked for 15 minutes, add one diced pear together with the Gorgonzola.
  • After about 18 minutes, remove the rice from the heat and “mantecare” (mix gently with a spoon, off the fire) with 1 tablespoon of butter, grated Parmigiano, and the rest of the oil.
  • Serve with a sprinkle of Parmigiano and additional pear slices as decoration.
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Cheese, Glorious Cheese!

Nothing goes better with wine than a little cheese. While in America, we mostly see “Parmesan” in grated or ‘shaky’ form, the Italians know that this cheese is much too tasty for mere garnish. In fact, you’ll often see Parmigiano served as a stand-alone snack; for example, small chunks at cocktail hour. The crisp, sharp flavor of a good Parmigiano can complement a great full-bodied wine, such as a Chianti Classico Riserva or even a Chardonnay (Italian please, no French wines allowed!)

Parmigiano-Reggiano gains its name from the region of production: Parmigiano meaning from Parma and Reggiano referring to the region of Reggio-Emilia. All true Parmigiano comes from this area and is registered by the Italian government as D.O.P., Denominazione d'Origine Protetta (or Protected Designation of Origin). In other words, if you don’t see that D.O.P. marking, it’s probably not real Parmigiano – a very common thing in the US where the term "Parmesan" has come to mean any grated, hard cheese.

Like Italian wines, Parmigiano-Reggiano gets better with age. In 2007, a stamping system was devised to identify the minimum age for wily consumers. Red stamps indicate aging of 18 months or more, Silver of 22 months or more, and Gold of 30 months or more. The longer the cheese ages, the sharper the taste. Parmigiano-Reggiano can be quite costly, particularly Vacche Rosse (red cows), so make sure to make the most of it. If you aren’t serving it on its own, use it in a dish that has light flavors so that you can really taste the Parm.

If you’re interested in learning more about Parmigiano, the best way is a visit to Parma on your trip to Italy. To experience Parmigiano in its natural habitat, try our Tour & Taste program, Ham and Cheese, where you can visit a Parma caseificio, or cheese factory, to see how this hard cheese is made. Plus, you’ll get to taste two of Emilia Romagna’s other most beloved products: prosciutto and balsamic vinegar. Round out your Parma stay by learning how to cook Parmigiana style in our Cucina di Parma cooking class. Cooking classes and tastings aren’t just for foodies or gourmands, they’re for anyone with taste buds! These classes are the perfect way to obtain a souvenir that is far more delectable than a postcard: you’ll leave Italy with a delicious Italian experience that you can share with your friends back home at your next dinner party or wine and cheese tasting.

selectitaly iconFor more on Select Italy's cooking classes, tastings, and winery visits, visit our Food and Wine page. Services are available for all areas of Italy and can be booked online or by phone at 800-877-1755. Don't see what you're looking for? We can customize tastings and classes to suit your interests or needs.
Compiled and researched by Select Italy.
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