Love, Italian Style

Why do St. Louisans love Italian wines so much? The answer is somewhat simple: There is just so much to love. Wines from Italy romance for a plethora of reasons: unique grape varieties, food-friendliness, diverse wine styles, and the quality that is available whether you spend $12 or $50 a bottle. Combine these factors with local Italian pride, and it’s no wonder the passion for these wines continues to grow.

It goes without saying that Italian wines have held their place at the American dinner table for decades. However, the quality of Italian wines today sits at an all-time high. “The wines have improved dramatically since the implementation of Italy’s national wine laws in the 1960s,” said Tony Viviano, wine and spirits director at John Viviano & Sons grocery on The Hill. (This was when Italy’s DOC appellation system was enacted, establishing new quality regulations, both in the vineyard and the winery.) Anthony Bommarito Jr. of local wine distributor A. Bommarito Wines agreed. “The trend I see now … is clear – quality,” he said. “It has become apparent that the St. Louis wine drinker, even a novice, has the ability to discern quality.”

And they want value, too. “Over the last several months, our customers are leaning toward our better-value wines,” said Michelle Adams, certified sommelier and co-owner of Ricardo’s Italian Cafe in Lafayette Square.“They may still splurge on a special occasion, but overall they are looking for a good-quality wine under $40 a bottle.” This is undoubtedly in part because of the state of the economy, but the curiosity of these savvier wine drinkers also has them “looking for something different within their budget,” Adams said. “They are asking more questions and looking for wines other than their normal California Cabernet or Chardonnay.” Popular Italian reds at Ricardo’s are Negroamaro and Primitivo from Puglia, Nero d’Avola from Sicily, Sangiovese (called Chianti when grown in that region, but otherwise labeled by varietal), and a “fabulous” Sicilian Merlot, Adams said. For the whites, she cited Verdicchio from the Marche region, Falanghina from Campania, Sicily’s Inzolia, Soave Classico (made from Garganega grapes in Veneto), and Gavi (made from Cortese grapes in Piedmont).

For those seeking that something different, Italy offers more than 700 diverse miles from north to south. “The country has a wide range of climate, topography, terrain and soil types, which leads to different growing conditions throughout the country,” Bommarito said. “Also playing a significant contributing role in the diversity of Italian wines are its numerous indigenous grape varieties – approximately 2,000 – some of which are grown by only a handful of producers.”

With such a wide variety of wine styles available, which ones are getting the most attention in St. Louis? Larry Fuse, owner of Lorenzo’s Trattoria on The Hill said, “We sell a lot of Chianti and Pinot Grigio by the bottle; however, Gavi is definitely our hottest white wine by the glass.” Fuse also noted that his customers love trying more obscure Italian wines such as Valpolicella (a red made from the Corvina grape in the Veneto region), Barbera (the grape of the same name is grown extensively in Piedmont), and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, (a lighter-bodied red made from Sangiovese grapes in Tuscany).

At Tony’s, customers are going for the standout Sicilian wines on the list – and a comprehensive wine list it is. “People are much more willing and open to trying new and different Italian wines today,” said executive chef Vincent P. Bommarito. Some of the downtown restaurant’s most popular are Dolcetto and Barbera wines from Piedmont, Chianti Classico Reserves, and “all the Tuscan blends, which are very good and reasonably priced,” he said.

Craig Adams, owner of Vino Vitae Gourmet Wine Shop in Lafayette Square, has been busy introducing his customers to Italian wines, such as Frescobaldi Chianti Rufina Castello di Nipozzano Riserva, “a mid-range Chianti on the 2008 Wine Spectator Top 100 list, is a great one to try versus an entry-level generic Chianti.” Adams is also a fan of alternative Italian whites and turns his customers on to “ones with more depth, like Verdicchio and Orvieto.” He also confessed his affinity for personal favorites Barolo (made from the Nebbiolo grape) and Brunello (made from the Brunello grape, a relative of Sangiovese) for reds, and Falanghina for whites, “which has been one of my hottest sellers.” Viviano’s favorites include lesser-known grapes from southern Italy: “an Aglianico from Campania, a Gaglioppo from Calabria or a Grillo from Sicily.”

Experts seemed to agree that two hot regions to watch are the “amazing” wines of Piedmont, according to Michelle Adams, and wines from southern Italy, especially those from Sicily, “which offer tremendous value,” Viviano said. Some of these trendy wines are indigenous varietal wines; some are blends of traditional, internationally grown grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot; and some are a mélange of both.

The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step – or wine, in this case. As Michelle Adams so succinctly advised, “The only thing that Italians really want for us is to slow down, enjoy life and drink good wine.” Vince Bommarito shared similar words of wisdom: “In keeping with the true Italian way, just keep on drinking the wine!”