Northern Italy’s gifts of vino are the perfect complement to the holiday season.
Searching for the perfect complement to your seasonal feast? For your holiday wines, look to Northern Italy for everything from big reds for holiday feasts to lively bubbles for ringing in a new year.
When selecting, arguably the two most important regions in Northern Italy are Piedmont in the Northwest and the Veneto in the Northeast. In Piedmont, the ice-cold Alps and the warm Mediterranean affect the weather by creating a tug-of-war that produces happy wine grapes and great wine. There is a range of styles created there—from the bold and age-worthy red wines of Nebbiolo to the gentle, sweet, bubbly white wines of Moscato d’Asti. In Veneto, Valpolicella reigns supreme as its own distinct viticultural zone. The Amarone produced here earned DOCG (Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin) status in 2009, Italy’s official top-tier wine classification. This richly flavored dry red wine is truly one of Italy’s finest and age-worthy wines, but it’s not the only wine produced in Valpolicella.
Mornings are Made for Mimosas
There is a lot to know and appreciate about Prosecco, the Saturday brunch mimosa go-to. In the past, Prosecco was both the name of the wine and the grape from which it came, but Glera is now the accepted name of the Prosecco grape. Prosecco too is made in the Veneto region of Northern Italy, around the city of Treviso just outside of Venice. Typical aromas on the nose are pear, apple, melon, and floral notes such as honeysuckle.
This wine is created by the charmat method, in which the fermented wine goes through its secondary fermentation in big steel tanks, giving it the delightful, festive bubbles we all know and love. The tank method and secondary fermentation is efficient, making Prosecco less expensive to produce and purchase. Efficient, though, doesn’t mean this bubbly is unexciting or uncomplicated. Prosecco is made with highly aromatic grapes, and the cleaner tank method allows those aromatics to shine through, literally bubbling up in the finished product. Prosecco, compared with the higher price point for decent entry-level Champagne, works in favor of the recent trend of indulging more often in an every-person’s, everyday sparkling wine. Keep in mind that this wine doesn’t age in-bottle like Champagne and is best enjoyed within a few years after harvest.
Traditionally poured as an aperitif wine enjoyed before meals, Prosecco also pairs well with seafood, pasta, or fish dishes served with a creamy sauce. Because Prosecco is versatile, it works as a palate cleanser, cutting through the fat content of these dishes. Use it to complement, rather than contrast, a dish, pairing it with desserts, where the sweetness of the wine will match the sweetness of the dessert.
Proseccos from Adriano Adami Spumanti, Canella Wines, and Ornella Molon Traverso are highly suggested.
Let it Sparkle with Moscato d’Asti
Moscato is one thing, and Moscato d’Asti is another. Our sparkling friend Moscato d’Asti is more complex than it seems, both in taste and production. Produced in the town of Asti, a subregion of Piedmont in Northern Italy, Moscato d’Asti is made from Moscato grapes. Moscato grapes generally make off-dry wines that are delicate, spritzy, and floral. Flavors of ripe peach, candied orange, lemon zest, and an entire florist’s shop can fill a glass of it. Fresh and light, these wines are not aged long or in oak and can have a candied complexity that satisfies both wine novices and sommeliers.
Mocato d’Asti producers make wine all year long. Producers pick, crush, and then separate the must, or freshly crushed grape juice, into several large lots and chill it. The cold prevents any ambient yeasts from leaping into the sugary must to start a spontaneous fermentation. Cold temperatures also protect the aromatics and halt bacterial growth. Refrigeration, unlike other techniques for preserving grapes, also keeps the fresh, delicate flavors of wine, meaning quality doesn’t suffer because of staggering fermentations throughout the year.
While popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, Moscato d’Asti has a 500-year history in Northern Italy, where it is considered an easy-drinking aperitif or dessert accompaniment. With bottlings from $15 to $50, it’s easy to see why—attempt a delicious experiment if you’re not yet convinced. Try a bottle from La Spinetta, Marchesi di Gresy, or Saracco Moscato d’Asti.
The King and Queen of Northern Italian Red Wines
The king and queen of Northern Italian reds both hail from one of Italy’s most well-known wine regions: Piedmont. Barolo and Barbaresco are made from the same grape, Nebbiolo, but produced in different subregions within Piedmont. Depending on how and where the wine is made and how long it’s aged, divergent aspects of Nebbiolo will come out. Both Barolo and Barbaresco showcase the strong expressiveness of the Nebbiolo grape. Barolo has a fuller mid-palate, credited to its minimum aging requirement of three years compared with Barbaresco’s two. Because Nebbiolo ripens a bit sooner in Barbaresco, the wine can be enjoyed a bit sooner than Nebbiolo from Barolo.
Known as big and bad, rich and full-bodied, Barolo is considered the king of Italian wines. A Barolo is solely composed of the Nebbiolo grape and is produced in the northwestern portion of Piedmont called Langhe. Flavors of rose flower, tar, and dried herbs are common. Barolo is aged for at least two years in oak and one year in bottle. Five years of age, three in oak, is required for Riserva labeling. The cream of the crop when it comes to Italian reds, high in acid and tannins, the Barolo DOCG is the highest classification for Italian wines and denotes specific production methods and a quality guarantee.
That being said, it is perfectly acceptable to pop a bottle this holiday season. Barolo is perfect when paired with mushroom risottos in the fall or hearty steak dinners in the winter. It is one of the most age-worthy wines available—drinkable daily, and collectable, too. A Barolo from La Spinetta or Marchesi di Barolo makes a great gift.
The queen of wine, Barbaresco, is grown in the hills of Piedmont’s Langhe area, separated from the Barolo growing zone by the city of Alba. The region has slightly younger soils and is more appropriate for the production of a softer wine. Barbaresco’s small growing zone covers just 1,823 acres with an average annual output of 4.5 million bottles. An extraordinary wine to get your hands on, there is only a third as much Barbaresco vinified annually compared with Barolo.
One of Italy’s top wines, Barbaresco has, for many years, been one of its most underappreciated gems. Producers have raised the bar, thanks in part to a new generation of winemakers who are embracing more natural farming methods, creating even higher quality wine. This area of Langhe has a unique microclimate because of the proximity to the Tanaro River and the generally lower elevation. The weather encourages exceptional freshness and balance in its Nebbiolo grapes.
Barbaresco is a terroir-driven wine that possesses energy and finesse. Full-bodied and intense, the wine is more about complexity and elegance and less about sheer muscle. The queen of wine boasts enticing scents of violet, red berry, and earthy sensations like leather and underbrush. While Barbaresco can have austere structure, not unlike Borolo, it typically doesn’t have the same tannic force as the king of Italian reds. While age-worthy, it tends to be approachable sooner.
A good fit for a featured pour by the glass, or by the bottle to share with loved ones this season, suggested Barbarescos are from La Spinetta and Marchesi di Barolo. The wine pairs brilliantly with a variety of dishes, including pasta dishes topped with savory tomato sauces and four-cheese gnocchi.
Decorate Your Table with Reds
The Veneto is another of Italy’s well-known fine wine regions. This region has wine styles as diverse as its climate. Near the coast, the weather is mild, hot in the center, and cool in the west. The main reds of the region are all made with the same indigenous grapes—Corvina, Rondinella, Corvinone, and Molinara. All four grapes are grown throughout the region, and, in the area of Valpolicella, they are made into a dry red-style wine with the same name. This is a light, high-acid red wine, and it generally sees no oak aging. Valpolicella DOC (Denomination of Controlled Origin) wines must be made using 45 to 95 percent Corvina.
Amarone della Valpolicella is made entirely from dried Valpolicella wine grapes. Amarone translates to “great bitter” and is a full-bodied, slightly raisinated wine with a pleasantly bitter finish. Its taste is balanced by hints of dark berries and some cocoa notes. In Ripasso della Valpolicella, fresh Valpolicella Classico wine is mingled with leftover skins from Amarone winemaking. Often referred to as “Baby Amarone” by producers, this process takes all the flavors and elevates them even further to reveal more alcohol, body, tannins, stewed fruit, and raisin flavors.
The big reds of Valpolicella work especially well for the holiday season on the shelf and on wine lists. They are available at a range of prices, which gives more people the chance to enjoy them. Amarone lands at the highest price point; Valpolicella Classico is a pleasant, inexpensive, and fruity wine; and Ripasso covers the middle ground. Look for brands produced by Speri Viticoltori, Tenuta Santa Maria, Tommasi Family Estates, and Castellani Wine Company.
Whether you eat turkey, roast beef, or salmon this holiday season, spend some time preparing your own holiday wine-drinking traditions. A careful selection can turn any party, dinner, or gift-giving session into a long-lasting memory.
Charlotte Young is creative & PR manager at Imperial Beverage. The Kalamazoo-based distributor brings a diverse portfolio of imported and domestic wine to local retail stores and restaurants, as well as thousands of beers, spirits, and non-alcoholics. A long-standing member of the Michigan beverage distribution community, Imperial Beverage was established in 1933 after the repeal of Prohibition and purchased by Kalamazoo’s Cekola family in 1984. With 390 employees and four locations in Kalamazoo, Livonia, Ishpeming, and Traverse City, Imperial provides statewide coverage that serves every Michigan County, every week, all year long.