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Italian wines were once relegated to casual trattorias in Italian-centric neighborhoods or poured from carafes in Italian American households. But these days, they’re found in Michelin-starred restaurants and paired with everything from pizza to steak to Korean cuisine. With a wide range of styles providing superb quality at every price point, Italian wines are giving sommeliers an excellent option for enriching an array of hospitality experiences for their guests. Whether a wine director needs to fill a stylistic gap in an international list or is seeking a creative by-the-glass special to draw in guests, Italian wines always deliver.
“Italian wines are an important addition to any wine list that covers, carte blanche, the greater world of wine,” says Sam Bogue, the wine director for Ne Timeas Restaurant Group in San Francisco. While Flour + Water—the group’s Italian outpost that’s focused on regional pasta and pizza dishes—features an entirely Italian wine list, Bogue also seamlessly integrates Italian wines like Barolo and Montefalco Rosso into the international program at Central Kitchen, where the cuisine is a blend of Italian and northern Californian flavors. These bottles are essential to Bogue’s programs because, he says, “there is a certain terroir-driven flavor profile offered by Italian wine that, at its core, is so pleasing that it can pair with almost any cuisine.”
Because of the variety of styles offered throughout Italy, it’s easy to create a well-rounded wine list that appeals to every palate without ever looking outside the country’s 20 distinct regions. Still and sparkling; red, white, rosé, and orange; bone-dry to lusciously sweet—Italy has it all. “There is definitely something for everyone in Italy,” says Erik Segelbaum, who oversees the wine programs at more than 30 restaurants in his role as the corporate wine director for Starr Restaurants, based in Philadelphia.
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Depending on the concept of the restaurant, Segelbaum might include just a few Italian wines or feature a broad selection of major styles, but he frequently turns to Italy because of its diversity. “When I need to find an excellent representation of a missing style,” he says, “I can often rely on Italy to provide it.” Recently, Segelbaum has been gravitating toward Italian sparkling wines, noting that wines like Lambrusco provide stylistic range even within such a specific category. He also just added a two-page spread of fresh, chilled red wines to the list at Starr’s newest restaurant, St. Anselm in Washington, D.C. “There are many Italian options [here],” Segelbaum says, listing single-varietal wines like Frappato, Teroldego, and Cannonau. “Italy seems to have a plethora of perfectly structured, easy-drinking wines that sing when chilled. The guest response has been incredible!”
While the range created made possible by Italy’s 590 (and counting) indigenous grapes lends excitement and dimension to wine programs, it may sometimes take a little extra effort to promote some of the unfamiliar varieties to less adventurous guests. “With sufficient research and commitment to hospitality,” says Jared Fischer, the beverage manager of Locanda Verde in New York City, “it’s possible to delve into the esoteric corners of Italian wine to create a list that also satisfies more conservative palates.” Determined to celebrate as many native grapes of Italy as possible, Fischer includes a consigliato, or “recommended,” section of the list for those who may be hesitant to speak with a sommelier. It employs humorous and romantic descriptions to make guests feel comfortable with unfamiliar varieties. Bogue also offers unusual Italian alternatives to international grapes, focusing on versions that maintain friendly flavor profiles. For example, he says, “we sell a tangy and fresh Barbera to the Pinot Noir drinker, and then a rustic and leathery Aglianico to the Cabernet Sauvignon drinker.”
Broadening Premium Options
As winemakers continue to broaden the already diverse range of Italian wines, the quality of these wines, influenced by the country’s millennia-old culture of winemaking, is also rising. And while vintners respect the traditions that have been passed down through generations, they’re also driven to innovate, integrating new technology and spearheading sustainable winemaking efforts to create refined, terroir-driven wines throughout the country. These efforts have helped draw consumer attention to Italy’s premium wines, which can therefore add value to wine lists.
“Big-name, premium Italian wines go a long way toward helping guests feel comfortable with a wine program,” Bogue says. Wines like Barolo, Barbaresco, and Brunello di Montalcino have name recognition for guests, many of whom recognize that high-end Italian wines offer far more value than top bottles from other countries. “The public can buy high-quality Italian wines that rival the best from any top producer in the world,” says Maurizio Forte, a trade commissioner for the Italian Trade Agency.
But even when they reach top dollar, premium Italian wines are valued because guests appreciate the complexity, depth, and quality found in each bottle. It’s a win-win situation—not only does this enhance the hospitality experience for guests but it increases wine sales for a restaurant. “It’s not very hard for someone to commit more than $300 for a Barbaresco, Amarone, or Bolgheri,” says Segelbaum, adding that there are also opportunities for guests to explore superb high-end wines from other regions, like Abruzzo and Sicily. “I think,” he emphasizes, “people should be willing to explore exceptional wines from everywhere in Italy.”
Pairing and Pouring Creatively
“The essence of Italian wine is the beautiful connection it shares with food,” says Bogue. Lively and layered, Italian wines are meant to be paired with meals, just as they are every evening at dinner tables across Italy. Regional pairings honed over centuries create natural harmony. They can also be an excellent way to introduce guests to new wines through the connection made with a plate of Piemontese agnolotti or a Roman fiori di zucca pizza. Fischer plans to highlight such matches through a series of dinners at Locanda Verde next spring. “The wide range of flavor profiles in Italian wine,” he says, “allows for the possibility of many synergistic pairings where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
But Italian wine shouldn’t only be limited to Italian dishes. The freshness and range of Italy’s wines opens up possibilities to all types of cuisine, from Japanese sushi to Korean barbecue, to traditional American dishes, which is something that Italians caught on to long ago. “For Italians, this is absolutely normal and encouraged,“ Forte says. “American sommeliers are realizing that the complexity and diversity of Italian wines offer infinite pairing solutions. They are our most important allies in bringing awareness to American consumers.”
One somm who is already an expert at pairing Italian wines with Asian cuisine is Jhonel Faelnar, the wine director of Atomix in Manhattan, which debuted with a menu of upscale Korean dishes in May. Faelnar features a few Italian options on his international bottle list, including a 1978 Barbaresco that he recently successfully paired with a dish of Waygu beef, sea cucumber, and sea urchin for guests. “Italian reds and whites are generally acid driven with wonderful texture,” Faelnar says. “With Korean flavors, these work really well.” Atoboy, the more casual sister restaurant to Atomix, also currently features an Italian wine, a white from Lazio, in its by-the-glass selection.
Beyond pairings, sommeliers often turn to Italian wines to build interest with creative specials. “It should be very easy to use Italian wines as [individual] splashes on the canvas of sales,” Segelbaum says. “Don’t be afraid to pour a special bottle of Nero d’Avola or Teroldego by the glass.” Because Italian wines age so well, it’s also possible to find older vintages to feature as attention-grabbing by-the-glass pours. Elizabeth-Rose Mandalou, the sommelier and a partner of Allora in Sacramento, California, likes to create flights of Italian wines to illustrate the range within a specific category. Recently, she served Arneis from three different Roero producers. “It was well received,” Mandalou says, “as it’s a fuller, richer grape that really sits on the palate, with an unmistakable mineral finish.”
Italian wines have achieved a level of acclaim that goes well beyond their old reputation for being easy-drinking backdrops to everyday meals. The category is increasingly being recognized as a celebration of Italian culture, now synonymous with high-quality, intriguing options that consistently attract guests to restaurants—and help set wine programs apart. With the ever-expanding depth of Italy’s offerings, sommeliers can rely on Italian wines to add character to their wine programs while maintaining an entirely unique style.
Discover more about Italian wine.
With at least 4,000 years of winemaking history, Italy is a cornerstone of the wine world. Today the country’s 20 regions, more than 400 appellations, and nearly 600 grape varieties are undergoing a true renaissance.