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swirl and savor

Italian Wine, Love at First Sip

Beth Ribblett

My love affair with wine began with Italy. I didn’t know when I jumped in headfirst that it was probably the most difficult viticultural country to understand. With over 800 distinct grape varietals, 21 classified regions and hard to decipher wine labels, Italian wines are a never-ending source of intrigue or intimidation, depending on your outlook. For me however, there is no other place in the world where food, wine and cultural are so beautifully entwined. The experience of drinking Italian wine isn’t complete with the regional food products that complement it. Italians truly thrive on personal contact and they think very carefully about how everything at their table - the wine, the food, the people, the place - fits together.

On my journey there have been two books that have helped guide me through the maze of Italian wine. I read Vino Italiano by Joseph Bastianich & David Lynch when I want to curl up on the sofa and learn about the Italian wine experience of a particular region. This engaging book explores each region's predominant grapes, winemaking styles, major producers and the history and culture of the region. At the end of each chapter they give recommendations for a tasting of wines from the region, travel tips and delicious regional recipes by Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali to accompany the food.

When I’m looking for very specific information on a certain wine and its producer, there is no other book to reach for than Gambero Rosso Vini d’Italia ( Published yearly, it is a guide to the best wine production in Italy, a reference book for both enthusiasts and professionals. The
guide is an off-shoot of the Slow Food movement founded in Italy by Carlo Petrini in 1986. Slow Food ( is an international association that promotes food and wine culture, but also defends food and agricultural biodiversity worldwide. It opposes the standardization of taste, defends the need for consumer information, protects cultural identities tied to food and gastronomic traditions, safeguards foods and cultivation and processing techniques inherited from tradition and defends domestic and wild animal and vegetable species.

Unlike other wine evaluation magazines and publications whose scores represent one reviewer’s opinion, Gambero Rosso uses panels of experts to review the wines and created an evaluation system expressed in “glasses”, from one to three for the best wines of all. The “Tre Bicchieri” (three glasses) label has becomes a byword for quality.

For the 2008 edition, 30 plus tasting panels each comprised of five judges worked for over 2 months blind tasting around 25,000 wines. Just under 10,000 wines were rejected outright and the rest were awarded scores ranging ranging from simple honorable mention to 2 glasses. From that phase 1500 wines were selected for the finals in Rome, and only 305 received the highest award, the renowned Tre Bicchieri® (Three Glasses).

Three sentences at the end of the introduction in Gambero Rosso 2006 provide some wonderful insight as to how Italians feel about wine; “…a great wine, or even just an honestly made one, is more than just something to drink. Above all, a wine is the soul of a territory in the bottle. More often that not, it is a product of the love that binds the winemaker to the local soil.” I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of my 2009 edition!