When Italian Wine Is Like Trying On A New Pair Of Jeans

Any wine has structure (some combination of acidity, tannins and minerality) balanced out by softness (alcohol, glycerol and in sweet wines, sugar). Since Italian wine is made to go with food and often also made to age, it typically has more structure than softness. It’s like jeans that you have trouble zipping yourself into in the dressing room, but you know will become your favorite pair.

If you buy the ones that zip easily, they get loose, baggy, flaccid in a short time. Same with wine. If wine tastes fruity and soft in your mouth with lots of alcohol and roundness, but not much structure, it will taste heavy with food and go flaccid and flat in the cellar in a short time.

red-wine-top-down

Let’s see how this works with a dry, red “natural” wine.

Natural is not certification but a philosophy. Wine in Italy was “natural” until after World War II when scientific technology began to dominate the vineyard and the cellar.

“Natural” wine is made from grapes grown in vineyards with soil that is “alive” and healthy, surrounded by biodiversity, and without the use of industrial farming methods (ie. no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, fertilizers, etc.). And in the cellar, the grapes ferment with native yeasts. Nothing is added or subtracted in the cellar (except maybe a tiny bit of sulfites at bottling) and no industrial methods (reverse osmosis, spinning cone extraction, etc.) Some are certified organic or biodynamic, but many use those methods without being certified.

95% or more of all wine made is not “natural”. Lots of technology is available to “construct” wine in the cellar and make it taste however the consumer wants it to taste. “Natural” wine, on the other hand, reflects the terroir (the place, the grape variety and the people who make the wine). It’s usually “perfectly unbalanced” like your new pair of jeans. Let’s see how it works.

Here’s our sample “natural” red wine:
– 13.5% alcohol
– grape variety with good acidity and lots of tannins
fermentation in stainless steel containers with native yeasts
– maceration (wine stays with skins) for two weeks
– aging in large, old wood barrels for 2 years
– aging in bottle for one year

When you smell the wine, you get complex red, fruity aromas.
When you taste, you get:
– delicate red fruit flavors
– lots of salivation coming from the back corners of your mouth, (the acidity)
– a dry astringency on your tongue (the tannins)

(NB. Minerality is more recognizable in white wines with no tannins. It is a crisp dryness on the tongue.)

Those sensations are the structure, the snug fitting jeans that haven’t yet been worn in.

If you pair this wine with meat, this lamb dish, for example…
lamb
The fattiness and the juiciness of the sauce and the meat will balance out the tannic astringency. The acidity will clean your palate. And, you will be looking forward to another forkful of lamb and another sip of wine.

Italian wine on its own is typically “unbalanced” because it’s meant to go with food. Together, they balance each other out. The more structure the food has, the more structure, the wine needs to have.
cheese
Pairing the wine with cheeses will have the same effect. The oiliness and strong flavors in the cheese will be balanced out by the structure of the wine.

Over time, the structure of a wine softens, like your jeans get worn in. So, if you put this wine in the cellar with lots of acidity and tannins now, it will gradually become more balanced as the tannins soften naturally and the acidity begins to fade..

If the wine goes in wood, the wood tannins will exchange with the wine tannins and soften more quickly. The smaller the container and the newer the container, the faster the wood tannins will replace the wine tannins and the more the aromas of wood will be present in the wine. These big, old barrels allow the wine to breathe and the tannins to soften slowly without adding a woody aroma or flavor that will overwhelm the wine..

big-barrel

Let’s take a sample white wine:
– 12% alcohol
– grape variety with lots of acidity
– vineyard with lots of limestone in the soil
fermentation with native yeasts in stainless steel
– no skin contact
– aging in stainless steel and in the bottle

img_7122

You get:
– delicate, fresh floral/fruit aromas and flavors
– lots of salivation (acidity)
– a slight dryness on your tongue (minerality)

The light structure of the wine and the high acidity and minerality are a perfect pairing for seafood.
seafood

Or for Tortelli with spinach and ricotta.
tortelli

If a white wine has enough minerality and acidity, it can age. A few weeks ago, I tasted an outstanding white from 1997 that still had lively freshness and minerality (I Clivi Friulano

In the New World (United States, Australia, New Zealand, etc.), there is more of a wine quaffing culture: pour a glass without food and sip on it. In the States, palates have been formed on milk, sodas, beer and cocktails so Americans typically like round, soft wine. This is why so many New World/American wines are big and fruity with lots of alcohol and not much structure. They are jeans that feel soft and worn in already.

Italian wine, especially natural wine that reflects the terroir more than the palate of the consumer, is “perfectly unbalanced” like your new pair of jeans. And now you know why.

November, 2016

For information on scheduling a event or classes about Italian Natural Wine for your friends or your business in the US, contact Eleanor.

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