Eric Zollicoffer looked puzzled.
I had come to learn about Italian wines from Sotto Sotto’s beverage director of fourteen years when he suddenly paused mid-sentence. We were tasting vino from the hills of the Piedmont when Zollicoffer realized that the grape he named his wine list—"Nebbiolo d’Alba”—was now different from what was written on the bottle, which read, “Langhe Nebbiolo.”
“Why would the name change?” he wondered. “I need to ask about that.”
Responsible for one of the most extensive Italian wine lists in the city, Zollicoffer is unusually well-versed in Italy’s grapes, regions and sub-regions. Even he admits, though, that the country is difficult to grasp. Its wine culture can often come off as disorganized and as confusing as its political infrastructure. The country grows so many grape varietals that nobody really knows exactly how many there are: Numbers range from 350 to 3,000 to 20,000. The labels are just as perplexing. Is that the name of the wine? The grape varietal? The name of the winery? The region it was grown in? Sometimes the region is also the name of the grape, and sometimes it’s not.
As a way to summarize some go-to styles, Zollicoffer suggests diving in with the “ABCs” of Italian wines as well as some helpful pairings from dishes on Sotto Sotto's menu:
A is for Amarone. One of the most popular styles at Sotto Sotto, Amarone is the king of Veneto in northeastern Italy. High in alcohol with pronounced notes of raisin, Amarone is made from a blend of grapes: Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara.
Pairing: Risotto ai Funghi (wild mushroom risotto)
B is for Barbaresco, Barolo, Barbera, and Brunello. These styles of wine come from two different regions. First you have Barolos, Barberescos, and Barberas from northwestern Italy in Piedmont. Made from the Nebbiolo grape, Barolos and Barbarescos are robust, masculine wines that mean business. Think floral notes of bright fruit and violet with good structure and high tannins. Zollicoffer says that they’re similar to heavy Pinot Noirs. Barbarescos have historically been lighter, more feminine versions of Barolos.
Barbera, on the other hand, is probably the most famous grape in Italy. High in acid and low in tannins, Barbera is typically light and fresh with fruity, bright, bing cherries and some dark plum notes.
And then there’s Brunello from Tuscany, south of Piedmont. “If you pick up a Tuscan wine, you can pretty much bet that it’s made from Sangiovese,” says Zollicoffer. Brunellos tend to be bold, robust, spicy, and tannic and well suited for those who enjoy Napa Cabs, Zollicoffer said.
With Barbaresco: Strozzapreti alla Salsiccia (“priest strangler,” a ropy pasta with sweet sausage ragu)
With Barolo: Tortelli di Michelangelo (veal-chicken-pork ravioli in brown butter sage sauce)
With Brunello: Costoletta di Vitello (roasted veal chop)
With Barbera: Pappardelle al Sugo d’Anatra (pappardelle, braised duck ragu)
C is for Chianti. Also from Tuscany and made from the Sangiovese grape (or a blend where Sangiovese is prominent), Chianti is an easy-drinking wine with good acidity and red fruit notes. The group of wines labeled "Super Tuscans" are more frequently blends that incorporate Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Pairing: Lasagnette alla Bolognese (free-form noodles, bolognese, béchamel)