This piece originally appeared in Rouses Magazine, Sept/Oct 2016
Reno De Ranieri, wine director for Link Restaurant Group in New Orleans, grew up in an Italian family right outside of San Francisco and slid into the culture of wine early and easily. Due to his upbringing and family traditions, Italian wines, grapes and vineyards hold a special place in De Ranieri’s heart. Italy’s cultural history has respected and venerated wine for millennia as part of food, family and life.
“So much of Italian culture is the family. It’s done around the table, and the wine is integral to it. I started having wine in my water when I was five years old. Just for color at first, but to get that impression across, that this is just part of life, this is enjoyable.”
De Ranieri’s family is originally from a small village called Santa Maria del Giudice in Tuscany, halfway between Lucca and Pisa, and he tries to visit Italy every year or so for both business and pleasure. He reflects on a trip to Sicily that several Link Group chefs and sommeliers took for inspiration: “We were trying to get an idea of their food because there is such a local Sicilian connection with a huge settlement on the West Bank.”
De Ranieri and his fellow sommeliers — Puck Hopkins at Peche, Joe Briand at Herbsaint and Daniel Riedlinger at Cochon — take turns going to Italy to visit and taste wine from different importers’ portfolios, from the Piedmont and the Veneto regions to Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna.
“Italy has a thousand different grapes with four thousand different names, so it’s fun to try to stay on top of that. That affords us the opportunity to geek out and try the new things that are always coming out and hitting the States.”
One Italian variety that already enjoys enormous popularity here is the light, refreshing, clean Pinot grigio. Primarily produced in Northern Italian climates, for a time the Pinot grigio grape seemed to take over the nation due to the sheer profitability of the wines exported overseas.
Try Annalisa Pinot Grigio, made in the Emilia-Romagna region and sold on the Rouses wine shelf, if you don’t already have a favorite.
Prosecco, a sparkling white wine made with Glera grapes, is another hugely popular Italian wine, sought out as an inexpensive alternative to French champagnes, and the quantity of producers and the quality of the finished product has increased dramatically over the last 20 years. Certified Prosecco is mainly made in the Veneto region of the country, near Venice. Try Mionetto, which has been producing Prosecco wines for more than 125 years, Ruffino produced from grapes grown in the hilly area of Valdobbiadene, Santa Margherita or Zonin.
The quality of Chianti, once thought of as a cheap wine, is now very high. He notes that there are many great Chianti producers out there, within and outside of the Classico region in Tuscany. “If you see Chianti on the label, you know that’s Sangiovese [grapes].” Donna Laura Vineyard is located in the town of Castelnuovo Berardenga within the Chianti Classico region in Tuscany, located in the southeastern part of the Chianti Classico zone. Ali Sangiovese di Toscana is made with 100% Sangiovese.
“I grew up drinking Chianti with dinner. I appreciate the value of sensory memory, how much the nose can bring back. But for me, we didn’t drink great wine growing up. It was just part of the table, it was just part of the food.”
Another wine from the same region, often containing Sangiovese grapes, is the “Super Tuscan” style of red wine, a term that De Ranieri says originated in the 1990s. These Super Tuscans can be pricier than other Italian styles, but there are values at Rouses to be found if you look, like the Brancaia Tre Rosso Toscana, which is made with a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. De Ranieri notes one sign of a Super Tuscan is when Sangiovese is blended with international grape varieties, as opposed to a Chianti, which is usually 100% Sangiovese.
De Ranieri encourages wine drinkers to figure out what type of Italian wine and grape works best for the palate by using current favorites as a starting point. Super Tuscans are great for people who enjoy a hearty Bordeaux red, for instance.
Other red wines to seek out, he says, are those produced in the northern Italian region of Piedmont, where the indigenous grapes most closely resemble the fruit grown in France.
“I’ve found that I can go into northern Piedmont and turn Burgundy drinkers onto some of the Alto Piemonte wines that might be a little bit bigger in body, a touch more tannic, but can really share a lot of the same flavors, that you can drink on a nightly basis.” Guidobono Barbera d’Alba, found at Rouses, is one such wine made just outside of Monforte in the Piedmont region.
In the Roero region, the Arneis white wine grape variety translates to “little rascal” in Piedmontese Italian because it’s pretty tricky to grow. One to try is the Demarie Langhe Arneis, grown by the Demarie Giovanni family, who have been working their land in the heart of the Roero region for three generations and counting. Roero Arneis grapes produce inexpensive whites from Northern Italy and are peachy, refreshing and perfect for Pinot Grigio drinkers and Rouses shoppers looking for something new.
Wines made in the Piedmont region are perfect for everyday drinking and complement the Gulf Coast’s climate and cuisine, De Ranieri says.
“I want a wine that people are going to be able to pair with food as well as drink a couple bottles with friends and have a conversation outside and maybe get a little boudin or something. It doesn’t make you feel full, it’s something nice and fresh.”
If looking for something a bit more intense, try a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, made with Montepulciano grapes in Abruzzo region on Italy’s Adriatic coast. The flavor profile is deep, rustic and spicy — tannic with low acidity. An example of this bold, full-flavored style that can be found at Rouses is the Zingara Montepulciano, a classic, well-rounded, plum-scented red.
With so many grapes, wine styles, vineyards and regions to consider, it’s time to step up and take a chance with a new Italian wine you’ve never heard of — though there’s nothing wrong with sticking to the classics like Pinot grigio, Chianti and Prosecco, of course. The price is right, what do you have to lose?