An interesting article in last week’s New York Times Magazine, “The Wrath of Grapes,” highlighted a growing division in California wine-making about how their wines should taste. Should their wines be exuberantly fruit-focused and powerful or more acidic, earthy and even less alcoholic? Alternatively, should their wines taste like many of the wines loved by the extremely influential critic Robert Parker or should they taste more like the wines of Europe?
Though not mentioned in the article, to me, this highlighted the differences in the way that Italians (and a great many Europeans from wine-growing regions) view and drink wine compared to how most Americans do. This difference has impacted the way wines are made.
To me, this divide is rather simple. Most Americans view wine as they do a cocktail, an alcoholic beverage that can taste great and be immensely enjoyable to consume on its own. This has helped lead to dry wines that taste full of fruit notes, sometimes a creaminess with white wines, and a very full flavor and mouth-feel. Wine is often viewed as stand-alone entity; a quality wine exists on its own merits. Historically, wine has not been part of the everyday dining experience, as it is in much of Europe. For most Americans, eating and drinking are two separate items, and activities. For example, we go to a wine bar and just drink wine.
In Italy, wine is food. This is highlighted in an Italian wine newsletter I received yesterday, “According to nutritionist Giorgio Calabrese and cardiologist Antonio Colombo, wine is a kind of food…[and] should never be consumed on an empty stomach.” In Italy, you are almost never offered wine without food. At the humble neighborhood bar – even if it is labeled an enoteca – an order of a glass of wine will automatically be accompanied by some snacks, maybe olives, chips, nuts or even small sandwiches. More so, wine is part of the meal, meant to complement the food. And, the wines taste that way. Most have ample acidity that does make most foods taste better even if the wine might taste a bit tart without food. The wines are also more balanced and have other components – often an earthiness, minerality or level of tannins – that seem to go well with a certain range of foods. Many times, Italian wines, and French, German Austrian wines, particularly, feel to me that something is missing without food. Most of these wines need a food complement, even a piece of bread or cheese, to taste complete.
That Italians look at wine differently has helped shape the wines, and made them an often terrific match to food, Italian and otherwise.