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Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Full Monte

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A couple of years ago, I was going to assemble my world-famous (or at least within the world of the household) Eggplant Parmesan. I knew next to nothing about Italian wine at that point. I headed directly to the Chianti section of the wine store and puzzled over racks full of wines ending in I's and O's. On a whim, I picked a bottled labeled "Montepulciano." Took it home, made the parmesan, cracked the wine, poured glasses…

Zowie!

The flavor was not at all what I expected. This wine had a much deeper fruit flavor, was much less "chalky" than Chianti, and was smoother overall. I fell in love with the stuff then and there, and Montepulciano has become my staple Italian food wine ever since.

Let me amend that statement - Montepulciano d'Abruzzo has become my staple Italian food wine.

Why the clarification? "Montepulciano" is a wine double-entendre. There's a Montepulciano region in Tuscany and a Montepulciano grape varietal. To further muddy the waters, wines made in Montepulciano contain no Montepulciano.

First, the region. The Montepulciano growing region is just to the northwest of Chianti. Most wines made in Montepulciano (much like Chianti) are blends made from around 70% Sangiovese. Since they're neighboring provinces, Chianti and Montepulciano taste somewhat similar. These wines are somewhat light in body, a bit tannic, and with that trademark "chalkiness."

The best of these wines are labeled "Vino Nobile di Montepulciano." These wines start at about $20 and go up quickly from there. Luckily, there's a "second line" wine that works almost as well. Just as bottles simply labeled "Nebbiolo" are the bargain versions of Barolo and Barbaresco, there's an inexpensive alternative to the VNdM - it's "Rosso di Montepulciano." ("The Red of Montepulciano") Same growing area, similar style, and considerably less expensive. These pair best with pork, chicken, and hard cheeses.

The Montepulciano grape itself is largely cultivated in the province of Abruzzi. Abruzzi is on the east coast of Italy -- across the country from Tuscany. The wines are usually made of at least 90% of the Montepulciano varietal. Predictably, these wines are labeled "Montepulciano d'Abruzzo." ("The Montepulciano of Abruzzi") You'll find a very different flavor here. Montepulciano d'Abruzzo tends to be drunk young, is much fruitier than Chianti, and has softer tannin. The fruit stands up to heartier food -- game, lamb, sausage, and root veggies.

For comparison, the first two here are from the Montepulciano grape. The third is from the region:

Masciarelli 2005 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo - A very straightforward, tasty wine. Some might call this wine "rustic" for its pronounced flavor. The nose is dark cherries and smoke. There's a fruity, earthy character to this that's got some weight to it. I put this one up with eggplant parmesan where I grilled the eggplant instead of frying it. The smoky flavors of the wine and the eggplant made a wonderful combination as the fruit bounced happily off the red sauce. Give it a go with lamb stew also. $9-11.

Villa Cerrina 2006 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo - This is a deep, dark wine. The nose is similar to a Chianti Classico -- lots of dark berries and cherries. The flavor is round and full, with plenty of that rich fruit. The finish is long and very fruity, with only a little bit of chalk on the end. Unlike many Italian wines, in my experience, you could easily drink this one by itself if you chilled it just a smidge. The big fruity flavors, however, make it a perfect pairing for a hearty meal. I made baked angel hair with chicken chorizo and mushrooms with this. Another exceptionally tasty pairing -- and it could basically go with anything in the pasta family. For the price (about $6 at Trader Joe's), a fantastic table wine.

Poliziano 2005 Rosso di Montepulciano -You'll notice this wine is very dark hued, but its color belies its weight. The nose is fruity and a little bit floral. The flavor is not too heavy with some really nice cherry tartness and fruit. The finish, like many Tuscan wines, is a little bit chalky. I wouldn't drink this alone. However, pair this up with a Penne Amatriciana or with some herb-roasted chicken, and you'll find a whole other realm of flavor. The complexity of this wine really shows through with the right food. At $15, it's an exceptional bottle -- probably half of what you'd pay for a Chianti Classico Riserva of similar quality.

Francisco Redi, a 17th century Italian physician, naturalist, and poet, concluded his poem Bacco in Toscana (Bacchus in Tuscany) with the line "Montepulciano of every wine is king." He was referring to the region, of course, but the grape ain't half bad either. Next time you're putting together something with Italian flavors, branch out from Chianti and meet the Monte. Happy wines for happy times…

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