In spite of the legend, it is unlikely Roman Emperor Nero actually fiddled while the city of Rome burned. But he might have been drinking wine.
Italy has contributed greatly to the development of winemaking during the centuries. Evidence of the production of wine has been found in Roman ruins.
Yet for all its storied wine history, Italy fell into the doldrums in the mid-20th century. The public image of Italian wine was a straw-wrapped bottle of something called Chianti. All too often the producers put more money into the packaging than they did into the wine.
But something wonderful happened in Italy in the 1980s. Italian winemakers and the government du jour got serious about wine. They created strict rules, regulations and laws concerning the cultivation of grapevines and the production of the wines. And within a decade, Italy was back as a wine-producing colossus. This followed several brutal scandals in which Italian winemakers were caught “souping up” mediocre red wines with harsh, high-alcohol juice from Algeria and elsewhere.
Also caught in that crackdown was an Italian cheese producer who was, uh, augmenting his formaggio with ground-up umbrella handles. I am not making that up.
So today Italian wines stand with some of the best in the world. The super-Tuscans — which, themselves, created another rule-making revolution — are wonderful and long-lived wines. Chiantis are delightful food wines. Even Italian whites have become globally popular.
Today, we’ll take a look at a handful of fine Italian wines I’ve run across lately. Some are easily accessible, some are less so. If you cannot find them in a local shop, check them out online.
Rocca Sveva Amarone Della Valpolicella 2008
Amarone is the wine Hannibal Lechter contemplated serving with an enemy’s liver in the book “Silence of the Lambs.” In the movie, however, it was changed to “a nice Chianti,” assuming more folks would recognize Chianti than Amarone.
Too bad. This is a spectacular, full-bodied red wine, made from grapes allowed to dry for three months in temperature- and humidity-controlled areas. This process brings out intense flavors.
It’s inky-dark and craves broad-shouldered foods, such as red meats, wild game, aged cheeses and liver. It’s ready to drink now, but will hold for another three to five years. It’s about $65.
Collazzi Liberta 2012
Here’s another big red, but more subtle than the Amarone. It’s from Tuscany, but because the winemakers use a nontraditional blend of grapes — merlot, syrah and a drop of sangiovese — it receives a lowly IGT quality rating.
Don’t believe that. This is a stellar offering from the Chianti Classico region near Florence. This 90-year-old winery has given the Liberta lots of tender, loving care, including manual harvesting and complex fermentation and aging processes. The result is real depth in the flavor with soft tannins in the mouth.
For all the complexity in its production, the finished product is simply terrific. It costs about $25.
Frescobaldi Nipozzano Vecchie Viti 2011
The Frescobaldi name enjoys a long history of Italian winemaking. And the family shows a healthy respect for history. That shows in the Vecchie Viti (Old Vines), a Chianti Rufina Riserva, which gets the highest quality rating, DOCG. (Look for that on Italian wine labels. DOC is also good.)
Traditionally sangiovese grapes make the best Tuscan wines, and this one is 90 percent sangiovese. It offers full, bright flavors ramped up with a subtle acidic bite that is typical of sangiovese. It is about $35.
Now for a couple of whites:
Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio 2013
There’s a wildly overpriced pinot grigio on the shelves — no, not this one! — that I enjoy tweaking. It’s called Santa Mar ... guess I’d best not complete that.
The Ecco Domani from Venezie is every bit as good as that, at half the price.
Pinot grigio is the most popular white wine in this country and this sprightly example shows why. It’s not complex, just bright, dry but with nice fruit highlights and lovely with food or as a sipping wine. It even has 13 percent chardonnay to give it a bit of backbone. It costs about $13.
Rocca Sveva Soave Classico 2013
One of Italy’s classic whites, Soave fell out of favor about three decades ago. With the overall improvements in Italian wines, Soave has climbed back into good graces.
I love the color, a soft, straw yellow. You may find flowers and fruit blossoms in the nose. In the mouth it’s just plain tasty. Good acid levels for serving with food, enough fruitiness to make it a good cocktail wine. Look for a hint of almond in the finish. It is about $15.
Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? He can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on the first Wednesday of the month and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.