Russell Balch on Italian Wines

Russell Balch: “I started my career in the wine industry as a distributor merchandiser in chain retail to get my foot in the door. Eleven years later, I now work for a national supplier/producer here in the Bay Area representing some of the world’s finest domestic and imported wines. I have always had a passion for great food and drink but also for travel as well. You truly can experience a culture without having to leave the dining table (or barstool). I find the most pleasure in simple, well-made offerings using the best local ingredients. This, with a great glass of wine and good company always put a big smile on my face.”

Russell Balch on Italian Wines

Italy may be unified under one flag representing “La Repubblica Italiana,” but the city-state is alive and well when it comes to regional differences in wine and food. Our first encounter with Italian wine may very well have been the flask with the wicker basket fit for a candleholder. This notion has quickly given way in the U.S. to a revolution in regional Italian fare, with accompanying wine lists specifically tailored to the cuisine. The rise of regional wine and food has seen a flourish of new, distinctive Italian restaurants in the Bay Area. In San Francisco, you will find A16 with an eye toward Southern Italy and Perbacco with feet planted firmly in the North. Take the time to cross the Bay over to Oliveto in Oakland and experience their not-to-be-missed seasonal extravaganzas of heirloom tomatoes, white truffles, and my favorite, whole-hog dinners. But this is a wine article, right?? Grab a glass of Prosecco and listen up.

Wine is food in Italy. I’ve heard it mentioned that although vino di tavola, or table wine, may be a designation by law in Italy for low-end cheap wine, in reality ALL wine in Italy is “table wine.” Because that is where it ultimately ends up, at the table with the meal! What these wines bring to bear are the distinctions of hundreds, if not thousands of years of different cultures inhabiting the great peninsula at any point in time. I’m not sure if it is serendipity that the regional cuisines seem to go so well with the locally made wines, but they do. It may just be that Italian wines go well with all food, and it does!

Go south and you will find really interesting wines made from grapes such as Aglianico from Campania and Puglia and Nero d’Avola from Sicily. The name Aglianico is a derivative of “Hellenic,” or Greek, where it is thought the grape originated and whose cultural legacy in the South is evident today. These wines are dense and inky with that Southern Italian “soil” creeping in on the finish. Fuhgettabout Cabernet Sauvignon and try these with a nice steak!

While known for their reds, Italy will surprise you with their superb white wines. Whites such as Falanghina and Fiano di Avellino from the South and Arneis from the North are interesting if not elegant wines that have a great balance of acidity and minerality. These wines see little if any oak treatment, and go smashingly with food.

One of my favorite wines, and an often under-appreciated grape varietal of Piemonte found in Northern Italy is the grape (and wine) known as Barbera. These wines tend to drink well now and are typically great values. K&L, Wine Club, and Beltramo’s are but a few retailers in the Bay Area that carry a great selection of Italian wines. Talk to the staff, they will lead you in the right direction!

I have to add that Italy makes a really fun and inexpensive sparkling wine called Prosecco that I mentioned earlier. It is a lively, clean bubbly with a vibrant acidity that will jumpstart your palate.

Italian wine to me evokes passion and emotion and makes you want to say ciao a lot. This little blurb is really the tip of something broad, deep, and very delicious. Uncork a bottle and go on a little holiday with your senses.