Italy’s New (Old) Wave

Italy is no longer the land of wicker-covered bottles that double for candleholders. For years, Il Fiasco was the ubiquitous representative for Italian wine in America. That wicker-wrapped bottle, combined with a red checked tablecloth, pretty much meant you were in for an evening of simple, raspy red wine along with a slice of pizza, lasagna or manicotti, swimming in a sea of red sauce.  


There's nothing wrong with that. Bringing it “old school” still has its charms: The wine is cheap, the food is filling and maybe Vincenzo will serenade as you eat. Fun!


For years, that was the American version of the Italian wine-and-food experience. Fortunately, that changed in the ’80s as Wolfgang Puck made pizza cool and Americans found out that Italy was bigger than the stretch of countryside from Florence to Naples. Risotto, “real” pizza and regional dishes from other parts of Italy began to emerge. Two decades later, Piedmont, Friuli, Campania and Puglia all have their own culinary devotees in the states, with a host of passionate young chefs lovingly transporting these classical dishes to tables all over the states. (Chris Bianco's eponymous pizzeria is a prime example.)


With this surge in regional Italian cuisines, it only makes sense that the wines would follow. If you're a chef highlighting the cuisine of Puglia, the heel of Italy's “boot,” are you going to pour Chianti? Heck no! You're going to give your customers what the locals in Puglia are drinking, as that is the wine that is the perfect fit for the food on the table.


Recently, both merchants and consumers are discovering that many of these “new” wines are extremely versatile when pairing them with any type of meal that speaks of the Mediterranean – outdoor grilling, olive oil, tomatoes, veggies, cured meats and so on.


Here is a short but tasty list featuring alternative Italian wines, sorted by their respective zones within Italy, from north to south.



The Arneis grape produces crisp, nutty white wines.


PIEDMONT The northwest, France-adjacent corner of Italy is known for its chewy yet elegant Barolo and Barbaresco wines produced from the Nebbiolo grape. Readers also should be on the lookout for the Barbera wines from this zone. These wines are food-friendly, with dark berry flavors, supple textures and bright acids. My favorite producers include Giorgio Pelissero, Paitin and Renato Ratti. For white wines, the Arneis grape is in the mix, making some serious inroads after almost disappearing back in the ’60s. This grape produces crisp, nutty white wines without a hint of oak. Look for gems from the likes of Vietti and Giovanni Almondo.


FRIULI Northeast Italy is, for the most part, white wine country. These racy, minerally expressive wines are some of the greatest vini bianchi produced in Italy today. The star grapes for my palate are the scintillating Sauvignons (what we know as Sauvignon blanc here in the states) as well as the local Friulano grape. The Sauvignons are packed with grapefruit and mandarin flavors, framed by a distinctive tomato leaf and sage profile to the aromas. The Friulano grape shows more structure, with a focused band of guava-like tropical fruits. It is also considered the perfect match to a plate of the classic Prosciutto San Daniele ham this area is known for. Venica, Meroi and Bastianich are certified stars with these varieties.


CAMPANIA This area east of Rome is quickly making a name for itself among the hip sommeliers and retailers around the country with an array of unique, versatile wines. These wines tend to veer toward peach and stone fruit flavors with a honeyed minerality in the richer examples. Be on the lookout for grapes such as Greco di Tufo, Falanghina and Fiano di Avellino from famous local producers like Feudi di San Gregorio, Cantina del Taburno and Terredora.



Susumaniello is a grape native to Puglia, Italy's southeastern region.


PUGLIA Previously, the “heel of the boot,” Italy's southeastern region, was known more for tomatoes than for wine. Outside investment in this warm, sunny clime, with a focus on native grape varieties, has yielded immediate results. Primitivo (a kissing cousin of Zinfandel), Negroamaro and the seldom-seen but oh-so-tasty Susumaniello all produce gutsy, powerful red wines that pair magically with the classic Pugliese dish of Orecchiette pasta with sausage and chili flakes. Look for producers like Cantele, Li Veli and Leone de Castris, all three providing exceptional value.


Text by Kyle Meyer, who estimates he’s tasted well north of 50,000 wines in his 20 years as a wine buyer. His travels include the major wine-growing areas of the world, focusing on France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Austria, Australia and, yes, the United States. During his travels, he’s built lasting relationships with the top wine producers in each of these countries. He is currently a partner and director of purchasing for his own interactive online wine retail site,


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