Every year, usually on the day before the holiday, I get a few texts from friends at the liquor store. “Hey Mary, what kind of wine should I bring for (Italian girlfriend/boyfriend/fiancee/spouse)’s house on Christmas Eve?” Knowing that most traditional Italians eat only fish on La Vigilia, I usually try to steer them away from the popular bold red wines that we all love so much around the holidays… the ones that warm our bellies, like spicy Syrahs or jammy Merlots. In truth, some bold red wines might overpower some of the delicate fishes that are served in a traditional Italian household, but as I learned from some research on how Italian restaurants put together their wine and food pairing dinners for La Vigilia, reds shouldn’t be kept away altogether.
My father posted this status update to Facebook last night, which will give you an idea of the typical Itailan-American menu for Christmas Eve (and an idea of what I’m dealing with):
In Italian, Christmas Eve is “La Vigilia,” the eve. Many Italians also refer to it as The Eve of the Seven Fishes. This year as always, we do the traditional Italian meatless meal, but with a twist… We’re having: Shrimp and Lime Tartlets, Marinated fresh Anchovies, Tonno and Cannellini (tuna & white bean salad), Insalata di Mare (seafood salad), Zuppa di Cozze (mussels marinara), Scungilli fra davolo, Grilled Polipetti (grilled baby octopus), Fettuccine with Shrimp & Scallop, Roasted whole Bronzino, Broiled Salmon Fillets, Southern Fried Catfish, Roasted Brussel Sprouts, and Cauliflower in cheese sauce. For dessert we have assorted Chocolates, Gelato and Sorbet.
It’s no secret that every Italian American looks forward to a traditional “seven fishes” Christmas eve. It’s almost a tradition as rich as having turkey on Thanksgiving and colored eggs at Easter. But what kind of wines do Italians drink? Knowing only my own crazy family as a frame of reference, I thought it best to farm out the questions to some of my fellow Italian-Americans for their input. I got some great responses:
Boone’s Farm? (I hope he was kidding)
Carlo Rossi…it’s a staple in every true Italian household. As a kid my grandfather always had that gallon bottle on the left side of his chair, then every other house I went to had it somewhere in the kitchen.
I’d offer up an opinion but as you know the wine we drink in our family is made in the garage.
I have memories of the Bolla Valpolicella – and some sweet vermouth. Everything else is a blur.
Anything with alcohol in it!
I like a good Riesling, but if you want to stick with Italian, maybe a Soave or Frascati
Most old ITALIANS make their own. Tastes like acid to me but they swear it is the best!
And my favorite:
This Jew married to an Italian believes wine isn’t strong enough, Bring Vodka! Lol!
This is what a DOCG label might look like. It typically appears on the top of the bottle.
In summary, most Italians aren’t picky, and we don’t need to drink Italian wine alone… so don’t ever feel intimidated about bringing a bottle of wine to dinner. But, if you’re trying to make an impression, here are some good things to know:
- Some of the Italian grape varietals are unfamiliar to some American wine drinkers. While I’ve had some delicious Nebbiolo and Barbera in the El Dorado region in California, they are primarily Italian grapes. Italy is the home to many grape varietals, in fact, including Sangiovese, Dolcetto, Corvina, Garganega, and Trebbiano among others.
- Italian wines can either be named by their varietal or by their region. This presents a lot of confusion for the typical American wine drinker. To keep it simple, may I offer one valuable piece of advice: buy a wine that has a special label on it. Make sure it says DOC or DOCG. What does this mean? Well I could go into specifics about Denominazione D’Origine Controllata (DOC) as in wine labeled as such is subjected to rigid regional regulations on grape variety, yields per hectare, aging requirement, and vinification methods, blah blah blah… but very simply… these wines aren’t typical Italian two-buck-chuck (though we do not discriminate against those wines, because we drink everything). Yet, if you’re trying to impress your new Italian girlfriend’s dad with something of better quality, you want to go for the label.DOC is good. DOCG is better. They take an extra step in ensuring quality. A DOCG is a category for the most prestigious subregions in the DOC. They are marked by distinctive style, appellation reputation, and commercial success. You really can’t go wrong with either of these labels.
- Some of the delicate white fishes (like many that my father listed above) would pair best with a light white wine, and the Italian kinds are usually bone dry and neutral. A bubbly Prosecco would pair well with sea scallop. A Soave is a light, simple white wine popular in Tre Venezia (the collective name given to the three wine regions near the city of Venice: Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Veneto). If you’re looking for something a little more southern (where are my Sicilians?) try a Vermentino di Sardegna, a dry white wine.
- Are you more partial to reds? That’s completely OK, because there are plenty of delicious red wines that would pair with some more of the more, er.. full-bodied fishes. I’m not a fan of octopus, but it would go well with a Toscano. A Chianti Classico from Tuscany is a full-bodied red wine with a slightly bitter twist. Barolo and Barbaresco are intense, tannic, and complex.
- A SuperTuscan is always fun… it’s a blend of Sangiovese mixed with Cabernet Sauvignon. While they don’t meet the criteria for DOC or DOCG labels (you’ll usually find them marked as IGT for Indicazione Geografica Tipica) they’re still quite tasty and very popular.
Hopefully this article gave you a few ideas so you don’t feel quite so indifeso (helpless) when shopping for wine. As my father says… So from our house to your house, we wish you a very blessed and Buon Natale…
On behalf of Bottle of White, I’d like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! ~Mary