Northern Italian red wines are big, bold and hearty

Italians eat heartily. Well, a lot of them do. Wild boar bagged by hunters in the mountains. Big steaks scented with garlic and rosemary. Tripe in tomato sauce. Pasta dishes heavy with butter, cream, cheese, even truffles.

This crowd naturally wants bold, hearty red wines to go with their favorite dishes. It has them. A big swath of northern Italy, in and around the foothills of the Alps, provides many of these wines. Here are a few examples:


Light, but the basis for bolder reds. It’s a fragrant, dry, crisp red wine with tart cherry flavors made in Italy’s Veneto region northwest of Venice. Fans of Ernest Hemingway know it as the wine his protagonist drank with the beauteous Renata in his post-WWII novel “Across the River and Into the Trees.” Hemingway himself called the wine “as friendly as the house of a favorite brother.”

The grapes for Valpolicella — Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara — are picked in early September and fermented in the usual ways for red wines, reaching about 12 percent alcohol. Italians drink Valpolicella with pork or pasta with tomato sauces. They praise it, but also want heartier drink.


After the harvest for Valpolicella, pickers leave some of the best grapes on the vine for another month, until they’re so ripe they start to shrivel. Then they’re picked and spread out on bamboo mats in drying houses to dry and shrivel for another three months.

This turns them nearly into raisins — further concentrating their sugars and acids. The resulting wine, called Amarone della Valpolicella, can be up to 15 percent alcohol. “Amarone” is Italian for “big, bitter one,” although the wine isn’t really bitter. After two years of aging in oak barrels and another year in bottles, the resulting wine is dry, full-bodied, hearty, opulent.

Amarone’s flavors are complex: black cherries, bitter chocolate, mocha, raisins, dried figs, licorice, earth. It is drunk with beef, risotto, tripe, oxtail and even — where it’s permitted — horsemeat stew. After dinner it is sipped with walnuts, chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano and other hard cheeses.

If all this it too much for some sippers, Italy’s winemakers also make a third, happy-medium style of red wine from that same trio of grapes. It’s called Valpolicella Ripasso.


It’s a hearty, medium-bodied red wine created by taking regular finished Valpolicella wine and “re-passing” it for a week or so over grape skins left from just having made Amarone. The light-bodied Valpolicella picks up additional sugars, acids and tannins, making a wine of full body and intensity, but not quite the power of Amarone.

It’s popular with creamy pasta dishes, barbecued chicken and beef and mushroom stews.

On the other side of northern Italy, near its Mediterranean coast at Genoa, lies the Piedmont region, stretching past Turin into the Alps toward Switzerland. In this region the Pio Cesare winery, founded in 1881, makes a line of hearty red wines that go very well with the region’s hearty, red-meat cuisine. It’s Barbera.


Around the city of Alba, in southern Piedmont, Pio Cesare makes a red wine of the barbera grape called Barbera d’Alba. With hearty cherry flavors and soft tannins, it goes well with pastas with tomato sauce, roasted lamb and pork.

Around the Piedmont city of Barbaresco, Pio Cesare makes a hearty red wine called Barbaresco, from the black-skinned grape called nebbiolo, which, appropriately in the foothills, is Italian for “fog.”

And around the nearby city of Barolo, it makes an even heartier red called “Barolo,” also from the nebbiolo grape.

Both wines can be tannic in their youth, but with five years of age begin to take on the unexpected but prized aromas of tar and roses. And modern growing and fermenting methods have tamed some of nebbiolo’s rough edges, making it good to drink much earlier.

Piedmont’s residents drink these wines with wild game, roast goose, beef tartare and the area’s pungent, truffled pastas.

The moral: If you like hearty fare, you don’t have to accompany it with only cabernet sauvignon.

Fred’s Wine List

Highly Recommended

• 2008 Rocca Sveva Amarone Della Valpolicella DOC, by Cantina di Soave, Italy (70 percent corvina, 25 percent Rondinella, 5 percent Molinara; 14.5 percent alcohol): dark red hue, full-bodied and smooth, with aromas and flavors of stewed black cherries and vanilla, big, ripe tannins, long finish; $51.

• 2012 Pio Cesare Barbera d’Alba “Fides” DOC Colombaro Vineyard (100 percent barbera, 14.5 percent alcohol): oaky aromas, flavors of black cherries, dark chocolate and leather, rich and full; $45.

• 2010 Pio Cesare Barolo DOCG Piedmont (100 percent nebbiolo; 13.5 percent alcohol): black raspberry and licorice aromas and flavors, big, ripe tannins, full body; $64.


• 2011 Masi Bonacosta Valpolicella, Veneto, Italy (Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara; 12 percent alcohol): floral aroma, flavors of tart cherries and chocolate, light, fruity and crisp; $15.

• 2008 Rocca Sveva Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore DOC, by Cantina di Soave, Italy (70 percent corvina, 25 percent Rondinella, 5 percent molinara; 13.5 percent alcohol): big, rich and hearty, with aromas and flavors of black plums and vanilla, big, ripe tannins, long, smooth finish; $20

• 2010 Pio Cesare Barbaresco DOCG Piedmont (100 percent nebbiolo; 13.5 percent alcohol): floral aromas, spicy red fruit flavors, big tannins, good for aging; $64.