Wine column no. 28: Two Italians and a Spaniard

It's not often that we leave America's shores and head for Europe.
So when a Spanish bottle of garnacha and two Italian bottles of Sangiovese allow us to embrace the Old World without stepping foot outside of the Midwest, it's time to celebrate. As in: Slide a slice of pizza onto your plate, pour a glass of wine, and sit back as you take in three pairings that seem to go together better than most.
As for the pizza, we're not talking about extraordinary fare here.
Like many other Americans, pizza is the standard meal of choice whenever it's been a long day and we're just plain tired, or if we've gotten a Boboli pizza crust and we're feeling a bit creative.
Take the night in January when we'd grabbed two smaller Boboli crusts, a handful of spicy dried Italian meats, cheese and mushrooms and baked them until they became crisp delicacies. That's when the 2007 Falesco Sangiovese from Umbria, Italy, entered the scene, taking an otherwise fun meal and making it memorable.
Greg had bought this at Winetree after a Wednesday night tasting, and we both found this wine was easy to like. It was light, with minor tannins and acidity, not much of a nose, and flavors of cherry. This Sangiovese also went well with Greg's smaller pizza because he had added dried red pepper flakes and a dusting of his brother's crushed dried hot peppers. This all makes sense, since according to the Food and Wine Books 2009 Wine Guide, Sangiovese is best paired with tomato-based sauces as well as pizza, full-flavored salami and other dry-cured sausages. This wine is under $20.
Meanwhile, the 2007 Falesco we had was pure Sangiovese, which happens to be the principal variety used to create Chianti. If this is the wine that conjures up images of straw-covered bottles on red-and-white checkered tablecloths in old-style Italian restaurants — the ones most people associate with Frank Sinatra or that HBO series "The Sopranos" — then you're right. Chianti's just got that kind of reputation. But it's a lot more complicated, too.
Such as: Chianti may be mostly made of Sangiovese, but not all wines created by Sangiovese grapes are alike. That's because Sangiovese is a finicky and demanding grape, according to Karen MacNeil's "The Wine Bible," and it has many genetic variations. Each of these different clones has taken on distinct flavor characteristics. But there's another factor, too, as to why Sangiovese can taste so different in Tuscany, a region along the Mediterranean Sea, compared to Umbria, a region of central Italy just southeast of Tuscany: "Tuscany is a virtual kingdom of distinct microclimates," MacNeil said. "These are created by an endless succession of twisting, turning (and) undulating hills."
That, experts will tell you, is one reason why Chianti is a bit unpredictable. But here's a Chianti that's definitely worth the price, though since this one is a blend that's spent more time aging in the barrel, this isn't an entirely fair comparison. In fact, the 2007 Ruffino Riserva Ducale Chianti Classico is so good we're mentioning it for a second time, since other Chianti we've had haven't been near as smooth as this particular Tuscan. The 2007 Ruffino, with 13.5 percent alcohol, is a blend of at least 80 percent Sangiovese, with cabernet sauvignon and merlot, according to Ruffino's website. We thought it was smooth, light and fruity, and it was very easy to drink. Schnucks. Under $20.
Enough of Italy; now onto Spain. And if you've never had a garnacha, and you've wondered if it would ever be possible to experience a wine that's both smooth and peppery at the same time, then all you have to do is open the 2008 Las Rocas. This 14.1 percent alcohol specimen was created by growers' cooperative Bodegas San Alejandro in Miedes, about 55 miles north of Madrid, in the Zaragoza province. We're far from experts on garnacha, so we turned to "The New Frank Schoonmaker Encyclopedia of Wine." This book said that garnacha is the most extensively planted wine grape in Spain, found in Rioja, Penedes and many other regions. And this particular garnacha went very well with — believe it or not — a $5 Little Caesar's pepperoni pizza we got after watching the Evansville IceMen defeat the Wichita Thunder 4-3 in late February. Sure, this brand of pizza isn't known for spicy heat, but Greg took care of that by adding some hot sauce. I, meanwhile, just added some dried red pepper flakes. The verdict? This Spaniard managed to hold its own. It was smooth enough to round out the grease in the pizza, and it added a bit of black pepper flavor to the meal.
It also had a cherry and woody nose and is a good value wine for about $11.50. Schnucks.

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