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Italy: hot region, cool wine

A little confusing, but worth checking out

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In the movies, the Italians look like a happy bunch, don't they? Eating, drinking, having sex all the time. Makes you wonder what we uptight, sober Americans are doing wrong. Maybe it's our lack of heavy wine consumption. Italians produce the second largest amount of wine of any country (after France), and for a long time led the consumption category as well. So with that in mind, shouldn't we all start mounting Vespas and say "ciao" to our old, Victorian habits?Unfortunately, it's not that easy. For many years, Italy was the Rodney Dangerfield of wine countries: It got no respect. And no wonder. Unreliable quality and complicated labeling prevented Americans from embracing anything other than Cella Lambrusco and Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante. But in the last 15 years, consumer pressure has prompted Italian vineyards to improve the quality of their wines tremendously.

The challenge stills lies in figuring out the labels. When Italy joined the European Union in 1995, the country had to adopt a more stringent wine classification system. It now has a controlling structure similar to that of France to tell consumers what quality level lurks in each bottle. On the label, look for: Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) & Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG). However, unlike France, Italy allows any grape to be grown anywhere.

But, there are some guidelines that might help sort out the Italian nightmare. As California's wine producers are discovering, there are some regions where the grapes grow better. For instance, the Nebbiolo [NEB i O low] grape, the robust, tannic fruit used to produce bold Barolos and Barbarescos, reigns in the northwestern Piedmont region. Due to the high tannin content, the two wines taste better aged; drinking them less than 5 years old creates a mouth-puckering experience. Two other exceptional, less expensive, everyday red wines from Piedmont are Dolcetto [dol CHET to] and Barbera. For Piedmont wines, look for producers Gaja, Ceretto, Vietti and Bruno Giacosa.

White wines aren't exactly what Italy is famous for, but there are plenty of good ones to explore. In the Alto Adige region in northeastern Italy, you'll uncover fabulous Pinot Grigios and Pinot Blancs (or Bianco). Look for the producer Santa Margherita. Soave (SWAH vay), from the Verona region of northern Italy, is a pleasant, good-value picnic white wine. Try one from Anselmi.

Under-appreciated Chianti is perhaps the best-known wine in Italy. After years of humiliating prison in cheesy straw baskets, this red wine from Tuscany is finally getting respect. Made predominantly from the soft-flavored Sangiovese grape, it ranges from fruity to full-bodied, depending on the producer and his/her blend. Look for Chianti Classico ($12-$16) or Chianti Classico Riserva ($16-$22) on the label for your best bets. Scope out these excellent producers: Frescobaldi, Dievole and Ruffino.

Brunello is a relative newcomer to the general public eye. A bolder, more intense version of Chianti, this wine is stunningly luscious when aged at least 10 years or more. For those who can't wait, stick to Chianti.

If you really want to dive into Italian wine snobbery, enter the arena of "super Tuscans." A darling of the wine world, these full-bodied, expensive Cabernet, Sangiovese and Merlot (among others) blends are truly masterpieces of wine art, but come at such a high price, only the elite can afford them. A name of an excellent super Tuscan is Sassicaia.

Other wines to play around with are the fun red ones called Valpolicella, Bardolino and Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. All are light, drinkable and best served chilled. Usually less than $15 a bottle too.

They may be confusing, but Italian wines are well worth checking out. Hop on your Vespa and toast the good life.

Taylor Eason is a regionally based wino who studied the juice in France and Italy. Comments? E-mail corkscrew@creativeloafing.com or fax information to 404-420-1402.

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