(Robert DeNiro’s Waiting) Talking Italian

We have wine writers here at TasteTO for a very good reason – because neither Greg nor I know squat about wine. Oh, we like wine well enough, but we tend to stick to a few things that we know, and more often than not, we prefer beer, which we’re both much more comfortable with. Because while beer is made by huge numbers of craft brewers around the world, most offerings are a variation on a dozen or so styles. Wine, however, varies not just from winery and grape variety, but by region, and don’t even let’s get into the difference in harvests from year to year.

Particularly intimidating are the wines of Italy. A country famous for its wine, and various wine regions, wine from Italy can be intimidating, especially to someone who doesn’t speak the language. What I needed was a simple, basic, get you started kind of course that would let me compare a few wines without overwhelming me.

So when Angela Aiello of iYellow Wine Club invited me to check out iYellow Wine School, I jumped at the opportunity to attend the class on Italian wines.

Held on Saturday afternoons at Reds Wine Bar, the classes focus on a different style or region each week, and wine samples are all paired with food so students can see how different wines match (or don’t match) with different dishes. Classes are $35 each (or $260 for the full 8-class series).

These are not intense classes with lots of slurping and spitting. They run approximately an hour and a half – just long enough to learn some basics, and to see how the wines pair with various foods. Reds’ sommelier Taylor Thompson keeps things simple with four wines of different styles. While professional wine critics can often go through dozens or evens hundred of wines at one tasting event (I can do only about 15 – 20 before my palate collapses), newbies are best off with just a few so they can remember the distinguishing characteristics of each.

We start off with a couple of Chiantis and compare the differences between a “classico” (fuller body) and a “ruffino”. Thompson explains what to look for in terms of visual characteristics, what happens when we swirl the wines, what to look for on the nose, and what differences (or similarities) appear when we finally sip the wine. The pairing is some house made tagliatellini with Pecorino cheese and we see how the acidity of the wine cuts through the richness of the cheese while the fresh pepper on this dish picks up the oakiness of the wine.

Moving on to a Barbera, the students can see that Thompson is leading us from lighter reds to heavier ones, and from milder flavours to strong. He explains the process of making Barbera wines and tells us a bit about the region. He does, at this point, fall into the “wine guy” trap of using a number of terms that wine newbies might not know, and in comparing grapes from different regions loses us (well, me, at least) a bit. A map or some other kind of visual aid would come in handy here, or even some handouts or the different processes – things that affect the overall taste of the wine but that wouldn’t be something the average student would make a note of.

The Barbera is paired with a flatbread made with olives and Chef Michael Steh’s in house charcuterie, both of which offer a saltiness and a spicy note that pick up on the peppery notes in the wine. Thompson points out that the Barbera we’re sampling (Casina Cucco Barbera d’Alba Superiore 2006) sells for $20 a glass at the restaurant, so despite the simple set-up, students are definitely getting their money’s worth.

My money’s worth is in the final wine, an Amarone. The richest, heaviest wine of the bunch – indicating a higher alcohol content – the Amarone is a relief to me. As Thompson explains its characteristics – heavy, sweet, intense – I realize I’ve been second-guessing myself when it comes to Italian wines. I knew I like Shiraz and other heavy, masculine wines, and my preference in beer is almost always for dark, hearty stouts and porters with sweet notes (usually chocolate, coffee or oatmeal). The Amarone falls into that category perfectly and is on par with a Shiraz or a good stout. So while I’ve been ordering Amarones in Italian restaurants because I had one once and liked it, and didn’t want to admit that Italian wine list scared the beejeezus out of me, it turns out that I’ve been ordering the best wine for me all along.

Okay, so I didn’t come out of one class at the iYellow wine school an expert. There were points, as noted above, where I was overwhelmed with information and had nothing to reference. I’d have like handouts and a map. But I did come away with a better understanding of three basic styles of wine, what to pair them with and what to look for in those varieties. It gave me greater confidence in terms of knowing what I like and what I should be trying on my forays into the Italian aisle at the LCBO, or when ordering wine in restaurants.

One final note, unrelated to the execution of the event itself but more to the other students and prospective students – to really be able to appreciate and learn about wine, you need to be able to experience it with all the senses. It’s incredibly important to be able to smell and taste the wine properly, which cannot be done if someone is wearing perfume or cologne. There were lots of people at the Italian wine event wearing strong fragrances, and it was a real frustration when it came to our ability to appreciate the products we were sampling. Wine and perfume really don’t mix.