This interview was originally published in Italy: 100 Locals Tell You Where to Go, What to Eat, & How to Fit In. This post may contain affiliate/sales links.
What wines should you drink on your trip to Italy and where should you drink it? We asked Alfonso Cevola, the Italian Wine Guy. Here’s what he had to say.
About Alfonso Cevola
I was born in a vineyard. (Literally. The hospital I was born in was surrounded by vines.) My grandfather had vineyards in Cucamonga. When I went to Santa Clara University, the president was a Jesuit and a winemaker. And many of my college pals were from winemaking families in Napa, Sonoma, and Santa Clara Valley.
My heritage is Italian and I naturally gravitated to Italy. I was very fortunate to have that random luck.
What I love about wine is the connection people have to their little corner of earth. I love the stories, the passions, the arguments, and the dreams.
10 must-try wines for first-time visitors
10 wines is a lot. And it all depends where you land. Let’s say you land in Rome. Start with a carafe of the house red or white. (Really. Get an idea for the baseline. I still do it to this day.) Then, find a cool wine bar and settle in. If you’re looking for a great place, consult The Rome Digest and Katie Parla’s app.
So, my 10 wines for beginners? Frascati, Pinot Grigio, Orvieto, Verdicchio, Chianti, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Nero d’Avola, Barbera d’Asti, and Prosecco. These are gateway wines, easing you into the Italian landscape softly, gently.
Hidden gems for wine-lovers
Once you have a baseline, try wines from the Langhe: Nebbiolo, Barbaresco, and Barolo. From Tuscany: Brunello, Vino Nobile, and Chianti Classico Riserva (or Rufina). Etna Rosso from Sicily, Aglianico from Basilicata, Inferno from Valtellina, and Lambrusco di Sorbara.
Where to travel for Italian wine
I am not a city person when it comes to Italy. If you think you need to see Rome, Florence, Milan, and Venice because they are on your bucket list, by all means, have at it. When you get them checked off, head out to the country.
Tuscany, Piedmont, Abruzzo, Marche, Sicily, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Veneto…all these places are, at most, a few hours by car from those four cities.
Hint: don’t try to do Italy in one fell swoop. Go to one place for a week or 10 days and get to know the locals. I once took a friend who had never been to Italy to an island off the coast of Sicily. Now, that was true immersion.
Italy is very easy and very forgiving once you get out of the larger urban areas. Save those places for when you start to get a feel for the real Italy. Then a place like Rome will make more sense.
Where to go for great vineyard tours
Well, it seems Tuscany is the best-organized place. But you can also find tours in Puglia, Sicily, Piedmont, Liguria…almost anywhere there is a vineyard, there is a tour. Italy, after all, is one giant vineyard. 25% of the wine produced in the world comes from Italy.
For a general experience, though, I’d start with Tuscany.
Choosing wines by region
One should drink the wines from the region they are in unless they are in a large urban area (such as Rome) and they are at a restaurant that specializes in the food of, say, Abruzzo. (In which case, order a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.) Or if you are in Milan and in a restaurant where everyone is from Sicily, then by all means order a Sicilian wine.
“If it grows with it, it goes with it,” as Danny Meyer likes to say.
Generally, the wines of Italy are very diverse, but they have evolved with the food from the regions from which they come. Crisp whites from the Adriatic Coast, Marche, or Abruzzo (like Verdicchio or Trebbiano) go very well with the fresh seafood from the Adriatic, for instance.
If you are in Piedmont during truffle season, then a Barolo or Barbaresco is a terrific match.
If you are in Tuscany and they are firing up thick, hearty steaks, nothing is better than a Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile, Brunello, or SuperTuscan. They complement each other. And with wine it’s all about the harmony.
How to experience Italian wine like a local
Try and speak a few words in the language. Smile. Envision humility; many people in Italy never really travel any further than their regional capital. Be patient. And kind. Go to local little places and order the house wine. Don’t order a Barolo in Tuscany or a Brunello in Piedmont (for now). Slow down. Breathe. Keep your heart open. I know this sounds a little corny, but it will work.
Advice for the best wine experience
If you can stand it, I’d say to go to one place, a vineyard, maybe one that has a nice B&B or an apartment for rent. Stay there and explore the region from that home base. Get to know the locals, the baker, the cheese-maker, and the local tavern folk. I cannot tell you how rewarding something as simple as that can be.
Don’t try and understand all of Italy or all of Italian wine in one trip. Enjoy the moment and the experience. When in Rome, enjoy life as the Romans do: leisurely, unrushed, and with a sense of joy and celebration of life and being alive.