With wines from the US and New World things are pretty straightforward. Recognition of the grapes and states take you a long way. Whenever you read California, Oregon, or Southern Australia, and Pinot Noir, Shiraz, or Chardonnay you have a fairly good idea of what to expect when you pop the cork (or unscrew the cap). Scan down the label of a European wine label and the picture gets a little more interesting, especially when you are looking at Italian wine. With 20 regions and over 800 distinct grape varieties the possibilities can get overwhelming. Chianti is one thing, but if you see Cesanese del Piglio, and you aren't feeling adventuresome, odds are you'll scratch your head and start looking for something a little more familiar. Enter Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch. With their book Vino Italiano, they truly help remove a lot the unknown. They present Italy in such a way that every reader will find this book both a useful and enjoyable.
The book is written in a journalistic style, with each chapter starting off with a slice of life in Italy or a bit of history. The reader’s journey starts in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, with a nicely painted a scene of one winemaker, Valter, who also happens to run a butcher shop and a café often filled with locals. The rest of the book leads the reader down to Sicily and up over to the island of Sardinia. Their tales of these regions helps provide a context for learning about the wine. Beyond the history and the human interest story that accompanies each region, Vino Italiano serves as a great reference book on Italian wines. Wines are described in detail and broken down into different styles within a region: sparkling, white, red, and sweet wines. Within those categories, grapes are discussed and methods are explained.
From fine, ethereal elixirs to mass produced thirst quenchers, Lynch and Bastianich write at length to give us an objective story about the people who grow the grapes and craft the wines. It’s the objectivity and a bit of candor that I really appreciate. They aren’t simply telling us, “These wines are out of this world!” in order to help peddle wines; rather, they shed light on wines that may be less than what producers would have us believe. Case in point is when producers in the northern region of Trentino-Alto Adige try to explain the vegetal, green bell pepper aromas of Cabernet Sauvignon. They say it is an expression of the region, but Lynch and Bastianich are quick to point out this has more to do with the characteristics of unripe fruit.
Beyond the great story writing, the book is filled with lots of valuable information. The book starts out with some explanations of Italian wine labels and how the regions are divided up into their quality categories, from DOCG to Vino da Tavola. Each chapter contains a map of the given region indicating the DOCGs and DOCs; unfortunately though, the DOCGs and DOCs are only indicated by a spot on the map, instead of showing an outline of the area. The maps also include the key cities, major rivers, and mountain ranges. Located and the end of each chapter is the Fast Facts, which is several pages of, you guessed it, facts about the region: culinary details, grapes and their characteristics, vintage information, key producers and the price ranges of their wines, and a brief driving guide. Additionally, each chapter has a recipe created by Lidia Bastianich or Mario Batali.
A lot of wine stores that sell books will have this one, or you can always buy it from Amazon, Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy. One warning on Amazon, though, buy early. I've been completely satisfied with regular shipping that takes about a week, but I recently had really crappy experience with 1-2 day shipping (and that's putting it nicely).