You enter a supermarket in Makati to buy a bottle of Italian wine already knowing that Italy produces more wine than any other country in the world and that the quality of Italian wine is remarkably high from any of its 20 grape producing regions. Furthermore, you have read somewhere, perhaps in this very Blog, that Italy has 480 registered native grape varieties to choose from, more than France, Spain, Germany and Greece combined.
So you are on the right track, however you are sadly aware that even at the main high-end supermarket chains in Metro Manila (Rustan’s, SM, Landmark etc.) there are very few bottles of Italian wines available on the shelves, if nothing at all as it has incredibly happened at a couple of Rustan’s in Makati from around end-2018 to mid-2019! Note that in the Philippines, hypermarkets & supermarkets are the leading distribution channels of wine which accounted in 2019 for 35% share of the volume sales!
If you think that on world markets are sold about 18,000 labels of Italian wine, that Italy has consistently been the no. 1 producer of wine in the world since 2010, that Italian wines in the last decades have conquered all first 10 positions in the “100 world best wines” lists of Wine Enthusiast and Wine Decanter, that Sassicaia and Masseto are among the 10 top best-performing wine labels in the world, that the no. 1 (!) imported wine in USA, Germany and Great Britain is Italian and - last but not least - that 1 wine bottle out of 4 exported in the world is Italian… ask yourself: how is that possible that there is such a little supply of Italian wine in the Filipino supermarkets?
Unfortunately F&B managers’ wine literacy in the Philippines is still very low: this is why, for instance, Rustan’s rely only on French wine consultants who obviously would feature anything French wine first and whatever else in supporting role, including Romanian and Georgian wines. But also luxury Hotels in the Capital don’t know better: I have met an F&B manager at a famous five-star Hotel in the heart of Makati who claimed that he couldn’t order Italian wines because their names were too difficult to pronounce…!
No matter what, inadequate supply and consequently limited choice is one of the main reasons why Filipino wine lovers and connoisseurs alike are not exposed enough to Italian wines and therefore they cannot discover how good, reasonably priced, food friendly, diverse and part of a rich history, culture and lifestyle they are.
In SM, as well as Rustan’s and others, wines are separated by both style and country, though without adding any further marketing effort... Landmark just renewed its wine department making it a bit more appealing but basically in all Metro Manila supermarkets the consumers are not guided to wines in general and - definitely - to Italian wines in particular. Obviously the average wine buyer is not encouraged by the fact that all mentioned supermarkets typically do not describe, explain or promote the wine they sell... No banners, flyers, vouchers, free deals, give away gadgets and, most dismally, no tasting events!
So if it’s left to you, just get smart: wine is not just an object of pleasure but also an object of knowledge from which the pleasure depends. Do your homework when you have time (and this Covid pandemic leaves you plenty, so no excuses), do your researches, study and - above all - taste.
In the meantime, you are still strolling down the aisles of the wine section where, typically, paying bottles are placed at eye level on the racks... Why, you didn’t know? It’s not a secret that wine merchants pay supermarkets in order to have their bottles displayed centrally and at eye level.
But wait, are you thinking of your dinner? Italian wine will pair well also with Asian cuisine… Just take one: Chianti. Being medium-high in acidity, high in tannin and low in alcohol content, it can “marry” Filipino food (Kaldereta or Pork Adobo), Thai food (Stir-Fried Pork, Red Curry, and Pad Thai), Indian food (Paneer Masala Curry or Dal Makhani) and Japanese food (Tamago-Sushi, California Rolls and Salmon Sashimi). What about that?
By now, you should finally be exploring the Italian shelf in the corner: take your time, make sure to check the full extent of the bottles available while figuring out what do you want to drink.
What do you want to drink?
Take the time to decide what style of wine you would like to have tonight: red, rose', white or sparkling? Let’s say you want to enjoy a red but you would rather avoid strong tannins. If so, you can already discard such grapes as Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Aglianico, Pignolo etc. since they are all high in tannins. Consequently, set aside Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino, all Super Tuscans and a long series of full-bodied reds such as Amarone, Sagrantino and Primitivo for another occasion. Concentrate instead on grape varieties suitable for your taste, in your case: Dolcetto, Barbera, Schiava, Ciliegiolo, Lagrein, Refosco, Valpolicella or Frappato among many other possible wines giving good acidity, lower alcohol content and soft tannins. Italy has grapes for every palates, choose your grape variety.
Choose the Grape Variety
Don’t worry, you don’t need to know all 480 registered Italian native grape varieties. But in order to discover your favorites, you need at least to taste a good number of wines and thus be able to recognize their relative grapes. The more wines you taste, the more you’ll expand your palate's ability to recognize the grapes you like.
Italian grapes can be grouped in five main different naming categories sorted by:
1. Sensory attributes such as colour, aroma or flavour. Verdicchio from Marche, an incomparable fine white with greenish nuances (verde means green);
2. Physical attributes such as the shape of the grape and/or the berries. Pignolo from Friuli is named after the shape of its grape similar to a pine cone, or “pigna” in Italian;
3. Viticultural or organoleptic characteristics. Schiava from Alto Adige means slave because these vines were grown tied to poles since ancient Roman times;
4. Origin of the variety. Nero d’Avola, a red grape named from the city of Avola, Sicily;
5. Names of people, saints or other religious reference: you certainly know Santa Margherita, the Pinot Grigio from Friuli loved worldwide...
Again, it’s not that difficult to memorize a grape if you associate it to a wine you have tasted and liked. Besides on the back label of the bottle it is often specified the grape variety used. Even if you are just a supermarket wine buyer, know that the label is the I.D. of the wine: you have always to read the label.
Read the label
You don’t buy a wine just because you like the label. I know, a beautiful label attracts your eye but you are not a design critic! And as much as design matter, the label is just a strong marketing tool able to convince Millennials buyers four times more than Baby Boomers!
Read the label before buying your bottle and focus on whatever information both front and back labels may provide such as: color, flavors, character of the wine, tasting notes and sometimes suggested food pairings as well. By just checking the alcohol level you will know that if the wine is less than 12% alcohol, it will be lighter, more lively with fresh aromas. If the wine exceeds 14% instead, it will have more structure, richness, opulence in the mouth and complex aromas. The Italian wine classification system ensure control and origin, so a DOC or DOCG designation on the label certify its top quality.
You may look also at the vintage because 90% of wines on the market are meant to be drank in the year they are released or only within a few years from the bottling.
Italy makes wines beyond the familiar: so if you read a name on the label of an Italian wine bottle chances are that it could be a bit challenging to understand it. On Italian wine labels you may read many suffixes and altering names used for grapes - implying size for instance: “ino/ina” like in Vermentino (diminutive), “ello/ella” like in Brunello (a term of endearment), “etto/etta” like in Dolcetto (a diminutive), “accio/accia” like Vernaccia (a pejorative) and/or the augmentative “one”, like in Amarone. To make it simple wines are labelled in Italy by:
a) varietal name: Brunello,
b) name of a specific place: Montalcino,
c) proper or fantasy name: Casanova di Neri,
d) all the above: Brunello di Montalcino Casanova di Neri.
Eventually a bottle of Refosco has persuaded you, you grab it but the point is: how much are you ready to spend for it?
Set your budget
In general with a cheap bottle (less than 300 Php) you should not expect a great wine. Even Carlo Rossi, Hardy’s and Lindemans low ends cost more than that. Besides, there are no Italian wines under 300 Php on the Filipino market, even if smuggled, and you already know that Novellino is not Italian… As a rule of thumb, be prepared to pay more than 600 Php for a white wine and more than 800 Php for a red wine if you wish to taste a decent wine and have a relatively rewarding experience. Do not hesitate to pay that much if you want a minimum of quality.
Even though there is such thing as good cheap wine in Italy, you are in a supermarket in Makati instead, so be mentally prepared to pay accordingly for it. And if your Vivino App says that your chosen bottle costs a half or a third of its price in Italy remember that importers have to bear the costs of packaging, shipping, transportation, taxes, customs fares, overhead and, possibly, secure a margin of profit on the top before displaying that bottle of yours on the shelf of your favorite supermarket. Consider that in the Philippines only a 5% of “premium and ultra-premium” consumers - as compared to a Million of "habitual" Filipino wine drinkers - can afford buying bottles from 1,500 Php and above.
Sure, some medium-end bottles may hide average or bad wine as well. This risk increases with the cheap ones, though. Your Refosco will costs 850 to 1,100 Php but as you may have Googled it, the best Refosco, Miani 'Calvari' Refosco Colli Orientali del Friuli, fares up to 35.000 Php! Nevertheless, you have already been adventurous: way out of your comfort zone you are trying a new Italian grape from a different Italian wine region... You have followed also the budget rule, chances are high that you will enjoy your bottle.
Enjoy your bottle
Eventually you have bought your bottle of Refosco. Are you going to pair it with your food? Even if you are probably going to have Italian (what grows together goes together) why don’t you pair it with Lechon instead? You won’t believe how a perfect match they are. I have experimented it dozens of times...
From the vineyard to the glass, wine is a cultural, emotional and commercial product. It has a value both real and virtual. Wine being an acquired taste, more and more Filipinos, thanks to Ho.Re.Ca., internet, education and easy travel (before Covid and, hopefully, again in this 2021), are getting acquainted with the Italian wines ultimately developing a particular fondness for them.
With names such as Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello, Amarone, Verdicchio, Cartizze and Franciacorta evoking images of historical Italian terroirs, expensive bottles, autochthonous and exclusive grapes, simply uncork that bottle of Refosco you just bought and let the Italian wine do its magic.