Porch parties always remind me of Italy. The reason? Well, maybe for the Italians, it's more a case of terraces, balconies, loggias, and courtyards, but one thing is for sure -- no one loves dining outdoors more than Italians. They even have a phrase for it: al fresco, or dining "in the fresh air."
When Italians dine outdoors, the table holds all sorts of colorful foods. Nothing is served in courses (too fussy). Instead, everything needed to keep a group of food-lovers happy for several hours is laid out on the table, just waiting to be savored. That includes the wine―several different bottles of it, for dining outdoors implies a bounty of choices. To serve just one type of wine along with so plentiful a feast would be, in the Italian view, skimpy―and not much fun. Having several wines on the table, after all, adds an element of discovery, of surprise.
It's precisely this same spirit that I try to evoke whenever I have a party outdoors, even if it's just a small group of friends. Often I choose wines that I think my friends may not know but would find intriguing. "Cal-Ital" wines are a good example.
"Cal-Ital" is the collective name for a whole new world of wines made from Italian grape varieties grown in California. These varieties include Barbera, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, and Pinot Grigio. Until the 1990s, just about the only place you could find these intriguing varieties was in Italy itself. But as California has broadened its worldview, winemakers increasingly have looked to Italy for inspiration. The result has been this delicious category of wines―the Cal-Itals. Here's a brief overview.
Barbera (red): This is the leading grape in the Italian province of Piedmont. It was brought to California around the time of the Gold Rush by Italian immigrants but was largely neglected in the making of fine wines until very recently. California Barberas have juicy cherry and boysenberry flavors. Great with hearty pasta dishes. Two top Cal-Ital producers: Seghesio, Pepi.
Nebbiolo (red): Piedmont is also known for Nebbiolo, the grape that makes the two famous wines known as Barolo and Barbaresco. Nebbiolo is extremely difficult to make into fine wine, and few places in the world outside of California have ever even attempted to tackle this finicky grape. California's Nebbiolos have flavors that suggest chocolate and violets. They're good bets with roasted and grilled meats. Two top Cal-Ital producers: Viansa, M. Cosentino.
Pinot Grigio (white): Easy to like, Pinot Grigio is made all over the north of Italy, and it has become a California favorite as well. The wine's light, lemony flavors are often overlaid with a vanillalike creaminess. Feel free to pair Pinot Grigios with everything from seafood dishes to salads. Two top Cal-Ital producers: Byron and Flora Springs.
Sangiovese (red): This wine's ancestral home is Tuscany, where it is used to make Chianti. In California, Sangiovese is definitely hip right now; just about every Cal-Ital producer makes one. As it turns out, however, the varietal is extremely difficult to grow and make into great wine outside of Italy. So far, the results in California have been mixed―some wines are as lean and tart as cranberries, while others have fabulous mocha and citrus flavors. Sangiovese was built for any dish with olive oil and garlic. Two top Cal-Ital producers: Atlas Peak and Pepi.