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A tasty tour of the Mediterreanean starts with wines that don’t initially come to mind

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I could follow up last week’s column on off-the-beaten track white grape varieties with a column on reds focused solely on Italy, or Spain or Portugal. These Mediterranean countries have a major focus on indigenous grapes that, to a great extent, have never caught on worldwide the same way Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah/Shiraz have.

Many of the wines from these countries are labelled by region (Chianti, Rioja, Barolo) rather than by the grapes in the bottle (Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, respectively). Maybe that’s part of the reason these grapes aren’t household names — while we’ve all heard of Chianti (thanks to the kitsch-y wicker-laden bottles and Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs), for example, the name Sangiovese isn’t as familiar.

Here are three red wine adventures for you to take…

BARBERA

PRIMARY GROWING AREA: Italy (Piedmont)

FOOD PAIRING: Spaghetti and meatballs, pizza, marinara sauces, sharp cheeses

Barbera has long been one of Italy’s big three grape varieties, although it’s now outpaced by Sangiovese and Montepulciano by quite a bit. And while Nebbiolo gets much of the love and praise in Piedmont (thanks to big, burly Barolos and Barbarescos), Barbera does lots of the hard work in producing everyday reds that work wonders with Italian fare.

It’s one of the rare Italian red grapes whose name appears prominently on the front of the bottle when made into wine: Barbera d’Asti, Barbera d’Alba and Barbera del Monferrato are a few such examples.

There’s a lot of great Barbera to be had for under $20 — if you’re looking for that perfect red for Italian fare, look no further.

FONTANAFREDDA 2011 BRICCOTONDO BARBERA (Piemonte, Italy — $17.50, Liquor Marts and beyond)

Plum, raspberry and blackcurrant notes are fleshed out by leather and spice aromas. The Briccotondo is a full-bodied, chewy red, with plenty of dark berry and raisin flavours as well as hints of leather, tobacco and spice. There’s a bit of heat to the finish, and the tannins have grip yet aren’t mouth-puckeringly dry. Just the right balance of fruit and acidity for veal parmigiana, spicy pizza or ribs. 90/100

GRENACHE

PRIMARY GROWING AREA: France (Rhône Valley), Spain, Australia

FOOD PAIRING: steak, stews, roast meats

Much like Syrah/Shiraz, what this grape is called depends largely on where it’s coming from. Spanish producers tend to call it Garnacha, while most of the rest of the world knows it as Grenache.

One of the red grapes used in France’s Rhône Valley reds (the others are Syrah and Mourvedre), the grape has become fairly popular in Australia as well. Rhônestyle red blends from Australia are often labelled GSM as a reflection of the grapes used — Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre).

Grenache is typically inky black in colour, with loads of dark fruit flavours and a chewy texture. There’s usually enough tannin on the palate to wrestle with big meat dishes. If you like Malbec, Grenache will be up your alley.

PICOS DEL MONTGÓ 2011 OLD VINES GARNACHA (Cariñena, Spain — $12.89, Liquor Marts and beyond)

Intense raisin, plum and blackberry notes on the nose of this inky-black old-vine Spanish red — ‘old’ here being 45 years — have a dense, almost-stewed characteristic. It’s a dark, full-bodied and raisiny red, with blueberry skin, plum and light peppery notes on the palate and moderately dry tannin. Try with a big roast. Nice value here. 87/100

PRIMITIVO

PRIMARY GROWING AREA: Italy (Puglia, Salento), U.S. (California)

FOOD PAIRING: pizza, ribs, burgers

Chances are you’ve tried a Primitivo and not even known it — even if you don’t drink red wine. That’s because it’s commonly known in North America as Zinfandel, and is planted extensively in California.

American examples of Primitivo/Zinfandel tend to be big, rich, fruit-driven reds with loads of raisin, spice, and prune/plum notes. They tend to bring relatively higher alcohol levels — it’s not uncommon for a California Zinfandel to be 15 per cent by volume or higher.

Italian versions are less boozy, with an added rustic character and a more acidity that make them well-priced food wines.

And yes, Primitivo/Zinfandel is the grape used in making the ever-popular White Zinfandel, the hugely popular offdry blush wine. Don’t be fooled, however — red Primitivo/ Zinfandel delivers ripe fruit notes, but without the sweetness.

TENUTE RUBINO 2010 PRIMITIVO (Salento, Italy — around $14, private wine stores)

Raisin, red licorice and clove aromas are rounded out by leathery, slightly smoky notes on the nose. A medium-plus bodied red, the Tenute Rubino brings generous black fruit and ripe raspberry flavours as well as dried fruit (cherries, grapes), a pop of acidity and mild, chewy tannins. I picked this up at G.J.

Andrews on Academy. 87/100

uncorked@mts.net Twitter: @bensigurdson

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