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SF's Crush on Italian Wine

As the Italians continue their quest to make New World wines, San Franciscans continue to bow only to the old.

The Italophile spirit is ingrained in this city’s identity. Maybe it’s attributable to the fact that we share the same geographic latitude as Sicily, or perhaps it’s a nostalgia for our fermenting forebears, the Italian immigrants who clung to their winemaking culture during Prohibition. But whatever the reason, our crush on Italian wine and food is unstoppable. We are about to enter yet another renaissance: More pizzerias are coming our way—one from Farina and another from Anthony Mangieri, formerly of NYC’s Una Pizza Napoletana—to top off the recent additions of Barbacco in the Financial District and Ristobar in the Marina. Flour + Water also has expansion plans in the works.

And for the accompanying wine lists, San Francisco’s tastemakers are demanding Old World wines—“authentic” specimens made from indigenous Italian varietals unsullied by overmanipulation and oak. Call this the A16 factor: The restaurant’s trailblazing Italian wine list snubbed the newfangled and celebrated the wealth of cultish Southern Italian offerings.

Ironically, these are the types of wines drunk locally in Italy, but not created for export. Instead, Italian winemakers—with the US market in mind—continue to make big, New World–style wines. The most common examples are Super-Tuscans, wines made from barrel-aged Cabernet and Merlot (neither of which is native to Italy, of course) grown on the Tuscan coast. But Super-Tuscans get the snub from Russian Hill–based Ceri Smith, who curates the predominantly Italian wine shop Biondivino. To wit, her Super-Tuscan section contains a solitary wine: a French Bordeaux. “This is what I would choose if I wanted to drink Cabernet. Besides,” she says, “it’s $50, and that’s a lot less expensive than most of these Super-Tuscans.”

Kevin Wardell, who runs the impeccably selected wine list at Flour + Water, says: “I find native varietals far more interesting to drink, to sell and to educate my staff and my customers about. They have an identity.” You’ll find this perspective burgeoning all over town, with lists heavy on unique Northern Italian whites and Southern Italian reds. Samantha Brennan, wine director at Delfina, echoes this: “If I’m going to go non-native, I’ll support our local growers instead.”

Should you think our obsession with old-style Italian varietals is nearing its peak, think again. Italy is dominated by a multitude of small production wineries and has 350 native grapes officially registered and cultivated, grown in a huge range of terrain. With this surfeit of delights, the SF wine illuminati have barely put a dent in practicing the occult.

So next time you peruse an Italian wine list here, it’s likely that you’ll mostly see the Sophia Lorens of the wine world, and not many Madonnas. Surprisingly, in this scenario, Sophia is also the cheap date. Cin cin.

Beyond Nebbiolo: A mini primer on some great Old World Italians

Varietal: Ribolla Gialla. A delicate and floral grape that makes up a tiny percentage of all the varieties grown in Friuli. Wine to try: Dorigo Ribolla Gialla 2007

Varietal: Lacrima di Moro d’Alba. A specialty of the Marche on Italy’s Adriatic coast. The name means “Moor’s tears,” a reference to the dark black tear-shaped grapes. Wine to try: Luciano Landi Lacrima di Moro d’Alba Gavigliano 2007

Varietal: Pigato. An ancient and rare white that thrives on the rugged Ligurian coast. Wine to try: Claudio Vio Pigato 2007

Varietal: Nerello Mascalese. Mostly grown on the volcanic soil of Mount Etna in Sicily at an extremely high altitude, its perfume, texture and weight are akin to Pinot Noir. Wine to try: Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Rosso 2008

Varietal: Negroamaro. The signature variety of Apulia and the main component in Salice Salentino. Extremely intense, it lives up to its “black bitter” name. Wine to try: Castello Monaci Negroamaro “Maru” 2008

All available at Biondivino, 1415 Green St., 415-673-2320, biondivino.com