Wines for Thanksgiving – Pairing Italian Wines with your Turkey Feast

wine-selection-walking-tour-italyThis uniquely American holiday embraces the same traditions as Italians keep during their numerous festivals and feast days – gathering family and friends to observe the day with a celebratory meal of dishes that reflect the history of their families and culture. In past posts I’ve shared some Italian-themed dishes that might play a role on a Thanksgiving table, like Pumpkin Soup or Cranberry Mostarda. Another way to bring some of Italy into the holiday is by pairing some great Italian wines with the meal – from sparklers to crisp whites to reds, there are plenty of options. Both as a tourist, and now leading food and wine tours, I’ve been visiting Italian wine producers for over 15 years now, and a common theme I’ve heard from producers all over the peninsula is that Italian wines are created to pair with food. What better wines to select for this food-centric holiday!

Sparkling Wines


Prosecco would be a great addition to the Thanksgiving table, either as an aperitif, with a deep-fried turkey, or a sweeter prosecco with pumpkin pie. But with the plethora of prosecco crowding the shelves, how do you spot a high quality one?

col-vetoraz-prosecco-custom-bike-toursThis dramatic growth in popularity has brought to market many so-called “Prosecco” suppliers who are not located in the traditional hill-region that produces the best grapes, and do not adhere to the same quality standards. In an effort to combat this trend, a new quality designation was earned by the sparking wines from the original Valdobbiadene to Conegliano area – the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita.) This is the highest quality designation for Italian wines.

prosecco-fascetta-cycling-tour-italySo look for the DOCG phrase on the label. The bottle will also often bear a distinctive fascetta, or band, which covers the cork. This verifies the producer has followed the rules, paid their taxes and are not exceeding the restrictions on yields and production. Prosecco is labeled according to the amount of sugar that remains after fermentation; the sweetest are “Dry”, best with a dessert, then “Extra-Dry”, with the driest versions labeled “Brut”, best for that aperitif or with savory foods. Another phrase you may see on the bottle is “Millisimato”. Most sparkling wines are produced from grapes from multiple years. Millesimato spumante wines are produced from grapes grown in a single year. Finally, within the Prosecco DOCG area, there are two sub-zones that are considered the best of the best, the “Grand Cru” vineyards. The names to look for here are Cartizze or Rive.

Hills of Cartizze

Proseccos from the surrounding areas in Veneto and Fruili regions are labeled Prosecco DOC. Proseccos from other regions in Italy are labeled with the IGT designation, indicating more of a table wine, and display a wide range of quality levels.

Other Sparklers

Other quality sparklers from Italy are the champagne style wines from the TRENTODOC or Franciacorta.

White Wines

My favorite white wines in Italy come from the northeastern regions, the Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Guila and Trentino-Alto Adige.

Pinot Bianco

Tasting Pinot Bianco at Elena Walch

Try a Pinot Bianco from Trentino-Alto Adige. Pinot Bianco is not Pinot Grigio, although they are both members of the Pinot family, both color mutations of Pinot Noir. Pinot BIanco is a bit rounder, less fruity, more apple and pear than Pinot Grigio. Wines from Pinot Bianco need a crisp acidity, which the cooler climates of this northern region deliver. There are many lower quality Pinot Grigio and Pinot Bianco from Italy, but two producers that export to the US that I highly recommend are Elena Walch and Tiefenbrunner. A Pinot Bianco would pair well with a classic oven roasted turkey.


tramin-gewurztraminer-walking-tour-italyOne of my favorite whites from this region is Gewurztraminer. The name translates to “the spicy wine from Tramin”, a town in Alto Adige we visit during our walking and cycling tours, and is wonderfully fragrent with notes of floral and lychee nuts, and spices like allspice and cloves. Gewurztraminer pairs well with spicier foods, so if your family is fond of turkey recipes that are Mexican or Asian themed, this would be a great option. Check out wines from Elena Walch or Cantina Tramin.

Vineyards in Tramin, Italy

Red Wines

The red wines often recommended to pair with your Thanksgiving turkey are Pinot Noir, Grenache, or Zinfandel. Italy produces wonderful versions of all of these, but you might find them difficult to spot in your local wine shop.

Pinot Noir/Pinot Nero/Blauburgunder

blauburgunder-muri-walking-tour-italyPinot Noir in Italy is called Pinot Nero, or in Alto Adige you will see its German name, Blauburgunder. On the lighter side of the red wine spectrum, Pinot Noir is light enough for fish but complex enough to hold up to some richer dishes, making it perfect for the vast array of flavors that Thanksgiving brings. As Pinot Noir thrives best in more northern climates, again I would recommend looking for wines with a DOC designation from Trentino-Alto Adige or Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Abbazia di Novacella, J. Hofstatter and Muri-Gries are quality producers that can be found here in the US.

Abbazia di Novacella


cannonau-walking-tour-italyGrenache wines offer nice fruit flavor with good balance and acidity, and just the right amount of tannins to match well with many different dishes. The most widely planted grape in the world, it is not usually associated with Italy. But the island of Sardinia produces some wonderful Grenache wines, under the local name Cannonau. The Sella and Mosca Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva can be found here in the US for around $15 – 17 a bottle.


primitivo-walking-tour-italyThe strong fruity flavors and tobacco notes of a Zinfandel are an ideal match for rich dark or smoked turkey meat. Another grape variety not normally associated with Italy, it is cultivated in Puglia, the region of Italy that is the spur and heel of the boot. But again, you will not find it sold under the Zinfandel name, but under the local name, Primitivo. The most prestigious Primitivo wines come from the Primitivo di Manduria DOC.

Happy Thanksgiving all!


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Brunelli Wines – Amarone and Valpolicella

cyclist-amarone-cycling-tour-italyThis September, guests on our Bike the Amarone Wine Roads cycling tour enjoyed a private tour and tasting at a wonderful producer of Valpolicella wines, the Brunelli family. The Brunelli name has been closely connected to San Pietro in Cariano, a small valley in the Classic Valpolicella Classico region, whose name derives from the Roman Cariae family. Originally workers on the estate, the family piece by piece purchased this spot in the countryside, and since 1936 have been producing wines here.

san-pietro-cycling-tour-italyThe main objective of the Brunelli Estate is to highlight the typical qualities of the grapes of the Valpolicella area. To quote Alberto Brunelli, “I have discovered, to my surprise, that many wines offer a complex personality. Sometimes it is similar to that of my grandfather; some are more like my father’s character, and yet others offer feminine perfumes and flavors that remind me of my mother and grandmother.” Alberto, in conjunction with his parents Luigi and Luciana, operate the winery today, following  the footsteps of past generations.

tractor-brunelli-cycling-tour-italyOur tour was in early September, just at the start of the harvest, our timing perfect for gaining insight into the production of one of Italy’s most prestigious wines, Amarone. Amarone wines are produced using the appassimento technique, allowing the grapes to dry before squeezing them to extract the juice. The grapes destined for an Amarone are the last to be picked in this zone, and then spend the next three to four months in drying rooms, being carefully desiccated to avoid mold and rot. The grapes not suitable for drying are pressed immediately and destined for Valpolicella wine.

alberto-brunelli-cycling-tour-italyAlberto personally led our tour, and our first stop were the drying rooms. A spacious loft, outfitted with large windows with fans as well as an extensive environmental control system to ensure just the right amount of ventilation and humidity throughout the four month drying process.  The first grapes from the harvest were just making their way into these lofts. The grapes are picked by hand, and any with broken skins are eliminated as the grapes must be unblemished in order to dry without rot. The Corvina grape, the predominant grape in Amarone, is thick skinned, and so well-suited for the drying process.

drying-amarone-cycling-tour-italyThe pristine grapes are carefully laid in a single layer in plastic baskets, which are then stacked on a pallet. At the end of harvest, these plastic baskets fill the loft, extending floor to ceiling. The grapes dry here for 3-4 months, during which they loose 40% of their volume. The grapes are then crushed, and sit on the skins for 40 days, a long slow fermentation at low temperature. allowing the concentrated sugars to convert into alcohol, resulting in Amarone’s characteristic high alcohol level.

private-amarone-cycling-tour-italyThe juice is filtered off, and the wine begins its maturation for two years in barriques and tonneaux. The skins are not done yet, they are given a second role now in the production of Valpolicella “Ripasso”. The skins are then added to Valpolicella wine. These are still impregnated with sugars and yeast cells, and so set off a second fermentation, thus increasing the wine’s level of alcohol, as well as enriching its color, extract and aromas and thus improving its aging potential. The term used to refer to this process, “ripasso”, translates roughly to passing over again.

wine-tasting-cycling-tour-italyBrunelli makes a broad range of wines under the Valpolicella and Amarone DOC and DOCG regulations, including Valpolicella, Valpolicella Ripasso, and a few different Amarone. After our tour, Alberto guided us to a lovely tasting room where he introduced us to some of the stars of their portfolio.

valpolicella-ripasso-cycling-tour-italyWe began with the Pa’ Rionda Valpolicella Ripasso. A blend of Corvina, Rondinella and Corvinone, produced using the traditional Ripasso technique consisting of refermenting a Valpolicella Classico on the skins, still impregnated with sugars and yeast cells, of the semi-dried grapes previously used to make Amarone. It is aged for 12 months in oak and an additional 6 months in the bottel. Intense, with a deep ruby color, well balanced with flavors of currants and blackberries.  is an immediately recognizable product of its area of origin.

Next, their Amarone della Valpolicella. Made from a blend of the same 3 grapes that spent between 3 – 4 months in the drying loft prior to pressing and a 40 day fermentation. The wine is then aged for two years in barriques and tonneaux. After bottling, the Amarone is then kept for at least a further six months in the bottle before being released. Intense red, fruity aroma, and Amarone’s characteristic flavors of currants, berries and cherry. Elegant, well-structured, balanced. Pair with grilled red meats, game, aged cheeses.

titari-amarone-cycling-tour-italyAnother Amarone to try  – their Amarone della Valpolicella Campo del Tìtari. This special selection of Amarone is produced only in the finest vintages and in very limited quantities.  The grapes are very carefully selected through multiple selection stages, a blend of Corvina e Corvinone 75%, Rondinella 15%, and here, a small percentage of Sangiovese 10%. Created to be bold and intense, it displays a deep ruby color. Again aromas of cherries, berries and currants, mingling with vanilla. Robust, nice acidity, and a persistant finish. Alberto shared the origin of the name Campo di Titari, or “Field of Titari” , Titari was the name of the last horse the family owned. Alberto’s father saw similarities between the wine and the horse, both very dark, spicy, lively.

recioto-cycling-tour-italyFinally, we ended with the region’s traditional dessert wine, a Recioto della Valpolicella. The name ‘recioto’ comes from ‘recie’, ears in the local dialect. The ‘ears’ of the grape bunch are those lobes on the top, which receive the most sunlight, and are therefore riper and drier, with more concentrated sugars. These are separated from the remainder of the bunch, dried, and are used to produce this sweet dessert wine. A recioto is fermented less time than an Amarone, to retain some sugar for this sweet wine. In fact, legend has it that Recioto is the grandfather of Amarone, as the very first Amarone was produced when someone forgot to stop the fermentation of a Recioto, and all the sugars were consumed. The result was a very dry wine, which when tasted caused the winemaker to exclaim  “Amarone”, or very bitter (amaro).

amarone-grapes-cycling-tour-italyFor the Brunelli Recioto, he fermentation process lasts 30 days (rather than 40 for the Amarone) and is arrested by chilling the wine, leaving a substantial amount of residual sugars. The wine then matures in oak barriques for around 8 months, then spends another 6 months in bottle before being released onto the market. Deep red, very aromatic with both floral and fruity notes. Flavors of cherry and raisin, as well as sweet spices and caramel. Complex, full-bodied and robust, enjoy with pastries, nuts, fruit desserts and blue cheeses.

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Tagliolini con il Tartufo – Tagliolini with Truffles

tagliatelle-tartufo-cooking-class-walking-tours-italyOne of the most sought-after delicacies of Italy is the truffle. We are fortunate enough to be in truffle producing regions on many of our Italy cycling tours and walking adventures, be it central Italy in Umbria or the northern regions of the Veneto or Piedmont. The use of truffles in all of these regions is quite similar, sharing the philosophy that the star of the show is the truffle, and keeping the rest of the dish simple to let the deep, earthy flavor of the truffle shine through.

tartufo-walking-tours-italyTruffles are a form of fungi, and so are related to mushrooms, as well as yeasts and molds. Truffles are ectomycorrhizal fungi, a fancy name which refers to fungi that grow in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of a plant. In the case of truffles, this is beech, birch, hazel, hornbeam, oak, pine, and poplar trees. Truffles can only thrive in the very particular soil conditions that exists in this forest environment. Each fungus will produce one truffle per year, with the ‘terroir’ – the soil type, tree, and local climate – providing a distinctive aroma and flavor to each truffle.

Tagliolini with Truffles in restaurant in Vicenza

The scarcity of truffles is due in part to its need for this very specific growing environment, as well as its difficulty to find – it grows completely underground. They are foraged by trifolau, or truffle hunters, who keep their hunting grounds a closely held secret. They are assisted by a trained pig or dog, whose keen sense of smell helps the trifolau locate the truffles. A pig was the animal traditionally employed, as they will naturally seek out truffles, but they naturally seek them because they like to eat them, which can cause problems when they find one. It is said that you can spot a truffle hunter that still uses pigs because he is missing a few fingers. Today trifolau typically use trained dogs.

A reputable trifolau will then carefully excavate the truffle, in order to preserve its environment so he/she can return next year to find another in its place. Poachers do double damage when they steal a truffle, both to the pocketbook of the reputable trifolau, as well as destroying the spore so it will not produce again.

Here is a very classic recipe for truffles found all over Italy, Tagliolini with Truffle. This recipe is translated from Italian, from “La Cucina del Veneto” by Morganti.


Tagliolini con il Tartufo

Serves 4

4 ounces butter
1 small black or summer truffle, brushed clean and sliced very thin, or coarsely grated
1 pound good quality tagliolini (or tagliatelle or fettucine, if you cannot find tagliolini, as I had to do)
1 tablespoon finely minced parsley or chives
Grana cheese, grated

In a large saute pan, melt the butter and add the truffle. Cook for a few minutes over medium heat, then turn off and keep warm.

Bring a large pot of water to boil, salt well. Cook the tagliolini until just al dente, then drain and add quickly to the pan with butter flavored with truffles. Sprinkle with fine chopped parsley or chives and serve in individual serving dishes. Garnish with grated Grana.

The original recipe recommended pairing with a Bardolino Classico.

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Branzino al Forno con Patate, Pomodoro e Olive – Roasted Branzino with Potato, Tomato and Olives

branzino-con-patate-walking-tours-italyOur culinary experiences on our Italy walking tours are designed to explore the traditional dishes of the regions we visit. During our class this past July with Alessandra and Elena of Peccati di Gola we made several classic seafood recipes from Venice. My last post was on Sarde in Saor, and here is another Venetian dish, featured on many restaurant menus but easily replicated by home cooks, Roasted Branzino with Potatoes, Tomatoes and Olives.

branzino-market-walking-tours-italyBranzino is a species of fish commonly found in peschiera, or fish mongers, in the Veneto. Also referred to as European seabass, or Mediterranean seabass, it is a a member of the Moronidae family, also known as “temperate basses” as they can flourish in a wide range of temperatures. They are found on both sides of the North Atlantic, over here in the US we have the freshwater species white bass and yellow bass, and the coastal striped bass (Morone saxatilis) or “striper”.

branzino-cooking-class-walking-tours-italyBranzino (plural branzini) is the name of the fish in Northern Italy; in other parts of Italy, it is called spigola or ragno. In France, the fish is called bar commun along the Atlantic, loup de mer on the Mediterranean. It is often farmed, making it fairly easy to find even here in the US. They range in size from 1 to 1.5 pounds, and are sold whole. My fishmonger in Italy will scale and clean it for me, ask yours to do the same.

branzino-forno-walking-tours-italyTo select a whole fish, check for:

  • Mild, briny not ‘fishy’ smell
  • Clear eyes, not cloudy
  • Bright, metallic skin/scales
  • Clean, red gills
  • Tight, not sunken belly

If you cannot find branzino, you can substitute a whole, white fish of similar size.

branzino-con-patate-close-walking-tours-italyBranzino al Forno con Patate, Pomodoro, e Olive

Serves 2

1 pound potatoes
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 large branzino (1.5 lbs) or 2 smaller (1.0 lbs), scaled and cleaned
10 ounces cherry tomatoes
1 small red onion, minced
3 tablespoons capers, rinsed
1/4 cup black olives, pitted
Oregano, kosher salt, freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 350F°.

Peel the potatoes and thinly slice. Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat, and add salt. Boil the potatoes in the salted water for 2-3 minutes, then drain.

Put the olive oil in a large baking dish. Place the branzino, belly side down, on the baking dish, arranging the potatoes around the fish to hold them upright.

Halve the tomatoes and place on top of the potatoes together with capers, minced onion and olives.

Sprinkle oregano, salt and pepper over entire dish. Drizzle oil over everything.

Place in oven, bake for 30 minutes. Serve, drizzled with olive oil.

Serve with a crisp white wine from the Veneto, like a Soave or Vespaiolo from Breganze.

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Sarde in Saor – Classic Venetian Cuisine

sarde-in-saor-walking-tours-italyThis July, we began a private walking tour in the magical city of Venice. Famous for its canals, the Republic of Venice has a fascinating history as a major maritime and economic power for hundreds of years. Exploring the history, and understanding how it plays a role today in the culture and cuisine of the area is always part of our experience.

cooking-class-walking-tours-italyWe joined Alessandra and Elena from the Pecatti di Gola cooking school to prepare some traditional dishes of the Veneto. Sarde in Saor is a classic Venetian dish, dating back to the 13th century. This was a fisherman’s dish, fried sardines preserved in a marinade of sauteed onion. It could last for several days (without refrigeration then), and onions are high in Vitamin C, very important for avoiding scurvy.

church-redentore-walking-tours-italyOur visit to Venice had just missed one of Venice’s favorite festivals, the Festa del Redentore, or Redeemer’s Feast, a two day celebration held annually the third weekend of July. This feast dates back to 1577 to celebrate the end of an outbreak of the plague, and Venice marked the occasion by hiring renowned architect Andrea Palladio to build a church on the waterfront of the Canale della Guidecca. Known as the Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore, this landmark contains a number of paintings by artists including Veronese and Tintoretto.

sardines-walking-tours-italyOn the Saturday, the residents of Venice decorate boats and terraces, and haul long tables out to the Piazzas to prepare for a night of festivities. A massive fireworks display is the highlight, with people gathering on boats and in the squares, watching the impressive show reflecting off of the waters of lagoon while feasting on traditional dishes like Sarde in Saor.

sarde-in-saor-close-walking-tours-italyHere is the recipe for Sarde in Saor from Peccati di Gola, with a few additional instructions from me. Enjoy a room temperature with a glass of prosecco.

Sarde in Saor

2 pounds sardines
2 pounds white onions
1 cup red wine vinegar
4 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for frying
Flour for dredging
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Finely slice the onions. Place the 4 tablespoons of oil in a large saute pan, add the onions, cover, and slowly stew the onions until cooked through and tender, about 45 minutes. Do not allow to brown. When they are almost ready, raise the flame for a minute. Then add the vinegar, 
season with salt and pepper and let boil for few minutes. Remove from heat.

In winter, Venetian people used to add raisins and pine nuts to the onions, in order to make the sauce richer and tastier. Add them now if you wish.

While the onions are cooking, clean the sardines: slit the belly and open, removing the heads and stripping out fish-bones. Then open the filets flat, like books.

Coat the sardines with flour, fry them in vegetable oil in a saucepan, season withe salt and pepper and set them aside. 

After the onions have been cooked and the sardines are fried, alternate layers of onions and layers of sardines in rectangular glass pan, ending with the onions. Allow to sit, it is best made 2-3 days in advance.


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