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For a good time, bring on the Italians

September 03, 2008|Jean T. Barrett | Special to The Times

"The wines were too various" says a minor character in Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited," attempting to excuse Sebastian Flyte's behavior after a party, "It was neither the quality nor the quantity that was at fault; it was the mixture. Grasp that and you have the root of the matter."

"The wines were too various" has become an epigram in my household, usually uttered, deadpan, when someone confesses to the possibility of having overindulged. But it's strictly a witticism, because for wine lovers, the wines can never be too various. If there's something interesting being opened, it doesn't matter how many wines have preceded it; most wine lovers won't hesitate to hold out their glass for a taste.

When an array of antipasto dishes is on the menu, I like to multiply the taste combinations exponentially by serving wines that are too various. It's fun to offer half a dozen or so bottles that have intriguing, distinctive flavors, allowing guests to gauge the compatibility of different wines with different dishes and to debate the best and worst pairings.

As host, you can either procure the wines yourself or suggest that guests each bring a bottle, but for an evening of small plates, let's agree on a few parameters to narrow the field. We'll stick to Italy; after all, who knows better than the Italians which wines pair well with antipasti?

And let's make it a no-Pinot-Grigio night. Nothing against that grape, which can yield terrific wines, but too often the selection of Italian whites begins with Pinot and ends with Grigio, when in fact the taste possibilities in other types of Italian whites vary tremendously. Finally, because the weather is warm, let's keep the wines, including the reds, refreshing and cool.

To avoid the formality and complications of serving wines one by one, open the bottles all at once. One of those acrylic wine party tubs will hold about half a dozen bottles along with ice to keep them chilled. (In a pinch, a canning kettle, stockpot or a spare kitchen sink will do nicely.) It's easier to stand the opened, re-corked bottles in the receptacle first, then pour in a couple bags of ice and let guests help themselves over the course of the evening.

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Food challenges

Entertaining with antipasto dishes, tapas or small-plates appetizers can present some wine-pairing challenges. Salads and condiments strongly flavored with vinegar or lemon juice, as well as wine-unfriendly foods such as artichokes, can be hard to match. These dishes are often best with white wines that have the body, acid structure and heft to stand up to assertive flavors.

On the other hand, there are many traditional antipasto dishes that are delightfully wine-friendly. There's no problem matching wines to a platter of cheeses; there are just degrees of deliciousness. There are also matches made in antipasto heaven, such as the way an assortment of salumi is complemented by a well-made Lambrusco from Emilia-Romagna.

Italians kick off an evening of antipasto entertaining with a glass of Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, the frothy, light-bodied sparkler from the Veneto. Low-end Prosecco can taste like cardboard, but better-quality examples, such as Rustico, the nonvintage bottling from the respected producer Nino Franco (for buying information, see related sidebar), make a superb aperitif, with an attractive pear-scented bouquet and clean, refreshingly fizzy flavors. Prosecco is delicious with Marcona almonds and just about any other cocktail snack you can think to serve.

Another great partner with appetizers is the 2007 Regaleali IGT Sicilia white wine, a blend from the venerable family estate in the heart of Sicily. IGT stands for Indicazione Geografica Tipica, a designation introduced by the Italian government in 1992 to cover wines that meet higher standards than those of vino da tavola (simple table wine), but might not adhere to strict DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) or DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) rules, which regulate a host of grape-growing and winemaking variables, like the French appellation controlee system. Vinified from a trio of obscure Sicilian varietals -- Inzolia, Cataratto and Grecanico -- Regaleali's bianco offers a peachy, floral nose; round and fruity flavors; an appealing creaminess; and a crisp finish.

Pinot Bianco doesn't get much respect, but the 2007 vintage from Alois Lageder, one of the leading producers in the Alto Adige region, is classy stuff indeed, with pretty floral top notes; tart, appley and mineral-like flavors; and a clean, citrusy finish. It's hard to imagine a better match with mild cheeses, rice salads and marinated vegetables.

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Dry whites

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