Time to pick our favorite Italian wines for Christmastime entertaining. Experts agree there is no better wine for the holidays
than Cabernet Sauvignon, that spicy, dark-fruited lingering red we all love to pair with meat. After all grand cuts of meat are what the holiday table is all about. We want that intense garnet color and incensual aroma in our glass reflecting the glistening lights and complementing the sugar and spice that are symbolic of our holiday meals. I could find a formidable match with an Amarone, Barolo, Barbaresco or Brunello from Montalcino. A Vino Nobile or Rosso from Montepulciano, a Chianti Classico, or a complex Sicilian but sometimes a robust red can weigh you down so we’re looking for a lighter version of a traditional Italian red.
I’m choosing a Lagrein (pronounced la-GRINE) from Italy’s Alto Adige (Sudtirol) just because I happen to love the region and well it’s the most Christmasy part of Italy. Surrounded by the Alps and the Dolomites there is a fairytale-like atmosphere that makes the days of Advent very special. Lagrein wine is dense and dark purple/ruby in color with aromas of black raspberries and plums, cinnamon and nutmeg with flavors of cranberries and some leathery notes. Sounds like Christmas to me. It’s a relative of Trentino’s Teroldego (which I like) so I think I’ll invite it to join us at the holiday table. Who would you like to invite?
Christmas gift giving in Italy doesn’t involve a cheery fat fellow in a red fur trimmed suit and it doesn’t necessarily happen on December 25th. The holiday season in Italy extends well into the New Year when La Befana, the Christmas Witch,visits Italian children on the eve of January 6th. La Befana arrives on the eve of the Epiphany, to fill children’s stockings with candy and presents if they are good or a lump of coal (black rock candy) if they are bad. Although in Italy Santa is a little old lady wearing a black shawl traveling by broomstick rather than a sleigh, La Befana does fly down the chimney covered with ashes and soot with a bundle of toys flung on her back.
In fact the tradition of La Befana is all about gift giving with vestiges of ancient manners and customs dating to pre-Christian folklore when the Roman goddess Strenia brought gifts of figs, dates, and honey to celebrate the beginning of a new year. In the Christian version, the Three Wise Men stopped to ask La Befana for directions to Bethlehem and invited her to join them on their journey to find the Christ Child. She refused, saying she had too much work to do. Regretting her decision La Befana began searching for the Wise Men but could not find them or the Christmas stable. Now, each year she looks for the Christ Child leaving sweets at every house with children to remember the Three Wise Men who brought gifts to baby Jesus.
To me the best part of an Italian cappuccino is the froth, that layer of thickened milk that pours out like a sauce both sweet and rich to float on top of a deep dark sea of espresso. The quality of the coffee is important but a well crafted froth adds something extra to the cup.
In my mind that’s how Christmas should be, like the froth on top of a perfect cup of espresso, the icing on top of the most delicious cake. A time of the year when we get to give and receive something special that truly makes a difference.