Italian wines and antipasto: the great matchup

"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.

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 datavola (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 contrôlée 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.

Dry whites

IHAVE a weakness for dry white wines made from grapes that usually go into dessert wines -- think about the alluring dry Muscats of Alsace, for example. So when Robert Rogness, general manager of Wine Expo in Santa Monica, enthused about a dry Malvasia from Oltrepò Pavese, a region in the southern part of Lombardy, I perked up my ears.

Azienda Agricola Martilde's "Piume" dry Malvasia 2006 smells sweet, with a lush, honeyed bouquet, but drinks utterly dry, with flavors of melon and green apple and a brisk finish that hints of lemon peel. Word of the day: "Piume" is Italian for feathers, and refers to the label's picture of poultry that live on the farm. This is a wine with the body and taste profile to stand up to challenging flavors, such as the sweet-sour of caponata, the tang of lemony vinaigrettes and marinades, and even the heat of spicy Thai and Chinese dishes.

Piedmont produces some of Italy's most distinguished and aromatic white wines, and late summer is the ideal season to savor the 2007 vintage of Pio Cesare's Cortese di Gavi DOCG, an appley, minerally white from the hills of Gavi. Made 100% from the Cortese grape, an indigenous varietal, this pale golden wine offers an expansive lime-scented bouquet and round, citrusy flavors along with a steely acidic backbone that pairs well with seafood (think crostini with tuna and caper mayonnaise).

The priciest wine I'm recommending (at about $40) is Jermann's high-end white from Venezia Giulia called Vinnae, which is predominantly made from the Ribolla Gialla grape along with Tocai Friulano and Riesling. The 2007 vintage is a stunner, with aromas of honey and fresh peaches, ripe melony flavors, a suave mouthfeel balanced by good acidity, and a long, spicy finish.

Next: the reds

AND WHAT of the reds? An antipasto array that includes smoked and cured meats calls out for the classic wine pairing with charcuterie, Emilia-Romagna's frothy Lambrusco. What? you ask, incredulously. Are you referring to that fizzy sweet drink that many of us cut our wine teeth on? Hardly. True, most Lambrusco exported to the U.S. is pop wine, but the best bottlings from quality-oriented producers in the DOC zones around Modena and Reggio display a lush fruitiness and fizz as well as firm acidity and tannins that contrast deliciously with the salty, rich flavors of dry salami, prosciutto and other charcuterie.

A terrific example is the 2007 Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro from Tenuta Pederzana. The label says semi-secco, or semi-dry, but it's really just off-dry, with a rush of pink froth when it's first poured, an assertively jammy black-cherry aroma, and notes of tar and spice in the ripe, cherry-berry flavors. For an even drier and bolder version, sample Puianello's Contrada Borgoleto Lambrusco Reggiano. It is deep garnet in color, intensely jammy and tarry in the bouquet, and tastes like dark cherry soda while being absolutely bone-dry.

Please pass the salami . . . and the olives . . . and the crostini. . . .