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Any culture that once worshiped a God of Wine and Intoxication must know a little something about wine. Italy might not produce as much wine as Spain or consume as much wine per capita as the French (although it’s still close on both), but with a winemaking history spanning over 4,000 years, Italy has contributed to the expansion and development of winemaking more than any other country. Many believe that without the conquests of the Roman Empire into France, Spain, and the rest of Europe, taking native vines and the science of viniculture with it on the back of monks, the wine industries of these areas would not be nearly as developed as they are.
Today, Italy produces nearly 20% of all the wine in the world. There are over 900,000 registered vineyards and more than 1,300 registered grape varieties, including hundreds that grow nowhere else in the world. Those facts alone make learning about Italian wine incredibly intimidating; but, they do make for some unbelievable wine exploration opportunities.
However, if you are interested in avoiding the risks associated with choosing the beverage equivalent of deep-tracks and b-sides, then learn the basics and feel assured to stick with the greatest hits from a country that makes some of the greatest wines on the globe.
Italian Wine Laws
Like the rest of the Italian legal system, Italian wine laws are kind of messy. For decades, Italy’s DOC system (Denominazione di origine controllata) favored high-producing areas, the most productive varieties, and successful operations over more respectable classifications. This opened the Italian wine classification system up to a bit of corruption, inconsistency and a flood of cheap wines. Lately, however, Italian wine authorities are taking strides to repair the damage by focusing on truly classic regions, styles, and much tougher regulations and qualifications regarding yields, aging and geography. Wines labeled Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) are, in theory, Italy’s finest wines. The introduction and better adherence to a more solid classification and rating system from VDT table wines (vino di tavola) through IGT (indicazione geografica tipica) and DOC has reduced the number of DOCG wines – eliminating some of ther riffraff. These actions should go a long way toward restoring the credibility of Italy’s wine laws. We’ll see what happens over the next couple decades.
Geography, Climate, Vines & Wines
When the Greeks originally moved into Italy, they found the geography and climate so accepting of grapevines that they named it Enotria, “land of the vine.” Since then, production has exploded such that you almost expect vines to grow from every little crack and crevice throughout the country. Unfortunately, this is not far from the truth. Although vines can and do grow all over this hilly and diverse country, much of it is unremarkable and adds to the general confusion over expectation and quality. Roughly the size of the state of Arizona,in the US Italy offers an incredible diversity of geology and climate over its 20 different wine growing regions; most fitting into three basic categories of Northern, Central and Southern Italy.
Northern Italy is composed of six growing regions: Piedmont, Trentino Alto-Adige, Veneto, Lombardi, Valle d’Aosta and Fruili. Of these, Piedmont stands out as one of the two most important in the entire country. Sitting near northern border of the truly effective geographic wine-growing area, and with its continental climate, heavy fogs, and the rain-shadow effect from the neighboring Alps, Northern Italian wines generally require a longer growing season to develop into some of the highest rated wines in the world.
Red: Barbera, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto
White: Moscato, Pinot Grigio, Valpolicella, Chardonnay
Top Rated Producers:
Vieti (Barolo), Giuseppe Mascarello & Figlio (Barolo), G.D. Vajra (Barolo), Produttori del Barbaresco (Barbaresco)
Bruno Giacosa Dolcetto d’Alba, Ceretto Blangé Arneis ($18), J. Hofstatter Pinot Bianco ($18), Cavalchina Bardolino ($14)
Classic years are 2001, 2004 and 2010.
Central Italy is home to Tuscany, Umbria, Abruzzi and many other appellations; some of the leading viniculture areas in the world. The moderate, Mediterranean climate along with rolling hills, abundant sun, coastal winds and a mixture of limestone, sand, clay, and volcanic soils make this an environment conducive to vine growing, wine production, and finding just the right place to spend the rest of your life.
Red: Sangiovese (aka Prugnolo Gentile, Brunello or Morellino), Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon
White: Trebbiano Toscano, Vernaccia
Top Rated Producers:
Avignonesi (Montepulciano), Livio Sassetti (Brunello di Montalcino), Poggerino (Chianti Classico), Querciabella (Toscana), Altesino (Brunello di Montalcino)
Coltibuono Toscana ($10), Bibi Graetz Sangiovese ($12) Castello di Gabbiano Chianti Classico Riserva ($17), Capezzana Conti Contini Sangiovese ($10)
Classic years are 1999, 2001, 2004 and 2007
Appellations like Campania, Calabria and Sicily, with miles and miles of coastline and fertile and flat prairie lands, produce vast amounts of wines that range wildly in quality. Offering warm Mediterranean climate with volcanic soils and subtle mountain influences, Southern Italy is generally dry and sunny, producing sweeter and more full-bodied red and white wines that are increasingly available, inexpensive, and improving in quality dramatically.
Red: Nero d’Avola, Carignano, Aglianico, Primitivo
White: Grillo, Falanghina, Vernaccia
Top Rated Producers:
Planeta (Sicily), Cusumano (Sicily), Mastroberardino (Taurasi), Argiolas (Sardinia)
Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico ($16), Feudo Arancio Nero d’Avola ($9), Mastroberardino Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Bianco ($18), Librandi Cirò Rosso ($10), Vesevo Beneventano Aglianico ($13)
Classic years are 2004 and 2007
The Heart of the Matter
Italy challenges wine lovers like no other place does. Its diversity in grapes, styles, laws, and geography would take a few lifetimes to master, but it is totally worth the effort. Italy may not have invented wine, but since the time of Bacchus, the country has infused it with irrepressible culture and life to the extent of being one of the true birthplaces of modern wine.