- History - A history of Italian wine and winemaking
History of Italian Wine
Italy has such a rich winemaking history that the ancient Greeks called it Oenotria, the land of wine. The Romans were largely responsible for advancing viticultural and vinification practices, as their Legions took vines wherever they went and planted vineyards throughout their empire. Unlike much of France and other regions on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, thanks to the Christian Church Italian vineyards were kept up even after the fall of Rome. Monasteries became especially abundant producers of wine, with vast vineyards surrounding many of the countrys holy sites.
Throughout the Renaissance and into the modern era, Italian wines lay at the center of European and Asian trade. Its regions steadily emerged as the giants of wine production that they are today, and the wine industry flourished. However, the phylloxera epidemic that devastated much of Europe I the late nineteenth century did not spare Italy, and its wine production disintegrated. Winemakers could not afford to replant from expensive American roots and cuttings, so many opted to produce other cheap, hardy, and high-yield varieties. Unfortunately, this trend spread throughout the country, and continued into the 1970s. As a result, many of Italys wine regions are still dominated by low quality grapes, and only recently has the nation been able to build an image as a truly world class wine country.
In 1963, Italy first introduced the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) system, which classified wine regions according to the type of wine produced. However, this legal method worked poorly, as it failed to create a manageable number of umbrella regions that consumers can identify with and understand. Furthermore, DOC status was given to many appellations based on quantity, not quality, so the classification itself means little when marked on a bottle. Many skilled winemakers, in an effort to distance themselves from the DOC mess, even began to make wine under the generic vini da tavola classification.
In 1992, recognizing the flaws within the DOC system, Italy introduced the Goria Law. This new method focused on the creation of a category above vini da tavola called Indicazioni Geografiche Tipiche, or IGT, which is similar to Frances vin de pays system. Of course, this new law didnt actually solve the scattered DOC system, but it did give winemakers another option.
Today, Italian wine makes up about one quarter of the worlds wine production. Year after year, Italy is Frances closest rival as the largest producer and exporter of fine wines in the world, and is held back only by its confusing and loose system of appellations and quality control procedures.
- Overview - An overview of Italian wine today.
Overview of Italian Wine
Wine in Italy is nearly as essential as eating or sleeping. It is so ubiquitous there that there are about one million producers of wine in the country and nearly one thousand varieties of wine grapes are grown there. There are vineyards in all of Italy’s regions from the Alps in the north to the islands in the south totaling over two million acres.
Adding to sheer quantity and domestic enthusiasm for wine, Italy also boasts every possible microclimate that could be desirable for fine wine production. From the cold foggy mountains of Piedmont to the blazing heat of the south, Italy combines all major wine growing climates within a single country.
If Italy’s wine has a weakness, and most would argue it does, the problem lies not in the winemakers themselves but in the complex system of organization and classification of wines. The Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) system, explained in the ‘Understanding Italy’s Wines’ section, seeks to emulate the French Appellation d’Origin Controlée (AOC) classification scheme. However, the DOC method falls short, both in terms of indicating consistent quality of wines and in creating effective geographical boundaries. The recent creation of the Indicazione Geografica Tipica, or IGT system for good wines produced outside of DOC specifications is even undermining the legitimacy of DOCs further.
This being said, Italy produces countless superb wines, and truly is France’s closest rival in terms of quantity and quality. Wines from Piedmont, Tuscany, and other famous Italian regions rank among the best in the world, and many varieties specific to Italy add unique flavors and aromas to already fabulous wines. In short, Italy’s great wines are out there, but it takes patience and understanding to uncover the true gems.
- Understanding Italian Wines - A guide to Understanding Italian Wines.
Understanding Italian Wines
The appellations of Italy are somewhat disorganized and quite confusing. It is often hard to tell whether the name on an Italian wine is its region or grape variety. Often, it is both! Italy has so many regions, wines, and styles, that it would take a lifetime to know them all, but what better joy for a wine lover than to try?
Like France, Italy has a controlled appellation system with several levels of quality. Quality wines from defined regions are listed as Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC). A step above that is Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), which follows stricter rules than DOC regions. There are now just over 20 DOCGs and the number is growing.
Vini da Tavola generally indicates ordinary table wine made outside the regulations of a DOC appellation, although some great wine producers use the vini da tavola label to use methods or grape varieties that are forbidden within a particular DOC region. The term “Super Tuscan” was coined when several producers did just that within the Tuscany region. These winemakers wanted to use grapes that were not allowed in the region, and decided to take the lower status instead of sacrificing the quality of the wines. Between Vini da Tavola and DOC is another quality level called Indicazione Geografica Tipica, or IGT.
There are also several common terms that appear on Italian wine labels. Riserva is a word describing a wine that has been aged for longer periods of time. Classico refers to a geographic region in which the proportion of fine wines is higher than elsewhere. Superiore is also often seen on labels, and usually refers to a higher alcohol content, and sometimes to extra aging. Sparkling wines usually come in one of two forms - the lightly sparkling, fizzy, Frizzante and the fully sparkling Spumante.
Situated in the mountainous northeast corner of Italy, Friuli-Venezia Giulia produces some of Italy’s finest whites. Bordering Slovenia in the east, this region has some Slavic influences within its wine culture. As an example, Tocai Friulano, the region’s most popular variety, may have originated in Eastern Europe and bears a Slavic name (Tocai). Other good white varieties are Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, and popular reds include Schioppettino, Refosco, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. Friuli-Venezia Giulia has a reputation for putting quality ahead of quantity, and has earned its place as one of the top regions in Italy.
One of the oldest inhabited regions in Europe, Friuli-Venezia Giulia first began making wine with the arrival of the Romans. In addition to their vineyards, the Romans also built roads, aqueducts, and towns, turning the region into a hub of activity. As one of the easternmost outposts of Italian influence, the decline of the Roman Empire spelled disaster for the Friuli-Venezia Giulia winemakers. Quickly overrun by eastern marauders, viticulture came to an abrupt stop.
In the eighteenth century, with the establishment of the port of Trieste and a trading regime, the region once again came to prosper. Winemaking expanded rapidly, and an industrial economy developed in later centuries. Today, though Trieste has lost its significance as a major European port, the wines of Friuli-Venezia Giulia have continued to excel, and remain a major player in the Italian and international markets.
The climate here consists of warm days, cool nights, and strong maritime breezes and humidity. This is tempered by cool air off the mountains to the north. There is an average amount of rain.
Vineyards are grown on the plains extending from the foothills to the Adriatic Sea.
Soil is rocky and calcium-rich in the foothills, and alluvial and sandy on the lower plains.
Pinot Grigio: hints of almonds, peaches, and pears on the nose, with a fruity flavor and strong acidity.
Sauvignon Blanc:aromatic, hints of herbs, and acidic.
Tocai:Sometimes spicy, sometimes more lush, this variety varies by producer.
Merlot:Light and fruity.
Cabernet Sauvignon: also light and fruity.
Schioppettino:Strong spicy red with intense cherry flavors.
Ramandola:This desert wine is quite sweet, golden, with aromas and tastes of honey and dried fruit.
Piedmont, or Piemonte in Italian, means the foot of the Mountains. Lying at the base of the Alps, this name fits quite well. Piedmont has a cool continental climate with a hot growing season and often very foggy conditions. The great Nebbiolo wines of Piedmont are named for his fog, or nebbia. The cuisine of the region is often rich and creamy with lots of meat, risotto, and most famously, white truffles (tartuffi bianchi).
Piedmont produces more wine than any other Italian region and makes the highest percentage of quality wines in Italy. Piedmont is home to some of the most robust, long-lived wines in the world, many of which are indigenous to Piedmont and rarely excel anywhere else in the world. In particular, the wines of Barolo and Barbaresco are two of Italy’s best. Like fine Bordeaux, these Nebbiolo wines take years of aging before they can be drunk. When they are young, they are viciously tannic, but with proper cellaring, they become great.
Piedmont produces such good wine that the region’s close historical relationship with France should come as no great surprise. Indeed, the character of a powerful Barolo is similar to that of a red Burgundy wine.
Celtic tribes were the first inhabitants of Piedmont, but were quickly conquered by the Romans. The mighty empire brought viticulture to the region, and it flourished until the fall of Rome. Following this collapse, Piedmont suffered under the invasion of eastern marauders and then spent many years under the rule of the French Savoy family. This feudal family controlled the region almost unilaterally, with a brief interlude during Napoleon’s empire, until the end of the Second World War.
The region is an industrial center as well with the automobile company, Fiat, headquartered in Turin.
Pressing up against France and Switzerland, Piedmont is located in the Northwestern corner of Italy.
Severe winters and warm summers characterize the region, and frequent mountain fogs add an additional dimension of complexity. Hail is not unusual, and can damage harvests during the long ripening period of many of Piedmonts grapes.
Vineyards grow predominantly along moderately steep hillsides, though some have spread into the river valleys below.
Soil is composed largely of calcium-rich marl, sand, and clay, but the actual composition varies extensively.
Barbera:Rich and flavorful, these wines require less aging than Nebbiolos.
Moscato:Used mostly to make Spumante or Frizzante, which can be luscious and sweet, or more on the dry side. The best of Piedmont’s white wines are made from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, the highest quality grape in the Muscat family. One of the most important of these wines is the sparkling Asti DOCG, which is naturally sparkling and slightly sweet with a low level of alcohol. Another similar wine is the delicious, slightly sparkling Moscato d’Asti DOCG. Moscato d’Asti averages about 5% alcohol and usually has a distinct “grapey” aroma in its youth.
Nebbiolo:Rich and smoky in Barolo, elegant and feminine in Barbaresco. Aging is required for the traditionally made Nebbiolos. Barolo producers are divided into two camps - those who vinify in the traditional manner and those who use modern techniques. Traditionally, the wine was left in contact with the skins for long periods of time during fermentation, and aged in large oak or chestnut casks for years. These traditional-style Barolos are complex and earthy with flavors of tar, truffle, violets, tobacco, prunes, and smoke. In the modern style, winemakers focus their efforts on softening the Nebbiolo grape’s harsh tannins and on extracting the maximum color. The main difference though is that in the modern style, wines are aged in small, new oak barriques for little longer than the required two years. In this style, the wines tend to be softer with a vanilla character and are generally ready to drink years earlier than the wines made in the traditional style.
Dolcetto:Wines made from the Dolcetto grape are smooth and quaffable, but should generally be consumed when young.
Almost completely covered by mountains, Trentino-Alto Adige combines Italian and German traditions. The north part of the region, Bolzano, is actually German speaking, and wines are named in both Italian and German. Vineyards are generally at high elevations, and bear the influences of a cool climate and gritty, stony soil. Chardonnay, imported from France hundreds of years ago, is the most important variety here, and is used to produce the sparkling Spumante. There are twelve DOC sub-regions with in Trentino-Alto Adige, the most important being Alto Adige DOC, Santa Maddalena, Trentino, and Teroldego Rotaliano. Teroldego produces the region’s best red wine, which is full-bodied and ages well, while Alto Adige makes excellent Schiava.
Trentino-Alto Adige was inhabited periodically by Celts, Etruscans, and later, the Roman Empire. The Romans constructed roads, cities, and aqueducts, as was their tradition, and they also planted vines. However, with the Empire’s collapse, winemaking ceased in the region, and only resurged hundreds of years later.
The region’s ethic groups mixed over the years, and it became a melting pot of German and Italian influences. This is apparent in the region’s wines, with names from Pinot Grigio to Müller-Thurgau.
Following World War Two, rapid industrialization and the development of tourist routes in the region both spurred Trentino-Alto Adige’s wine economy, and it continues to grow slowly. Though the region only produces a tiny percentage of Italy’s total amount of wine, the quality remains quite high.
The Northernmost wine region in all of Italy, Trentino-Alto Adige pushes up against Austria in the North.
Summers are fairly warm, but winters are very cold. The climate varies extensively from year to year, making vintage selection important.
Vineyards grow on steep slopes in the mountainous landscape of the region. Wine is produced at altitudes of over 3000 feet.
Soil is generally rocky, with influences of clay, sand, and sometimes calcium. The light earth of Northern Trentino-Alto Adige suffers from leaching, making fertilization a necessity.
Chardonnay: frequently mixed with Pinot Bianco to produce very good Spumante.
Pinot Grigio: flavors of melon, quite round and smooth.
Schiava: medium to full-bodied, this local variety has flavors of black fruits and licorice.
One of Italy’s top wine producers, the Tuscany region is rivaled in prestige only by Piedmont in the north. Tuscany contains a number of very fine DOC and DOCG appellations within its geographical borders, and it also is the home to some very good or “vini da tavola” wines, the Super Tuscans.
By far the most important Tuscan Appellation is Chianti. Chianti is in the heart of Tuscany, centrally located within the region. Of Tuscany’s 157,000 acres of vineyards and 57 million gallons of wine, almost half of it is from Chianti. Much is exported to the US and most of it is pleasant wine meant for immediate drinking. However Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Superiore DOCGs can produce some incredible wines that compete at the highest level. Chianti Riservas are particularly fine, coming from warm, dry vintages. These conditions transform the wine, giving it layers of ripe plums and cherries, earth, truffles, and other complexities. Many of these top Chiantis will age for over twenty years.
Chianti shares Tuscany with Brunello di Montalcino DOCG and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG, both of which produce wines of great quality. Brunello is a local variety of the Sangiovese grape, which makes wines so thick and harsh that they should age at least ten to twenty years before opening.
Tuscany was one of the original wine producing regions in all or Europe. The Etruscans, Tuscany’s first settlers, traded wine with the Greeks and made a name for the region. Later, Tuscany became a central part of the Roman Empire, and winemaking continued to grow and prosper.
Wineries go way back, with some family-owned estates tracing their property back to the early Medieval Age. In the sixteenth century, the Medici family of Florence made Tuscany into a formidable economic and political force, an event that provided a major boon to its wine production.
Phylloxera decimated the Tuscan vineyards in the late nineteenth century, and the region as a whole deteriorated somewhat during the mid twentieth. However, stricter laws and motivated wineries have led resurgence since the 1980s, and now Tuscany dominates Central Italy’s wine scene.
Located just north of Rome, the Tuscany Region expands north along the Apennine Mountains.
The climate of Tuscany is warm and fairly dry, with mild winters and hot, dry summers.
Vineyards grow on sloping hillsides to provide good sun exposure and drainage. Due to the hot summers, winemakers plant heat-sensitive grapes at higher altitudes with cooler air and breezes.
Soils are complex, with the best containing a unique rocky blend called galestro.
This region has become know as the Italian Bordeaux, with many good red blends. The Veneto also produces the most wine in volume in Northeast Italy, and in good years it’s the number one producer in Italy as a whole. Though some of the Veneto’s appellations have received criticism for their wine quality, most notably the areas of Soave and Valpolicella, new technologies seem to be improving things to some degree. Visitors to The Veneto area certainly have more than just wine to drink, with the picturesque city of Venice absorbing the majority of the region’s tourism.
The Veneto’s wines lined the walls of stores in the United States during the middle of the twentieth century. Imported mostly from Soave and Valpolicella, these inexpensive wines were mass-produced by large corporate bodies in Italy, making individual wines nearly indistinguishable. Small wineries lost their footholds as the traditional DOC boundaries of Soave and Valpolicella were hugely expanded out of the hills and down into the flat alluvial plains. As a result of this expansion and overproduction, the Veneto’s wines lost respect internationally and became known only for their mediocrity. There are many wineries producing great wines within Saove and Valpolicella, and within the Veneto as a whole, however their quality remains overshadowed by the critique of the overall region.
Located North of Venice, The Veneto stretches across most of the northern reaches of the Adriatic Sea.
The Veneto is characterized by hot summers and cool winters, though its weather is less extreme than that of the other regions in Northeastern Italy thanks to its proximity to the Adriatic Sea.
Most vineyards grow in the southern plains of the region, though many of the finest wines originate on surrounding hillsides.
Silty sandy soil prevails throughout the Veneto, with influences of clay and calcareous debris.
Soave: A light, simple white wine. It’s made from Garganega and Trebbiano, and does not age well. Per its name, it is quite smooth and suave. The original Soave region is in the hills covered with thick volcanic rock and soil, and this area is now the Soave Classico DOC. The remaining area, which spreads into the plains below, is simply the Soave DOC. Soave Classico Superiore, an area with many good wineries that have made a real effort to save the overall region’s name, was recently honored by receiving the DOCG title.
Bardolino Another light wine made from Corvina, Molinara, and Rondinella with a majority of Corvina. The Bardolino Classico DOC is better, and the Bardolino Superiore DOCG makes the best wine of the area.
Valpolicella A blend of at least seventy percent Corvina, with Molinara and Rondinella added in. This wine tends to be smoky with strong cherry flavors. As with the above regions, Valpolicella Classico DOC, and Valpolicella Classico Superiore improve upon the wine from the basic classification.
Amarone An intense aromatic wine with a very full body. The wine is made from partially dried grapes, and the long fermentation process creates a high alcohol content within this wine.
Prosecco A Frizzante made just outside of Venice, this wine is extremely popular in the Veneto region.
Located in hilly central Italy along the eastern coast, the Abruzzi boasts many different microclimates ideal for the production of different fine wines. Despite these fortunate circumstances, the region doesn’t make many great wines—in fact, only one has received recognition. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo stands out as a fabulous wine made from Montepulciano and Sangiovese, but the remainder of the Abruzzi seems content in its current state of average viticulture.
Apulia makes up the heel of the Italian “boot” on a map, and is Italy’s number one wine producer in terms of quantity. Though known primarily for its production of cheap grapes for mixing and Vermouth, the region has worked hard over the last thirty years to distinguish its finer winemakers. Several technical adjustments and advancements have led this shift in quality and in reputation. Irrigation improvements, cultivation changes (rather than growing grapes in bunches, they are now grown on lines), and the introduction of lower-yield, higher quality grape varieties have led the way to an improved Apulia wine region. The best varieties today are the Primitivo (equivalent to the Zinfandel grape in California) and Uva di Roia.
This region doesn’t have a lot going for it in terms of wine production. Basilicata’s mountainous terrain makes mechanized agriculture impossible, and nearly two thirds of the population is unemployed. Some decent wines can be found, mostly made from Primitivo (equivalent to California’s Zinfandel), Aglianico, Gaglioppo, Greco, and Malvasia, but overall the cheeses (like ricotta) are Basilicata’s claim to fame. Aglianico del Vulture, made from the native Aglianico grape, is a particularly good and interesting wine.
Home to the historic city of Naples, this region suffers the same trend as Southern Italy as a whole, producing far too much low quality wine. However, again mirroring Southern Italy in its entirety, Campania has some great wines like Taurasi, a red made from Aglianico grapes. The region is also home to some fine white wines—Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino, both DOCGs, are particularly good. The most well known wine from the region is called Lacryma Christi, or Tears of Christ.
Situated in the foothills of the Apennines, this Emilia-Romagna is famous for earning Italy’s first DOCG for a white wine. The region’s most popular varieties are Lambrusco, Trebbiano, and Albana, which produce very rustic whites. Exported in high quantities, these bottles can be found worldwide. Emilia-Romagna also makes some great vini da tavola, the wines produced outside of the DOC system. The delicious Fattoria Paradiso Vigna del Dosso, a Barbarossa red, and Fattoria Zerbina’s Marzeno di Marzeno are particularly good. In terms of overall quantity of production, Emilia-Romagna is huge.
Latium, also known as Lazio, makes only a few fine wines (Boncompagni Ludovisi’s Fiorano Rosso and Cantina Colacicchi’s Torre Ercolana—Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blends). The region’s main focus is in the production of the hugely popular though mediocre Frascati, Latin Liebfraumilch, and Est! Est!! Est!!! wines. This region is located south of Tuscany and Umbria with Rome at its center.
Liguria’s wine production is tiny due to the fact that there is hardly any room between the mountains and the ocean to grow grape vines. Liguria is a strip of land that wraps around the Mediterranean coast from France to Tuscany. Liguria has become a popular tourist destination thanks to its Riviera and a series of picturesque fishing villages called Cinque Terre. The majority of Liguria’s wine is sold to local tourists, with little making it to the outside market.
To the east of Piedmont is Lombardy, the largest, most densely populated region in Italy and the home of Milan. Lombardy shares its northern border with Switzerland, and the Po River makes up much of the southern border. Much of the region’s best wine is made in the Alpine northeast.
There are a few noteworthy DOCs within Lombardy. Valtellina DOC lies in the alpine north of Lombardy and is the northernmost region in the country for the production of Nebbiolo. Valtellina DOC produces good quality Nebbiolos, with Valtellina Superiore DOCG being a bit better still with higher minimum alcohol levels. Franciacorta DOCG is east of Milan, and makes good quality, bottle-fermented sparkling wines from Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Noir. It is one of Italy’s youngest wine regions, and also has some good still wines labeled as Terre di Franciacorta DOC. Oltrepo Pavese DOC lies to the south of Milan and has the largest production in Lombardy. Oltrepo Pavese produces still, sparkling and liquouroso wines from Pinot Noir, Bonarda, Barbera Pinot Gris, Cortese, Moscato and Riesling grapes.
Located along the east coast of Central Italy, this picturesque region is well known for its dry Verdicchio white. Several other remarkable wines come from DOCs within the Marches, and many excellent examples of vini da tavola are produced as well.
Molise doesn’t produce much good wine, as its first DOC was introduced only twenty-three years ago. However, there’s nothing in its climate, topography, or terroir that limit the potential of Molise, so keep an eye on this coastal region in the future.
The isolated island of Sardinia owes its winemaking not to Italy, but to Spain, its neighbor to the west. Both of the region’s famous wines, Cannonau di Sardegna DOC and Vermentino di Gallura, use varieties from Spain. These include the Cannonau grape (the equivalent of Spain’s Garnacha), and the white Vermentino grape.
The largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily’s claim to fame is its fortified Marsala wine. Though often sweetened with syrup and other outside sugar sources in the past, Italian laws have tightened to some degree, and most of these degrading practices have been eliminated. Vergine is the name given to the finest Marsala, which is aged for many years and does not have the musky nature of its cheaper counterpart. Much of Sicily produces cheap, bulk wines, but there are many DOCs in existence, most of which make whites.
Located east of Tuscany and north of Latium, Umbria produces the well-known but mediocre Orvieto wine, but also makes an excellent wine in the Torgiano DOC appellation and the Torgiano Riserva DOCG. The latter wine is made with many different grapes, both from France and from Italy.
Valle d’Aosta is Italy’s smallest region, and is situated high in the Alps between Piedmont and France. The wines of Valle d’Aosta are often labeled in French due to a good deal of French and Swiss influence (and its many French-speaking citizens).