Enthusiast's Corner April 2007

Italy: Where Tradition Weds Innovation

Where Tradition Weds Innovation

Italian chefs and winemakers are retaining classic methods while also adapting techniques learned from the New World, with spectacular results.

Sometimes it seems Italy is more like a giant vineyard than a country. Everywhere you turn you find grapes growing. Most of us think of pairing wines based on the food choices before us, but the wealth of vineyards in Italy makes you wonder if the evolution of Italian food was based on its matching the country's great wines, rather than the other way around.

Those of us who know Italy recognize that there is something very special about the country that reaches deep down inside and speaks to our uninhibited self. Italians put a high premium on a hearty laugh, four-course meals and full glass of wine, even at lunch. And they do so with the utmost ease, rarely appearing indulgent. This is just one of the reasons that we Americans have a love affair with all things Italian: the country, the people, the language and, of course, the food and wine.

Italian wine has played a central role in the development of our own wine culture. Take a look at California's wine pioneers, from Gallo to Mondavi. Remember some of the first duo-syllabic wines imported into our country such as Bolla, Riunite and Corvo? We owe a lot to these wines because, also thanks to them, we have become a wine-drinking nation today.

Italian wine exports to the U.S. exceeded one billion dollars in value in 2006, according to the Italian Wine and Food Institute, an increase of almost 7% in volume and 8% in value over the previous year; Italy is the largest exporter of wine to the U.S. And the latest data released by the Wine Marketing Council indicates that America's favorite place to enjoy wine is at Italian restaurants (this excludes pizzerias).

Cleary, we owe a great deal to Italy for its contribution to America's wine culture. But America has returned the favor, to some extent. Our melting pot approach to all things cultural, our instinct for looking beyond our borders, is having an effect on the way Italian chefs approach their art. As our Italian Editor Monica Larner reports from Rome, Italian gastronomy is experiencing a truly glorious moment—eating in the country now is better than ever. One of the most significant reasons for this sudden boost in culinary confidence is that American chefs have embraced Italian cooking philosophies and a dialogue between the two nations has commenced: Secret ingredients and recipes from Italy are exchanged for new and innovative kitchen technologies from the USA. The combined results are a beautifully sophisticated and evolved cuisine that has never lost sight of its genuine Italian roots and traditions. You'll find a list of barrier-breaking restaurants in our cover story and we hope you get the chance to eat at one of them and discover Nuova Cucina Italiana for yourself.

Italy's history has been grafted to the vine since the very beginning of time, but despite its enormous enological legacy, the world of Italian wines remains baffling and confusing to many American consumers. There are so many wine regions (20 regions in all, containing 300 distinct wine zones), and so many grapes used in commercial winemaking (400, and counting). In order to ease some the confusion, in her article, Monica Larner presents six wine regions that may not be familiar to you, where the producers are offering wines with distinctive taste profiles but that reach these shores at very reasonable prices. Alto Adige, Sardinia, Campania and Puglia are just some of the regional names on labels that you will be seeing taking up more space in the Italy aisle of your retail store, and merit your attention.

If Italians are proud of the diversity of their winelands, I invite them to visit Santa Rita Hills in California's Santa Barbara County. Steve Heimoff examines the amazing diversity of micro-climates in this relatively small AVA (now officially known as Sta. Rita Hills). It is here that Pinot Noir has truly found a home, and it's fascinating how this variety, which is so site-specific, so sensitive to terroir, is being treated by the talented winemakers of the area.

Roger Voss looks at three of the families that have deep roots in the Port industry. It's an absorbing story of how family companies are holding together despite massive pressure to consolidate, merge or sell.

The wine world is one of the last remaining where family ownership is so important, in Portugal, the U.S. and elsewhere. And what country better exemplifies family sharing of great food, fine wine and outrageous stories than Italy?


Adam Strum

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