Monica Larner Explores Italy’s Other Half
Most of the Italian wines that people are familiar with are from Tuscany and Piedmont, but an adventurous spirit is needed to get the most bang from the boot.
I was recently asked by a wine writer colleague how much coverage I dedicate to two regions—Tuscany and Piedmont— compared to the rest of Italy. “Would you say it’s 70 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent?” he prodded knowingly, fully expecting positive confirmation of his elevated figures.
I declined to be pressured into an answer, but my guess was: closer to 50%. Afterwards I did a bit of research in the Wine Enthusiast database. In 2010, I submitted 3,249 ratings and reviews in total. Of that number, 1,689 represented Tuscany and Piedmont—Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti Classico, super Tuscans, Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera and Dolcetto being the largest groupings.
The other half went to Italy’s other 18 regions—Sicily, Sardinia, Puglia, Calabria, Basilicata, Campania, Lazio, Abruzzo, Molise, Marche, Emilia-Romagna, Umbria, Veneto, Liguria, Lombardy, Trentino Alto Adige, Valle d’Aosta and Friuli Venezia Giulia.
Half is not bad, considering the perception among consumers, often reinforced on restaurant menus and in retail aisles, that the prolific regions of Piedmont and Tuscany represent the overriding majority of vino Italiano. The rest, from the toe to the top of the peninsula, is sometimes obscured—as if it were all just background noise.
Granted, Tuscany and Piedmont deliver a threefold punch of history, quality and volume. Their importance is impossible to exaggerate. But sophisticated consumers are changing wine trends at rapid pace and it’s finally time for lesser-known territories to occupy the limelight.
Take the Veneto for example. Between Verona and Venice, an exciting universe of enological possibility exists, spanning from Amarone (a dark and powerful red wine made with partially dried grapes) to Prosecco, the lightest and most luminous of sparkling wines. Both use indigenous grapes and indigenous winemaking methods such as appassimento for Amarone and the metodo Martinoti for putting the bubbles in Prosecco. These two wines are case studies in the amazing diversity of the Italian enological school and its enormous potential. Prosecco’s recent growth is so supercharged, production figures reportedly just surpassed that of Champagne.
From a purely journalistic point of view, my favorite regions to cover are the southernmost ones, especially Sicily, Calabria, Basilicata, Puglia and Campania. I go there with one story in mind and come home with 100 more. Just one day spent in a vineyard in the Calabrian hinterland could yield more secrets than a week spent anywhere else. Undocumented varieties are discovered all the time and dozens have yet to be registered.
Other regions, like Liguria, Romagna,Lombardy, Marche and Abruzzo may not have critical export mass, but they do each offer distinctive pockets of diversity that reflect territorial traditions, cuisines and personalities. Take the soft fruity Sangiovese wines from Romagna that pair so well with homemade pasta, or the spicy, rich reds of Marche and Umbria. Montefalco, in Umbria, produces some of Italy’s most structured reds and Italy’s northeast (spanning from Alto Adige to Friuli) is unmatched in the pristine aromatic qualities of its whites.
Much of what defines this magazine is the coverage we dedicate to the other half of Italy. I just returned from Valdobbiadene and Conegliano in the Veneto and was surprised to learn from the Consorzio that we are the only American publication to review Prosecco wines—the whole category from the largest producers to the smallest ones—each year. It’s hard to believe, considering how popular these sparkling wines are right now.
Authorities from other growers’ associations, including Sicily, Valpolicella, Puglia and Alto Adige, have also told me that we are the only American magazine to request a full spectrum of samples from their areas (as opposed to samplings of handpicked brands).
The goal is to make sure these regions are represented fairly not just in our pages but also at your local wine shop and restaurant wine list.
This year, Italy celebrates the 150th anniversary of Italian unification. To honor the event, special wines were produced (in both a white and red version) representing blends of 20 indigenous grapes from Italy’s 20 regions. It’s a symbolic testament to the diversity and competiveness of Italian wine in a changing world where people want to experience new tastes spanning the quality-price spectrum. I raise my glass to the other half, where all the action is.