In ancient times, the Italian peninsula was commonly referred to as enotria, or “land of wine,” because of its rich diversity of grape varieties and many acres dedicated to cultivated vines. In more ways than one, Italy became a gigantic nursery and a commercial hub fortuitously positioned at the heart of the Mediterranean for what would become western civilization’s first “globally” traded product: wine.
Italy’s prominence in the global wine industry has in no way diminished despite millennia of history. The sun-drenched North-South peninsula that extends from the thirty-sixth to the forty-sixth parallel embodies pockets of geographical, geological, and climatic perfection between the Upper Adige and the island of Pantelleria for the production of quality wine. Italian tradition is so closely grafted to the vine that the good cheer and easy attitudes associated with wine culture are mirrored in the nation’s temperament.
The Italian Wine Revolution
Despite Italy’s long affinity with vitis vinifera, the Italian wine industry has experienced an invigorating rebirth over the past three decades that truly sets it apart from other European wine nations. American baby boomers may still recall watery Valpolicella or Chianti Classico in hay-wrapped flasks at neighborhood New York eateries, or the generic “white” and “red” wines of Sicily’s Corvo. Wines like those cemented Italy’s reputation as a quantity (as opposed to quality, like in France) producer of wines sold at attractive prices. But as Italy gained confidence during the prosperous post-war years in the areas of design, fashion, and gastronomy, it demonstrated renewed attention to wine. Thanks to a small band of primarily Tuscan vintners, Italy launched itself with aggressive determination onto the world stage as a producer of some of the best wines ever produced anywhere: Amarone, Barolo, Bunello di Montalcino, and Passito di Pantelleria. Italian wine information and experiences now sit amongst the most coveted wine regions of the world.
Like a happy epidemic, modern viticulture and enological techniques swept across the Italian peninsula throughout the 1980s and 1990s: Vertical shoot positioning and bilateral cordon trellising in vineyards; stainless steel, temperature-controlled fermentation, and barrique wood aging in wineries. As profits soared, producers reinvested in technology, personnel, and high-priced consultants and a modern Italian wine revolution had suddenly taken place.
Italian Wine Terms
As it stands, Italy is the world’s second largest producer of wine after France. Each year, one in fifty Italians is involved with the grape harvest. And like France, Italy has adopted a rigorous controlled appellation system that imposes strict controls with regulations governing vineyard quality, yields per acre, and aging practices among other things. There are over three hundred DOC (Denominazioni di Origine Controllata) and DOCG (Denominazioni di Origine Controllata e Garantita) wines today and the classifications increase to over five hundred when IGT (Indicazioni Geografica Tipica) wines are factored in. Thanks to this system, Italy’s fifty thousand wineries enjoy a competitive advantage when it comes to the production and sales of quality wines. These Italian wine terms allow consumers to understand various levels of designation so they can make informed buying decisions.
Italian Wine Grapes
Interestingly, there is a second wine revolution underway that promises to unlock potential uniquely associated with Italy. It is the re-evaluation and celebration of Italy’s rich patrimony of “indigenous” grapes. (Because some varieties actually originated outside Italy, producers often refer to them as “traditional” varieties instead.) These are grapes—like Nero d’Avola, Fiano, Sagrantino, and Teroldego—that only modern enotria can offer to world consumers. As a result, a rapidly increasing number of vintners from Italy’s twenty winemaking regions are banking on “traditional” varieties to distinguish themselves in a market dominated by “international” varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay.
Major Regions of Italian Wine
The Italian Alps butt against the long expanses of the Po River plains leaving tiny pockets and microclimates along the foot of the mountains that are each linked to their own special wine. Starting in northwestern Piedmont, Nebbiolo grapes form two tall pillars of Italy’s wine legacy: Barolo and Barbaresco, named in the French tradition after the hilltop hamlets where the wines were born. Like in Burgundy, the exclusivity of these wines has a lot to do with winemakers’ battle against nature and the wine’s extraordinary ability to age. Rare vintages like the stellar 1985 or 1990 Barolos are the darlings of serious wine collectors.
Further east, in the Veneto region, vintners follow an ancient formula in which wine is made from raisins dried on straw mats. With its higher concentration and alcohol, silky Amarone is Italy’s most distinctive wine and can command record prices for new-releases. The Veneto, Trentino, Alto Adige, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia are celebrated for their white wines—such as the phenomenally successful Pinot Grigio. Italy’s best sparkling wine is made in Trentino and the Franciacorta area of Lombardy (known as the “Champagne of Italy”) under strict regulation with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes.
With its cypress-crested hills and beautiful stone farmhouses, Tuscany is the pin-up queen of Italian enology. The region’s iconic dreamscape has helped promote the image of Italian wine abroad unlike no other. Within Tuscany’s borders is a treasure-trove of excellent wines: Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, San Gimignano whites, Bolgheri and Maremma reds. Italy’s wine revolution started here when storied producers like Piero Antinori worked outside appellation regulations to make wines blended with international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines are known as SuperTuscans and are considered par with the top crus of Bordeaux and California.
Central Italy delivers many more exciting wines such as Sagrantino from the Umbrian town of Montefalco, dense and dark Montepulciano from Abruzzo, and white Verdicchio from Le Marche.
South and Islands
The regions of southern Italy, and the island of Sicily in particular, are regarded as Italy’s enological frontier: Relaxed regulation and increased experimentation promise a bright future for vintners and investors alike. In many ways, Italy’s south is a “new world” wine region locked within the confines of an “old world” wine reality. This unique duality has many betting on its enological promise.
Campania boasts wonderful whites such as Fiano and Greco di Tufo that embody crisp, mineral characteristics from volcanic soils. Its red is Taurasi (“the Barolo of the south”) made from Aglianico. That same grape makes Basilicata’s much-hyped Aglianico del Vulture. Puglia, the “heel” of the boot of Italy, was mostly a producer of bulk wine, but holds it own today among nascent wine regions with its powerhouse Primitivo and Negroamaro grapes.
Sicily has shown keen marketing savvy in bringing media attention to its native grapes like Nero d’Avola (red) and Grillo (a white once used in the production of fortified wine Marsala) and has done a great job of promoting the Italian south in general. Some of Europe’s most sensuous dessert wines come from Sicily’s satellite islands, like the honey-rich Passito di Pantelleria. The Mediterranean’s other big island, Sardinia, is steadily working on its Cannonau and Vermentino grapes to raise the bar on quality there.
As you taste through various regions of Italy you will come to understand the Italian wine dictionary and what makes each region and indigenous grape variety, so special.