The Golden Age of Italian Wine

Master Italian Wine Facts & Terms

Il sorpasso is an emblematic term in Italian for when one vehicle overtakes another.

Movie director Dino Risi coined it in 1962 with his film, Il Sorpasso, which starred Vittorio Gassman, and was translated into English as The Easy Life. 

Over the past 50 years, use of the term has expanded to describe any milestone moment. In 1987, the Italian economy famously surpassed that of Britain. In 2009, Milan rated as the world’s fashion capital over Paris.

This year—2013—marks il sorpasso of Italian wine over just about everyone else.

I’m not just talking about Italy’s immense production power. The creativity of expression, biodiversity and regional diversity in Italy is unmatched, and together these qualities put Italy into the pole position, especially in terms of how Italian wine is received abroad.

For the past three years, Italy has been the number one wine producer on the planet. In 2012, it beat historic rival France once again with 40.8 million hectoliters produced compared to France’s 40.5 million, according to Coldiretti, the Italian farmers’ lobby.

Italy’s is also the world’s largest exporter of wine, and the number one exporter to the United States, both in terms of volume and value. Its global exports rose 42.7% in volume and 52.7% in value from 2007 to 2011, according to data compiled by Vinexpo and International Wine & Spirit Research.

As impressive as those numbers are, what they really do is confirm the enormous simpatia the world feels for the Italian lifestyle, which puts a high priority on good food and wine. Accessibility is a huge factor, as demonstrated by refreshingly void-of-snobbery wines like Pinot Grigio, Chianti and Prosecco.

Creativity is another draw. Italians are natural marketers and resoundingly effective communicators. They show keen resourcefulness when it comes to using available funds, like the European Union wine subsidies available now, to promote their wines though events, advertising and consumer education.

However, the ace in Italy’s deck is diversity. Italy is home to some 3,000 indigenous grape varieties, more than any other country in the world. Of these, 350 are currently cultivated and used in commercial winemaking. Petitions are underway to recognize 500 more.

Over the past 10 years at Wine Enthusiast, I’ve tasted wines made from hundreds of these grapes. Yes, some of the obscure varieties can taste rustic or a little rough around the edges. But one thing they have is personality.

It’s a sure bet that new stars—to rival the existing Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Aglianico—will come to light as more research and experimentation is completed. That gives Italy a competitive edge in foreign markets, where consumers are thirsty for new wines.

“We are experiencing a culmination of the momentum and evolution Italian wine has experienced over the past 30 years,” says University of Milan Professor Attilio Scienza, the country’s leading expert in viticulture.

Synergies forged between distinctive regions, indigenous grapes and innovative producers make for a long list of successes.

The ideal growing conditions of the Mediterranean island of Sicily mean vintners can take more risks by removing chemicals from their farming, making it a hub for biodynamic and natural wine producers.

Southern regions like Campania, Calabria and Puglia have embraced all-indigenous philosophies and have focused on the recovery of additional undocumented varieties.

Tuscany, where the Sangiovese grape reigns supreme, has moved away from heavy oak use and extraction to unmask the grape’s delicate nuances. Producers have created singular identities for the various subzones, in Montalcino, Bolgheri, Maremma, Montepulciano, Chianti Classico and beyond.

Veneto is flexing its production muscle, and shows more growth than any other region. It enlarged the Prosecco denomination to keep up with demand and similarly-increased output of Amarone.

Piedmont has recently completed the laborious task of mapping its celebrated crus in Barolo and Barbaresco. This gives local producers the potential for territorial expression rivaled only by Burgundy.

Admittedly, not everything is sparkling in Italy’s Golden Age of wine. The domestic market has contracted, and Italy’s economic instability is slowly eroding winery margins.

Italian producers have no choice but to pour their creativity and energy into foreign markets. But that kind of hardship creates the conditions for a seamless sorpasso.

Published on March 7, 2013
Topics: Editors' Column