The Wines of Italy
The story of Italy is the story of the vine. With a grape crushing tradition that extends back to prehistory, Italian wine culture is as unavoidable as the gorgeous Mediterranean sunshine.
That said, Italy’s often severe geology, including numerous mountain ranges, endless microclimates, elongated peninsula and satellite islands, make the wines of Italy as splendidly diverse as her cuisine.
Roughly divvied up into wines of the Northwest, Northeast, Central and South (which includes the islands), an overview of the styles and qualities of Italian wines can be linked to both history and economics
In the North, for example, you’ll find some of Italy’s top wines, owing mostly to a high standard of living and the mountainous arc formed by the Alps and Apennines. Piedmont alone contains the most DOC and DOCG zones of any region in Italy, contributing Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera, Dolcetto, Grignolino, Freisa, Cortese, Arneis, Brachetto, Moscato (used in Asti Spumante) and arguably the top seed, Nebbiolo. From Lombardy, the most populous region, we find a concentration of Nebbiolo vines (used in the DOC reds of Valtellina and spreads of Chardonnay and Pinot vines for sparkling wines of Franciacorta and Oltrepò Pavese. Valle d'Aosta offers the French named Petit Rouge, Gros Vien, Blanc de Valdigne and Liguria favors the local Rossese, Pigato and Vermentino, and it’s own version of Dolcetto, known as Ormeasco. Emilia-Romagna is the economic powerhouse as leading exporter of wines to America, especially sweet and bubbly Lambrusco.
Italy’s three Northeastern regions include Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Trentino-Alto Adige, which produce a third of Italy’s DOC designations. Climate is king here, influenced by the Alps, the Adriatic Sea and the valleys of the Po, Adige, Piave and Tagliamento rivers. The bulk of Italy's best white wines arise from Verona along with a multitudte of stylish reds. Some of the most popular whites, like Soave and Pinot Grigio, are popular around the world, but local grapes like Tocai, Prosecco, Verduzzo, Refosco, Schioppettino, Ribolla Gialla and Raboso are producing remarkably sophisticated wines. Trentino-Alto Adige is red wine country, dominated by Schiava and Vernatsch, though the more distinguished Teroldego, Lagrein and Marzemino hold their own against Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Nero. White varieties are led by Chardonnay, the Pinots, Sauvignon and Gewürztraminer.
Six regions dominate Central Italy’s grapeland, including some of the most recognizeable—and iconoclastic—wines of the country. The Appenines divide the regions up, physically and culturally, and the variety of wines produced reflect that. In the west, Tuscany, Latium and Umbria love the red grape Sangiovese (which in Tuscany especially have been frequently transcended by unclassified blends known as ‘Super Tuscans’), along with white (and often forgettable) Trebbiano and Malvasia. To the east, Marches, Abruzzi and Molise. Verdicchio is favored in the Marches and the red Montepulciano is now planted widely in Molise.
SOUTH AND ISLANDS
Like Central Italy, the sun-soaked South is also divided into six regions, but these contain only a handful of italy’s coveted DOC rating while producing nearly forty percent of Italy’s wine. Even the Greeks recognized Italy’s south as a production powerhouse, introducing such widely planted grapes as Aglianico, Greco, Malvasia, Gaglioppo and Moscato. Top producers like Taurasi have been featured on the international stage. Sweet wine grapes tend to dominate in the islands, such as Moscato and Malvasia, as well as Sicily's fortified Marsala and Sardinia's Vernaccia di Oristano.
Sicily is a lot of things, but best of all, it’s wine.
So why don’t we drink more of it?
As the largest wine-growing area in the most productive wine country in the world, Sicily boasts more vineyards per acre than any other Italian zone. The region has been crushing grapes since 2000 B.C., developing the wine of emperors—Julius Caesar, for one—along the way.
So why don’t we drink more of it?
Over the years, Sicily has been racked with problems, social, political and economic, but few would deny that it is among the most beautiful corners of the Mediterranean. Even reality-hardened expatriates get misty eyed when they see images of this vine-threaded, sun-saturated island.
In fact, it’s the relentless sunshine that explains the world’s general ignorance of Sicilian wines. Many of the grapes grown on the island are made into raisins, a staple ingredient in indigenous cooking, and most of the others are vinified into fortified, dessert-style wines. In fact, almost 90% of the wines that come out of Sicily are sweet, including the internationally-acclaimed Marsala, and these wines are not meant for every day guzzling. Because more grapes are required to make less wine (dessert wines are highly concentrated), and because such wine is often reserved for special occasions, a corresponding irony is that, despite extensive viticulture, Sicilians drink less wine per capita than any other region of Italy.
Beside, Sicilian dry wine can be confusing, having traditionally been made from varietals exclusive to the island, grapes like nero d'avola, insolia, damaschino, grillo and catarrato. And in truth, most of Sicily’s table wines are drinkable, but undistinguished.
That’s changing as a new generation of Sicilian winemakers begin to experiment with quality over quantity, planting chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and frequently blending them with the native grapes to created exciting, unusual flavors.
As a result, wine lovers are starting to make the Sicilian connection, and it’s about time: Sicily’s wine potential has been fermenting for nearly four thousand years.