Italy has a long colorful and convoluted viti-vinicultural history dating back to ancient Greeks. Vine grows everywhere in Italy and ancient Greeks called it Enotria, the land of wine, as grapes grew well, tasted better than those in Greece and the resulting wines surpassed the quality of those produced in Greece at the time. Roman soldiers were responsible for introducing viticulture to many European countries including Hungary, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and parts of France.
Today, Italy enjoys a vibrant viti-vinicultural industry exporting billions of dollars worth of wine to the four corners of the world. Along with France, Italy is one of the world’s two mammoth wine producers, producing annual volumes exceeding 60 million hectoliters (One hectoliter = approximately 20 Imperial Gallons). Since 1980’s EU poured billions of Eros into research, the results of which are now coming to fruition in form of more balance, pleasing and vibrant wines. Many Italian wine makers have recently concluded that they style of Italian wines should be changed: they now produce lighter, more fruit-driven, early-drinking wines, although most Italian wines are still considerably more acid-driven than their New World counterparts from Australia, South Africa, California and Washington State. Most Italian wine are food wines, best enjoyed with food, but many can also be enjoyed on their own, without getting tired. And, although most wine enthusiasts associate Italian wines with red, today as much as 50 percent of the production is white, mostly due to export demand.
Italian wine laws are extraordinarily intricate: the country’s 1963 wine laws were very extensive for the time; since then they have been refined.
Today there are four discernible categories:
$ Vino da Tavola (Table wine) Vino da Tavola may be produced anywhere from locally grown grapes. There are no other requirements or limitations for vino da tavola wines. Paradoxically some of the best Italian wines are labeled as vino da tavola as they contain grapes varieties not allowed by law.
$ IGT (Indicazione Geografico Tipico) (Typical Regional Wines) I G T must come from defined and traditional wine producing regions.
$Grape variety requirement are relatively generous and allow French, Spanish and German grapes.
$ D.O.C (Denominazione di Origine Controlata (Controlled Denomination of Origin (Appellation Controlled Wines) D. O. C requirements are specific with regard to grape variety; yield, blending proportions of various grape varieties, pressing aging and alcohol levels. Regions are well defined.
$ D. O. C. G (Denominazione di Origine Controlata e Garantita) Controlled and Guaranteed Denomination of Origin) D O C G requirements are the most strict and demanding. In addition to D. O. C requirements, barrel and bottle aging periods are imposed, and the production is controlled at every stage. Today there 23 D. O. C. G wines but this number is growing constantly and most D. O. C. G wines are red although more and more white wines are being classified as D. O. C. G.
Chaptalization is not allowed of any wine in Italy.
Italian Wine Labels
Italian wine labels reveal a significant amount of information to the initiated. The wines can be region specific varietal i.e. Nebbiolo d’Alba or Sangiovese di Romagna or generic. Varietal wines must contain 100 percent of the grape variety indicated on the label, while generic refers to a region i.e. Barolo, Barbaresco, Valpolicella, Chianti just to name a few. Some generic wines contain one grape variety exclusively, i.e Barolo and Barbaresco (Nebbiolo see bar), whereas Valpolicella and Chianti are blends.
Generally, northern Italian regions produce better wines, although Sicilian, Campanian, Lazian and even Apulian modern winemakers will vigorously dispute such claims. Sicily and Campania produce extraordinary wines, but are less known and appreciated out of their region of origin.
Piedmont, Veneto, and Tuscany are very famous, although Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Lombardy and Trentino-Alto-Adige also produce fine, balanced varietal and generic wines.
This mountainous, highly industrialized and wealthy region borders France to the west, and Val d’Aosta and Switzerland to the north. Lombardy is to the east, and Liguria to the south. Some of the world famous red wines of Italy come form Piedmont.
Barolo is a small region close to Turin, and renown for its exclusively Nebbiolo-based eponymous red wine. Nebbiolo does well on calcareous marl, compact sandstone soils and Barolo has them all. There are five towns known for their distinct Barolos: La Morra, Serralunga d’Alba, Castiglione Falletto, Monforte d’Alba, and Barolo.
By law Barolo must be barrel aged for a minimum of three years, (riserva five) plus two years in bottle. Barolo is called “King of wines and wine of kings”.
The Vatican is said to have an excellent selection of Barolos in their cellars. Truly, when the vintage is fine, Barolo in the hands of conscientious and skilled winemakers can reach poetic heights. All fine Barolos share one of more the following characteristics: garnet hue tending towards ruby, expansive aromas of plums, dried roses, tar, liquorice and white truffles.
Demand for more accessible, easy- and early-drinking wines has encouraged many winemakers to produce fruity and less tannic wines that age less well, and tend to oxidize much sooner that those made employing traditional methods.
As everywhere else, in Barolo certain wineries stand out and produce consistently fine wines, whereas others prefer to achieve high volumes, and passable quality.
Among the better Barolo wineries are:
Ceretto, Borgogno, Ratti, Bartolo Mascarelloo, A. Oberto, Paolo Conterno, Rivetto, Palladino, Marcehsi di Barolo, Ascheri, and Fontanafredda,.
Babaresco, approximately 15 kilometers the west of Barolo, as the crow flies, is another region well known of its exclusively Nebbiolo based wines. The eponymous wines of the region, Barbaresco, are less powerful than Barolo, but equally flavourful and evocative. Less tannic than Barolo, they age faster.
Several Barbaresco producers stand out, including Gaja, Ceretto and Ascheri.
Other Piedmontese Wines
Gattinara, Freisa, Erbaluce, Brachetto di Acqui, Dolcetto d’Alba, Barbera d’Alba, Ghemme, Nebbiolo d’Alba, Syrah and Pinot Noir (here called Pinot Nero) are some of the other famous red wines of Piedmont.
In addition to the above, young winemakers planted Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir and have been successful in producing fine wines, that are marketed as vino da tavola as Italian wine laws do not permit in Piedmont foreign grape varieties to be sold as D. O. C and even as I. G. T.
Tuscany – a very prosperous agricultural region and inventor of agritourism is famous for its red wines: Chianti, – Classico, – Classico Riserva, single vineyard Chiantis, estate bottled Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Morellino di Scansano, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Carmignano are only some. Here the dominant grape variety is Sangiovese (see sidebar), which some connoisseurs consider to be, along with Nebbiolo, best Italian red grape variety However, both grape varieties yield mediocre wines at best outside of their place of origin.
The generic wine of the Chianti region is a generic wine that may be simply Chianti, Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Riserva, single vineyard or estate bottled. While Chianti may be classified as D. O. C only, Chianti Classico is D. O. C. G and more expensive but also much more flavourful.
Chianti must contain at least 80 percent Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Colorino, Malvasia, Trebbiano Toscano and even a few percentages of experimental grape varieties, but Chianti Classico may not contain Malvasia and Trebbiano, both of which are white and dilute the taste of the wine. They are blended to render the wine more palatable quickly, and age the product much faster. Quality oriented wineries use 100 percent Sangiovese and charge more but these wines taste much better and are cellar better.
Fine Chianti smells and tastes of cherries, is medium bodied, layered with flavours of smoke, and tobacco. As all balanced and deeply flavoured wines fine Chianti possesses a long, satisfying finish.
The best Chianti producers are; San Felice, Marchesi Antinori, Marchesi di Frescobaldi, Fattoria Felsina, Fattoria Nittardi, Grevepesa, Badia a Coltibuono, Castellare di Castellina and Castello di Vicchiomaggio.
Brunello di Montalcino comes from a well-defined region south of Siena, and which is slightly warmer than Chianti Classico. Brunello, a clone of Sangiovese, was isolated by Biondi-Santi, a local grower and winery around 1870’s, and gained world fame when it was served during a state dinner in London 1963. Since then, the fame of this wine increased by leaps and bounds.
Brunello di Montalcino must barrel aged for 24 months, and another four months in the bottle prior to release. Riserva requires longer bottle aging. Brunello must be sold only after five years of harvest.
Brunello barrel aged for a minimum of one year may be sold as Rosso di Montalcino, a fine wine, if somewhat coarser and rougher than wines carrying the label Brunello di Montalcino.
Approximately eight million bottles of Brunello di Montalciono are produced on the average. Brunello di Montalacino from a quality winery is powerful, fruity, nuanced, layered with an excellent mouth feel, and long, long aftertaste. Brunello di Montalcino ages well, and there are still some drinkable bottles dating back to 1890 according to connoisseurs who can afford such wines.
It is important to take the year the wine was produced into account when purchasing Brunello di Montalciono, for the vintage can make a huge difference in flavour and texture of the wine.
Reputable wineries are: Biondi-Santi, Fattoria dei Barbi, Nardi, Vitanza, Castello Banfi, La Poderina, Soldati, Lisini, Valdicava, Il Poggione, Costanti, Poggio Antico, Canalicchio di Sopra, Colombaio di Montosoli Tenuta Caparzo, Collosorbo, Argiano, Campogiovanni, and Col Dorcia.
Maremma is a region west of Chianti Classico, closer to the Thyrennian Sea. It is a relatively new viticultural region, planted to Morrelino grapes, another clone of Sangiovese Grosso. This region’s wines are marketed as Morrelino di Sacansano and are fabulously rich in extract, dark, flavourful and age well.
Santantimo is a new sub-region D. O. C of Montalcino, allowing blending of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinto Noir to Sangiovese for red wines.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is east of Chianti and is produced from a clone of Sangiovese Grosso, here called Prugnolo Gentile. Vino Nobile is always powerful, fruity, full-bodied and well extracted with a long aftertaste.
The Super-Tuscan Wines
Tuscany is also world famous for its Super Tuscan red wines which were created first by Marchesi Antinori by blending Cabernet Sauvignon into Sangiovese. The first was Tignanello, which is still labeled as vino da tavola as Cabernet Sauvingon is not recognized as an official grape variety in Tuscany. Regardless Tignanello fetches regularly higher prices than the best Chiantis and even Brunello di Montalcino wines. Other Super-Tuscan wines are: Ornelaia, and Sassicaia. Every year progressive wineries produce their own versions.
Veneto – an important region bordering Friuli-Venezia-Giulia in the east, Lombardy in the west, Trentino-Alto-Adige in the north and Emilia Romagna in the south. Veneto produces a range of fine red and white wines including some sparkling wines called Prosecco di Valdobbiadene.
Of all the red wines of Veneto, Valpolicella is the most famous and varied in its categories. Valpolicella is a blended wine consisting of Corvina Veronese, Molinara, and Rondinella, the best of which is Corvina, and by law must constitute at least 70 percent of the blend. They are some wineries that use 100 percent Corvina as it is the best tasting of the three.
These wines are more expensive.
Valpolicella may be simply Valpolicella or its name may be qualified by the descriptors ‘Classico,’ ‘Ripasso,’ ‘Superiore,’ ‘Riserva,’ ‘Reciotto della Valpolicella’ and ‘Amarone della Valpolicella.’ The best Valpolicella producers are – Quintarelli, Fratelli Tedeschi, Agricola Masi, and Boscaini.
Amarone is a unique and powerful wine produced from grapes that are dried on trays in well-ventilated lofts for three months or longer during which the grapes shrivel and their taste becomes more concentrated as does their sugar content. Sometimes the grapes are affected by a mould called ‘botrytis cinerea’ and attain a slight pourriture noble (or muffa nobile in Italian, Edelfaule in German and noble rot in English).
Amarone is always high in alcohol, well extracted, powerful, and always full-bodied, with layers of flavours that open up in the mouth, and finish with a long aftertaste. Amarones are called by connoisseurs “meditation wines” (vino di meditazione), referring to the complexity and nuances of the wine that compel consumers to think how powerful and yet elegant they are.
The best Amarones come from grapes grown in the following valleys: Marano, Fumane, Negrar, San Ambrogio and San Pietro Incariano.
Introducing the lees of Amarone wines to regularly made Valpolicella results in Valpolicella Ripasso wines. This addition activates a new fermentation and renders light wines more powerful, and provides depth.
Other Red Wines of Veneto
The other red wines of Veneto are Bardolino, Breganze Pinot Nero, and Cabernet del Piave.
Italian Grape Varieties:
Nebbiolo is a fine red grapes variety responsible for some of the best and longest-lived wines of the Piedmont region, including Barolo, Barbaresco, Ghemme, and Nebbiolo d’Alba.
Nebbiolo likes calcareous marl soils and sunny summers. It is a late-ripening grape, and often, must be harvested in October.
Over cropped Nebbiolo yields mediocre quality at best. Ideally the yield per hectare should be 5 ½ metric tones. Mass selection (selectione massale) is preferred by growers to ensure diversity of clones and compensation of shortcomings of each. In different regions Nebbiolo is called Spanna, Picutener.
Outside Piedmont, Nebbiolo is grown in northern Lombardy successfully. In Oltrepo Pavese in the south, it yields satisfactrory results.
Outside Italy, Nebbiolo rarely yields exquisite wines, although there are some vineyards in California, Argentina, and even in Ontario.
According to some cognoscenti, Sangiovese is the best red grape of Italy; certainly it is the most popular. It covers over 10 percent of all Italian vineyards, but the best flavours come from the vineyards of Tuscany, particularly those of Chianti Classico, Montalcino and Maremma. It is probably indigenous to Tuscany, and was mentioned in wine literature as early as in the 17th century. Outside Tuscany, Sangiovese is planted in Umbria, Marches, Emilia Romagna, to name just a few regions. There are also plantings of Sangiovese in California’s Sonoma County, Napa Valley and Santa Barbara. Argentina and Australia also have a few hectares of Sangiovese.
At its best, Sangiovese smells and tastes of cherries, is medium-bodied, elegant, and a deeply flavoured with a long aftertaste. Sangiovese is a slow-ripening grape with high acidity and hard tannins in cool years. It must never be over cropped (seven metric tones maximum), and is thin skinned, and susceptible to rot. The best Sangiovese, at least in Tuscany, grows from 400 – 600 meters above sea level vineyards. It likes poor soil strewn with pebbles, and good drainage.
There are two basic Sangiovese varieties – Grosso (Brunello, Prugnolo Gentile, Sangiovese di Lamole, Morrelino di Scansano and Sangiovese Piccolo. There are, however, many other clones that still have to be isolated, studied and categorized.
Corvina Veronese is the best and dominant red grape variety of Valpolicella and Bardolino, the two best red wines of Veneto. It has a dark colour and ages well. By law it is always blended with relatively bland Rondinella and acid Molinara. Some winemakers quite successfully use Corvina Veronese exclusively for their branded wines.
One blend, Toar, uses Corvina Veronese along with Oseleta, an ancient grape variety of the region, recently revived by Agricola Masi.