Italy is one of the oldest winemaking counties in the world. Like most other old-world regions, Italian winemaking tradition is the product of geography, politics, war and invention. The country offers so many diverse and distinct winemaking areas, truly understanding and mastering Italian wine is a full time, life-long pursuit. Similar to the U.S, Australia, and Spain, Italian winemaking is a battle between the mass producer and the artisan. The mass producer has a lot of clout with getting agreeable laws passed and the artisan has a lot of passion for great wine. The tide has turned to making great wine in large part from demand.
Just to begin, there are at least 1000 native grape varieties in the country. To the north, Italy has an amazing, melting pot-like culture, where Italians may speak German, may have Germanic sir names and every dish is not composed of the Americanized view of Italian cuisine: Tomatoes and Pasta. In the Northeast, vineyards that once sloped unceremoniously from Italy into the former Yugoslavia came to an abrupt, Iron Curtain-like halt for a period of time. In the Mediterranean South, you are closer to Africa and Greece, than Paris, with hot, maritime climates and a food culture that proudly includes tomatoes, lemons, fish and pasta.
As with most other winemaking regions of the world, Italians have tried over the years to institute an appellation system to make wines of various regions and sub appellations recognizable, but the success of it is debatable. Many claim there are far too many appellations, with very liberal applications, calling the DOC system the law of mediocrity. Today we see wines labeled with their appellations as DOC, DOCG, and IGT. Prior to IGT becoming the law, many Italian wines suffered from a required recipe of grapes to conform to the DOC/DOCG status. Unfortunately, that made for some bad wine. The best producers usually made good wine, while the mediocre producer could label his wine with the same status. Ever wonder why Chianti used to be just… blah? Tuscan winemakers started to experiment with Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, along with Sangiovese. This was the birth of the Super Tuscan, with names like Sassicaia and Tignanello becoming cult status wines. These are great wines and most importantly, they are consistently great. The best thing about these “renegade” winemakers is that they have not forgotten their Sangiovese roots and they are working tirelessly to again make truly great wine from primarily Sangiovese.
One step to understanding Italian wine is to understand the geography of Italy. The grapes and the places those grapes are grown are often confused, and are admittedly similar. For example, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo sounds Tuscan, but nowhere close and it’s not made from Sangiovese. It’s from Abruzzo and it’s made from Montepulciano grapes that have no relation to Montepulciano, which is a place in southern Tuscany. See what I mean? Barbera, Barberesco, Brunello, Barolo, Nebbiolo…the list goes on.
One of the best things about Italian wines is that they tend to be wines made for food. Not fruit bombs or burning with alcohol, they tend to be supple and elegant, with nuance that brings out the best in food. The trick is identifying the good ones and the good news is they are abundant!
Sun, January 13, 2013
by Bill Day