About Italian Wine
The country of Italy is steeped in wine tradition. With over 1,000 indigenous grape varieties, it is no wonder that all regions in the country have a rich tradition with the vine. It would take a life-time of unflinching study to learn all the deep complexities of viticulture here and we will touch only on some of the most important aspects of Italian viticulture.
As with France, this tradition of winemaking goes back centuries. Many producers still adhere to the old school way of making wines. They make wines to be a part of a meal rather than a purely hedonistic endeavor. In many cases they are making wines in the same ways and styles of their ancestors, who worked the same plots of land.
Red Grape Varietals of Italy
Sangiovese takes it names from the words Sangue (meaning blood) and Jove (referring to Jupiter – king of the Roman gods). It is the most widely cultivated variety in Italy. This is the workhorse behind two of Tuscany’s most famous wine regions: Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. It typically shows tart and sour fruits, such as cranberry, sour cherry, pomegranate, and dried raspberry. However, Sangiovese is rarely about fruit.
What often makes it famous are the herbal, oxidative, and earthy flavors. In the best examples, one can typically find layers of dried rosemary, thyme, basil, sun dried tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, walnuts, dried shiitake mushrooms, rose petals, potpourri, cedar, and baked earth.
The juicy acidity, and mouth filling tannins bolster the wines weigh and structure. The best examples need at least 10 years from release to drink well. They can also age and develop for decades on end.
Piedmont is the ancestral home to this noble grape. There are few spots on the planet where this grape can actually grow well and none of them have been able to hold a candle to the complexity of even the most pedestrian versions from Piedmont. If you’ve ever had a bottle of Barolo or Barbaresco, you can attest to its legendary status. If you’ve never tried those wines, we highly recommend you remedy that, quickly!
Nebbiolo shows some similarities to Sangiovese, because it can typically show the more tart side of red fruits. It is often characterized by red plum skin, macerated bing cherry, and dried red currants. Truffles, red flowers, dried nutmeg, clove, fresh tar, and rose petals are also descriptors that can be eerily similar to Sangiovese. The biggest difference for Nebbiolo is its structure and, most definitively, the tannins. When young, the most age-worthy Nebbiolos are often described as possessing the highest level of tannin of any grape. They often require decades of patient cellaring to soften up. Those who have that patience are often rewarded with an ethereal wine experience unlike any other.
This grape does not get enough notoriety for its contributions in Italy. It is often the source of many people’s favorite wine, they just never knew that this was the grape. If you’ve ever thoroughly enjoyed a bottle of Amarone or Valpolicella, you owe a debt of gratitude to Corvina.
Corvina is at its best when made in the Amarone style. It can be hauntingly complex in the right hands. One can find layer upon layer of black figs, raisins, dried plums, coffee, mocha, smoke, charcoal, purple flowers, pencil lead, mushroom concentrate, and toasty oak. The wines will often show a little touch of residual sugar as well, which helps to balance the voluminous alcohol in them. It is not uncommon for these wines to come in at 15% alcohol!
They are incredible with grilled game like wild boar and venison, but can also go well with dishes like molé and chipotle braised pork shank.
White Grape Varietals of Italy
The most iconic white grapes of Italy, Pinot Grigio is a grape that many people know, but not as widely consumed in Italy. It is at its best when grown in the north-eastern regions of Alto-Adige and Friuli. Here is where the light florals, dried citrus, and fresh white peach aromas combine well with the slight nutty oxidative notes.
The finest examples are often aged on the yeast cells that fermented them before they are released. This process gives them added weight and texture. The lees aging and the mild acidity are typically what make this wine a crowd pleaser.
Another grape varietal whose identity is often overshadowed by the region it is grown in. Garganega is the work-horse behind the famous wines of Soave in the Veneto region of northeast Italy.
The resulting wines are very floral and are best experienced in their youth. The perfumey jasmine and peach blossom aromas bolster the delicate texture, light body, and pretty minerality of Garganega. Try these wines with shellfish, antipasto, salads, and light cheeses.
This grape is most recognizable in the Veneto region, where it is used for sparkling wines of the same name. Prosecco makes light-bodied bubbly wines filled with lemon, honeydew melon, and peachy aromas. While a lot of Prosecco is often made for low price points, high quality Prosecco is also produced.
Italian Wine Regions
Roughly, one could break Italy up into 5 distinct areas that could then be subdivided into the major regions. We have bolded the most important regions and describe them in further detail below.
- Northwest Italy
- Vallée de Aosta
This is arguably Italy’s most famous wine growing region. The warm, sun-drenched hills of Tuscany are ideally suited for cultivation of wine grapes and olive orchards. It’s iconic villas and proximity to Florence make it one of the most visited wine regions of the world.
Tuscany’s most famous produce is Sangiovese, especially those from the Chianti, Chianti Classico, and Brunello di Montalcino regions. Here is where Sangiovese produces its most complex and deep wines. They are a long way from the simple cherry red Chiantis served in the straw lined bottles called fiascos!
The northerly region of Piedmont is home to some of the longest lived and most storied wines of Italy. It is famous for Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, and Moscato. Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Dolcetto grow particularly well in the region of Alba. Nebbiolo most notably flourishes in the Langhe region, especially in Barolo and Barbaresco. The foggy mornings and warm afternoons make an ideal climate for this notoriously fickle grape.
The complexity of the climate of Piedmont, which is nestled at the foot of both the Alps and the Appenine mountain chain, creates a wide style of wines. Not only does the heavily tannic Nebbiolo grape thrive here, but so does Moscato, one of the most delicate wines of Italy. The famed Moscato d’Asti wines are ethereally light, florally perfumed and slightly sweet. They are often used as a perfect accompaniment to light desserts, such as sorbet or gelato.
The largest zone in the Northeast part of Italy doesn’t have the name cachet of Tuscany or Piedmont, but it is home to some of the most famous wines of the country. This ancestral home of Romeo & Juliet makes white, red, sparkling, and sweet wines of notoriety from grapes that are seldom used in the rest of the country.
Corvina is the most famous. It is typically used around Verona and the banks of Lake Garda to make the long lived wines of Valpolicella and Amarone della Valpolicella. These wines are deep, complex and slightly sweet.
Garganega took the USA by storm in the 1970s in the form of the bottlings from Soave. It is no surprise given the prettiness of the floral and citrus-driven wines.
Prosecco is arguably the most approachable of these famous three. It has taken the world by storm with the inexpensive and delicious sparkling wines made from it.
Alto-Adige (also known as Südtirol) has an interesting history. Snuggled up at the foothills of the Tirol mountains, it has lots of influence from Germany and Austria. The most famous wines from here are the whites. They are typically varietally labeled and from grapes like Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Kerner, and Gewürztraminer. There are some red wine made here and they are exceptional, but not very well known. Common red grapes are Lagrein and Schiava.
The city of Naples and Mount Vesuvius are the two most famous things in the warm region of Campania. That could change in the coming years, however, as the wines from here continue to garner more and more acclaim. White wines are varietally labeled and made from the perfumed varietals of Fiano and Falanghina, as well as the austere Greco. Reds are made from the ancient Hellenic grape Aglianico. Aglianico makes deeply colored and intensely black fruit flavored wines. The volcanic soils around Vesuvius were spread by the ancient eruption of Pompeii and give the wines a delightful and lightly earthy edge.
Although this largest island of Italy is very famous, its wines have been kept a relative secret until the last few years. Whether this was a form of Omerta to keep the island’s great wines to the locals is for each to decide on their own. What is definitely true is that the wines deserve their newly found praise. Although the island can be quite warm in the summers, it can also be very cool in the winters. It is very common for the vines of Mount Etna to be covered in snow.
Currently, the red wines made from Nero d’Avola and Nerello Macalese are picking up the most steam. However, the white grapes of Grillo and Inzolia show a great bit of promise too.
Italy’s climate is too varied and its regions too ancient to generalize into a singular wine culture. The only truth is the long history with the vine that the country enjoys as a whole. There is something to be found for each wine lover somewhere in Italy!