Italy has become an increasingly popular travel destination, and with this newfound interest comes an increased interest in Italian wines. Recently, I have had a number of people ask me questions about Italian wines. Italy is one of the top two countries in the world in wine production and is comprised of 20 wine producing regions. These 20 regions produce a large number of grape varietals-estimates range from 800 to 2000! Just to make it especially complicated, the same grapes are vinified into different wines in different parts of the same region! Because of this, the regulations about wine making and wine labeling in Italy are exceptionally complex and Italian wine labels can be very confusing.
Italy has only been unified since 1861. Because of this, and because of the geographic boundaries between regions, Italy’s wines are very diverse, having evolved specifically as companions to the food of the region. Developed as a mealtime beverage, the overall characteristics of Italian wines were traditionally high acidity, quiet, mild nose and flavor, dry, and somewhat less than full bodied. These were largely not the bold, grand wines of the big French regions. Because of the style of these wines, Italy has not, until recently, enjoyed the status France has for producing great wines. In the last 40 years, many wine makers in Italy have changed their focus, and the resulting wines are impressive.
Italy’s three largest wine producing regions are Piedmont, in the northwest corner of the country, the Veneto, the area from Venice to Verona, and Tuscany, the area surrounding Florence.
Piedmont! Piedmont and Tuscany are renowned for being the top regions producing Italy’s greatest red wines. Piedmont is a large region, bordered on three sides by mountain ranges with amazing culture and some of the best food in Italy, think white truffles and risotto! The dominant grape varieties in Piedmont are Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcello, and Moscato. Nebbiolo is the grape behind the great Barolo and Barbaresco wines. These are big wines with high levels of tannins that are often very expensive. Drunk too young, they are astringent and closed, BUT after some time in the cellar, and with proper decanting, they blossom into velvet wines of astonishing flavor and complexity, worthy of their price. Wines made from the Barbera
grapes are generally dark in color, light and crisp, with very little tannin. The Barbera d’Alba are some of the best examples. Moscato d’Asti is a beautiful, light, low alcohol, slightly sweeter, semisparkling wine that is wonderful with brunch or dessert.
The Veneto! Some of my favorite Italian wines come from this area. Soave is the well known white from this area. Less expensive, over produced examples have given a bad name to this wine that can be lovely when vinified correctly. Valpolicella is a beautiful wine with tart cherry fruit flavors, darker and more full bodied than its cousin, Bardolina. It is made from Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grapes. Its big brother is the marvelous Amarone della Valpolicella. It is only made in very good years, when some of the best grapes are allowed to ripen on mats for 3 to 4 months, creating a huge, robust wine with high alcohol content. It needs time in the cellar to mature, and is usually expensive, but a wonderful wintertime companion to meat, game and hard cheeses.
Tuscany! Sangiovese is the main red grape grown in Tuscany, sold in large part as Chianti. Chianti Classico and Chianti Reserva are the best examples and can range between $10 and $60. Many are lovely wines. The big high powered new comers to the region are the “Super Tuscan” wines. They have been produced outside the specific regulated wine regions generally by blending Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc in a Bordeaux style. These are expensive wines, meant to be aged, that have beautiful fruit and oak flavors. These wines are a major factor in the improved reputation of Italian wines today. Not to be overlooked is the shining star, Brunello di Montalcino. It is made from a particular strain of Sangiovese, and is made to be aged at least 10 years.
So experiment with some of these lovely wines you might not be familiar with and enjoy in good health! As they say in Italy, cin cin !!
Written by Pat Daniel. Permission to publish by Columbus & the Valley Magazine.