Italy as a Wine Region
In some years, Italy produces more wine than any other country in the world. The vine is cultivated almost everywhere, and a very wide variety of table wines, sparkling wines, liqueurs and vermouths are made, plus Marsala in Sicily. In the past, Italian wines have not been widely known on export markets, except in countries where the Italian emigrant communities are large, because production formerly tended to be by small growers. Their methods were sometimes haphazard and therefore they seldom achieved notable quality on a large scale; so they were not able to follow up successful wines when they did produce them. Today the situation is changing. The large concerns, hitherto often primarily concerned with vermouth or liqueur production, have recently started influencing these peasant proprietors and government controls have been instituted to ensure that the different regions make their wines in ways that are both traditional and sound. Their work is best known for the system of D.O.C. Producers who previously could sell all they made to local outlets, or at least within Italy, are now looking seriously at export markets.
With wine consumption rising throughout the world and technical improvements enabling good wine to be made in a larger scale, Italian wines are becoming increasingly important everywhere. The very finest Italian wines are definitely among the great wines of the world, but these naturally do not often feature on wine lists. Although some of the best-known Italian wines are best when consumed while they are young and fresh, some of the reds are capable of great improvement with maturity, and the makers are proud of their quality as well as their charm. There are so many names – of grapes as well as of wines – that detailed reference to Italian wines in general is difficult. They vary according to the region and, as has been indicated, according to the type of producer.
Starting with the islands: Sicily makes Marsala and a wide range of red and white table wines; Sardinia has a number of sweet dessert wines and table wines, also an odd wine of higher than table wine strength, called Vernaccia. The regions of Calabria, Basilicata and Puglia produce quantities of rather everyday wine, seldom seen outside its homeland and much used for blending and making into vermouth. In the Campania there are the wines from volcanic soil around the Bay of Naples, of which Lacrima Christi is the most famous; from around Rome the Lazio wines include Frascati; from the Abruzzi region there is Montepulciano among others; from Umbria, there are Orvieto and Torgiano; and from the Marche, Verdicchio, with many others. In the north, the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region makes plenty of pleasant light wines; the Veneto has the well-known Soave and Valpolicella, plus a number of red and white wines; and there is a big range from the Alto Adige, where the whites are likely to be those least known in export markets. Regions of major importance are Tuscany (Chianti, Brunello and many others), Emilia-Romagna (Lambrusco, Albano and others), Lombardy (the Garda wines, including Bardolino and those of the Oltrepo Pavese), and Piedmont which, in addition to the great reds Barolo and Barbera, produces the sparkling wines of Asti and, in and around Turin, the most important vermouths.
Well-known Italian liqueurs include Strega, Amaretto di Saronno, Galliano, Sambucca and literally hundreds of others. There are bitters in great abundance and many types of aperitif, digestive and sweet alcoholic drinks.
As might be expected, Italian wines are mostly good partners to the regional dishes and there are no hard and fast rules about red wine with meat, white with fish – an Italian will simply drink whatever is preferred – although the sweet wines, such as vin santo and those made from passito grapes, are more commonly drunk with fruit or a light sponge cake type of sweet course. The majority of the table wines are either non-vintage or else at their best when drunk young and fresh, although some of the finer reds are capable of great improvement by leaving in bottle for some time, and these will have a vintage on their labels. One quite interesting thing is that, although most vintages in Italy are such that good wines are widely made, some of the exceptional years – notably for the great reds – are often those years when other European vineyards have a bad time: for example, 1968. So such years can be useful choices if the wines feature on restaurant lists. Each one of the major wineproducers will put out a range that is individual in style; so that drinkers must try several from each well-known named region, in order to get an idea as to which firm’s wines they prefer. The few great estates, such as those in Chianti. Make wines as individual as any other private properties.
In general. The Italians accept and enjoy their long tradition of winedrinking with lighthearted appreciation; wine is seldom revered, made a status symbol or even regarded as the focal point of a meal – the food as well as the wine is always considered. This is pleasant, although it may astonish drinkers from other countries to see the casual way in which even fine wines are handled – corks drawn through capsules, bottle necks unwiped, decanting very seldom done and. Unfortunately for the majority of wine lovers accustomed to showing some respect to wine (and food), cigarettes and even pipes smoked during the course of meals, often by the producers themselves! It is partly this happy-go-lucky attitude that sometimes puts Italian wines at a disadvantage, compared to those made in countries where less obviously favourable conditions have obliged the makers to take more detailed trouble over cultivation and production and to adopt more care about the preparation and service of bottles. But those producers who are alert to what export markets require, and who realise that at least a number of Italian wines are capable of attaining high levels of quality and of being valued outside the informal type of restaurant trade, are attempting to raise standards. Equally the official controls are serious about maintaining traditional characteristics while encouraging up-to-date methods.