Wines from Italy
Italian wine is probably the most misunderstood in the world. Most of us associate it with basic everyday drinking -the very word vino is almost synonymous with ‘plonk’. We tend to overlook the great wines of Tuscany and Piedmont, names such as Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello di Montalcino.
In many vintages, Italy produces more wine than any other country. Unlike France, her great wine rival, Italy raises vines all over the country and practically all country-dwellers cultivate a row or two of vines to make wine for their own consumption. Even some commercial vines are still raised among other crops in the tradition they call coltivazione promiscua (literally, ‘cultivation everywhere’). Because of its latitude, and grape varieties planted, Italy probably has a better capability to produce fruity table wine, or vino da tavola, than its much leaner French counterpart.
The DOC, or Denominazione di Orioine Controllata, is Italy’s slightly unsatisfactory answer to France’s Appellation Controlee system of designating wine quality. It is true that most of Italy’s top wines qualify for the DOC, but some of them do not, for instance, because they are made from grape varieties not allowed under the traditional rules. Furthermore, many distinctly unpromising wine areas have been awarded DOC status simply, one suspects, for reasons of local politics. But then Italy would not be Italy without local politics . . .
To an even greater extent than France, Italy is above all a collection of regions. Just as their native region is of paramount importance to an Italian, so it is with Italian wines. Because Italy is so far south, her finest wines tend to be produced in the hills, where there is a sufficiently cool climate to prevent the wines becoming flabby, yet they can stay on the vine long enough to absorb lots of interesting trace elements from the soil before they are picked.
Piedmont, up in the Alpine foothills, is the coolest region of Italy, and its wines are the most revered – by those from the region anyway! Barolo and Barbaresco are seen as the king and queen of Piedmontese wine. Both are dark mulberry-coloured, concentrated and exotically scented. These were the first two wines to be considered eligible for Italy’s new ‘superior quality’ category, the DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita).
Barbaresco is slightly lighter and matures somewhat earlier than Barolo, but both wines are heavyweights to be reckoned with. Impossible to enjoy without food, they are often more than 14% alcohol and develop hints of violet, game, prunes and even truffle when mature. Other Piedmont wines made from the Nebbiolo grape include Carema, Gattinara, Ghemme and the non-DOC Spanna. Piedmont’s other famous red-wine grapes, rarely planted outside the region, are the light and fruity Barbera and the dry and grapey Dolcetto.
This is red-wine country, though there is the much-prized dry white Gavi and a huge sparkling wine industry. Its most famous product is Asti Spumante, a sweet, low-alcohol wine that can be deliriously fresh and grapey if well-made, though is sometimes unfairly maligned.
Italy’s other major wine region for top quality wine is set on the hills of Tuscany. Vino N’obile di Montepulciano, Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti Classico have each been nominated for the DOCG, all of them made predominantly from Sangiovese grapes.
Sangiovese is also the most important ingredient in Chianti. It has taken time for this ‘serious’ wine to shake off its frivolous image. This is partly because some less scrupulous producers have added perhaps too much Trebbiano, the prolific white grape allowed into the blend, so that the wine has lacked colour and body. Well-made Chianti, and almost all of the Chianti Classico that is made in the heartland of the area, is a fruity, scented red that is at its best two to seven years after the vintage. Sangiovese is grown throughout Central Italy, notably Emilia-Romagna. Sangiovese di Romagna can be good-value basic wine. However, the most successful wine by far of the Emilia-Romagna region is Lambrusco. Low in alcohol and high in fruitiness and fizz, in a sense it is a sort of red Asti Spumante, though less aggressively grapey and sparkling.
One might expect Italian whites to lack acidity, being produced in a fairly hot climate, but this problem is usually avoided by picking early. This may be why Italian whites do not have the complexity of some white wines produced further north, but many of them provide keenly priced easy drinking. Frascati, made near Rome, is one of the most popular and often has quite a lot of body and flavour. Verdicchio (pronounced ‘Verdickio’) is lighter and produced on the west coast near Ancona, while Orvieto is the most famous white of the Umbria region just south of Tuscany.
Soave is perhaps Italy’s most famous still white wine. The best versions have a distinct hint of almonds overlaying their dry crispness. The red wines made alongside Soave in this Veneto region are no less famous: Valpolicella and Bar-dolino, the latter slightly lighter than the former, but both designed for youthful drinking and, with their bitter-cherry flavour, pleasant if slightly chilled. The wine curiosity of this region is the recioto technique of fermenting dried grapes to produce especially strong wines. A Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone, sometimes known simply as Amarone, can be as much as 16% alcohol and is both bitter (’amaro’) and dry.
Up in the far north-east the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region can offer wines most familiar to non-Italian palates. Here an exciting range of ‘classic’ varietals are produced. Pinot Grigio has been particularly successful among whites, but there has been a great improvement in Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Tocai and Rieslings. Merlot, Pinot Nero and both Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon vines turn out lively, fruity wines up in this region.
The islands of Sardinia and, especially, Sicily are important wine producers and Sicily boasts a number of concerns that have effectively harnessed technology to compensate for their very hot climate. Among the notable wines of Sardinia are Torbato and Nuragus; of Sicily, Corvo and Regaleali.