Italian Wine Regions & Varietals
When discussing Italy, it may be tempting to debate whether food or wine is more important to an Italian. The answer, of course, is "yes." In Italy the two are inseparable. And since Italian food and Italian wine hold exalted status around the globe, isn't the question moot? Shouldn't we simply enjoy them together as we are meant to do? And since Italian vintners traditionally create wines that are intended to be consumed with food, we can revel in the twofold pleasure of selecting great bottles of wine and marrying them to fabulous, succulent meals. How about an earthy, powerful Barolo or Barbaresco from the Piedmont paired with a juicy pot roast, flavorful risotto, or satisfying polenta, for example? Or a flavorful fruity, floral Tocai from Friuli with the region's famous prosciutto accompanied by fresh melon and figs? What about a Brunello di Montalcino, a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, or a Chianti Classico from Tuscany served with a bistecca al firoentina? See, isn't this fun!
The possible food and wine combinations boggle the mind. In fact, it would take a multi-volume encyclopedia to catalogue the scope of Italian wine production. As the country that produces more wine than any other country on earth, it's safe to say that such an accounting would be lengthy. Throw in a thousand or more grape varietals (the most of any country), slightly fewer than a million vineyards, and a landscape that moves from the slopes of the Alps across inland hills to the Mediterranean shores of Sicily and the myriad possibilities presented in a full accounting of Italian wine production sends tremors through the limbs of even the most ardent chronicler. And we're not even mentioning the centuries of tradition that led the ancient Greeks to call Italy Oenotria, the land of wine.
Looking at the long history of Italy, a patchwork of city states, duchies and kingdoms, shifting alliances and internecine squabbles, it is easy to see how traditional wine production in Italy remained provincial throughout much of history. Local wine makers grew grapes and produced wines for a limited, local market. Wines were crafted to fit local tastes and regional cuisine. Add to the equation the typical geography of Italy, a nearly continuous series of mountains and hills that form natural barriers, and we can see why Italy and so many of its glorious wines remained authentic and unknown to the rest of the world. In fact, so many fine Italian wines still await the discovery of thirsty international consumers. Consider the almost endless array of micro-climates that exist across the nation and even next door to each other, and it is clear that Italy is truly the land of the vine. Vineyards within eye sight of each other can be affected differently by variations in slope, orientation to the sun, and other components that distinguish terroir, affording a wealth of oenological treasure.
Given the variety and abundance of Italian wine, we reserve a special place in our cellar because Italy continues to produce striking deals on high quality wine. In addition, the next generation of wine makers in Italy brings its own level of excitement to the market. Willing to experiment with non-traditional varietals, blends, and the latest innovations in technique, a number of producers continue to stretch our understanding of Italian wine. So, combine this new wave with centuries of established tradition, mix in a dash of the magic that is Italy, and you will find that each bottle - and its story - takes you one step closer to understanding the soul of a great country. Learn more about what's new in today's wines from Italy here.
In Italian, Alto Adige refers to the high or upper reaches of the Adige, the stony, swift flowing river that Ernest Hemingway immortalized in A Farewell to Arms. However, most of the world knows this stunning country as the Sud Tirol or the South Tyrol. The dual name illuminates this region's splintered history and highlights its continuing split personality. Presently, Alto Adige is officially an autonomous region of Italy, but the Alto Adige or South Tyrol remains primarily German speaking, which underscores the fact that throughout most of its tortured history this beautiful alpine land of lederhosen and loden caps was an integral part of Austria. In fact, it was not until after World War I that the South Tyrol was ceded begrudgingly to Italy.
In spite of or, perhaps, on account of the South Tyrol's plurality, ethnic diversity, and historical factional violence, the present generation of winemakers in Alto Adige of both Austrian and Italian heritage have banded together in the common pursuit of happiness and prosperity. In doing so, the winemakers of the Alto Adige/ Sud Tirol have fashioned some of the highest standards for winemaking in all Italy. Consequently, more than 50% of the zone's wines are DOC designated, while a substantial portion of the area's non-DOC offerings constitute Alto Adige's most expensive and illustrious offerings (Zemmer Cortinie Bianco for example) simply because DOC regulations do not yet provide for imaginative, luxury blends.
While it may be true that white wine is the calling card of Alto Adige and that many of Italy's finest white wines do indeed flow from the pretty hills and valleys of the Sud Tirol, this industrious, forward thinking region is also renowned for its production of light to medium bodied red wines of supreme bouquet, finesse and style. So whether it be an outstanding Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco or Pinot Grigio or one of Alto Adige's little know reds in the guise of Santa Maddalena, Teroldego, or even Lagrein, quality remains the region's unifying common denominator.
In the north of Italy, nestled just beneath the great Alpine wall as it tumbles out of Switzerland and the gleaming Mediterranean Sea, lies the Piedmont. It is a region of myriad beauty. It is also the region of Italy closest to France in proximity as well as in the sheer quality and variety of exceptional wines it produces. For centuries, Italy's Piedmont remained a prize to be won, no doubt in part on account of the province's world famous cuisine that still draws happily on the abundance and quality of local truffles. Yet today, it is the superbly made wines of Italy's Piedmont that garner the most international recognition: complex, hedonistic red wines, still delicate whites, and sweet haunting Muscats. With such exquisite fare, should anyone question why the hearty robust delights of the Piedmontese table remain the region's most famous ambassadors to a hungry and thirsty world?
Barolo has affectionately and appropriately been referred to as the "king of wines, and the wine of kings." In a fine vintage and in the hands of a skilled winemaker, Barolo is unquestionably a noble wine, richly deserving of the many accolades that have been bestowed upon it.
Born on the Langhe Hills of Italy's Piedmont, on steep craggy Alpine foothills as they tumble out of nearby Switzerland and France, Barolo is the most masculine of Piedmont's three great Nebbiolo wines and the focal point in the region's viticultural tiara. Although Gattinara, typically the lightest and most feminine of Piedmont's great reds, and Barbaresco, sometimes referred to as a baby Barolo for its propensity for being lighter and easier to drink in its youth than its more stalwart neighbor, share the same noble Nebbiolo vine as Barolo, it is Barolo that possesses the pedigree and rules the roost. Barolo's lineage dates back to the Middle Ages and by the mid 18th century Barolo had begun to evolve into its present form in the vicinity of Alba, a distinct Old World city that serves as the white truffle capital of Italy as well as Piedmont's premier wine town.
Today, the limited production of Barolo generates from the huddled hills of two valleys, Serralunga and Barolo, and their five principal communities, all of which lie to the southwest of the city of Alba and are reputed to impart distinctive characteristics and traits to their respective progeny. The townships of Serralunga, Castiglione Falletto, and Monforte are situated in the Serralunga Valley and are reputed to produce the region's most masculine, longest-lived Barolos. Meanwhile, Barolo and La Morra, from which the more "delicate" wines of the zone are said to flow, are part of the Barolo Valley. However, there are many exceptions and innumerable variations in Barolo on the same theme, and this does not even take into account the decades old debate in Barolo over the relative merits of the modern and traditional styles of Barolo, which have as much to do with individual winemaking techniques as they do the amount and kind of barrel aging the wines receive. Happily, in the end, there is great Barolo fashioned in all five of the major townships, in both modern and traditional styles. Salute!
Tuscany enjoys a unique position in Italy. Located in the center of the Italian peninsula, its cities, culture, and people have existed for thousands of years in the throes of conflict. Drawing strength from its ancient Etruscan origin, which lent Rome its ability to build and engineer feats of unparalleled proportion, the inhabitants of Tuscany have shaped an austere, mystifyingly beautiful countryside into a rich, fecund land. And from the dynamic tension that held sway over Florence and its neighbors during the Middle Ages, there emerged the Renaissance - a 15th century ideal that made "man the measure of all things." In harmony with a singularly beautiful land that has been inexorably shaped by the finest artistry of man, Tuscans have created a nearly ideal world in which agriculture, architecture, art, and thought continue to form one seamless, vital union.
During no time in its thousands of years of existence have the wines of Tuscany been better than they are today. Whether one enters Tuscany from the south, driving north from Rome, or discovers Tuscany from any number of small country roads that head south from Emilia-Romagna, it is almost impossible not to know that one has entered a special land. Wooded mountains and valleys, full of oak and pine, and a sea of vines that traverse the hills greet the fortunate traveler to Tuscany. From the sight of the land, it is easy to understand why Tuscany is one of the most important wine producing regions in the world. Likewise, it is equally difficult to comprehend the simple truth - that Tuscany, with it multitude of great wines and illustrious place names, is not one of Italy's most prolific wine producing regions. In Tuscany, quality is certainly not synonymous with quantity. The great wines of Tuscany are by and large artisanal affairs, produced by families, visionaries, and small groups of very dedicated men and women.
The most expensive and renowned name in Tuscan wine is Brunello di Montalcino - a complex, garnet colored wine from the hills surrounding the precipitous town of Montalcino. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is another ancient name whose fame dates conclusively from the early Middle Ages. Nowhere in Tuscany, or anywhere else in Italy for that matter, is better wine being made at prices that one can still afford than in the DOCG of Vino Nobile and its environs surrounding Montepulciano. And then there is Chianti and Chianti Classico - the two most recognizable names in Italian wine. More importantly, we have not even mentioned Super Tuscans, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Vin Santo, and the whole host of less renowned, but equally delicious and impressive wines that Tuscany has given to the world.
Chianti is a sea of vines amid the pastoral slopes of Tuscany. Between Florence and Siena over one hundred and fifty thousand acres of vines share the hills and hollows of this ancient land with olive groves and grain fields, bleating sheep, and woods full of oak and chestnut. Chianti is the largest DOCG in Italy, producing more than two hundred million liters of wine each year from seven distinct districts. Consequently, Chianti is, in fact, many different wines from over seven thousand registered growers in seven distinct districts and their outlying areas.
Chianti Classico is just one of those seven official areas of Tuscany entitled to bear the name Chianti on its labels. Chianti Classico is, also, the wine from the legal heart of Chianti whose producers belong to the Chianti Classico Consorzio or Consortium. The Chianti Classico Consorzio is the most recognizable consortium in Tuscany and its members have the highest voluntary standard of excellence among Chianti producers. The Chianti Classico Consorzio seeks to define, improve, and promote the wines of Chianti Classico. The majority of producers within the confines of Chianti Classico belong to the consortium, but not all. Standards are strict: the monitoring of prescribed grape varieties, vineyards, yields, alcohol levels, and even a tasting of every member's wines are part of the consortium's annual ritual of enforcement. Nonetheless, many outstanding examples of Chianti can be found outside of Chianti Classico. These Chianti swill they bear the seal of the Consorzio (the Gallo Nero or Black Rooster seal on the neck of the bottle), either for ideological reasons or because the wine emanates from vineyards that lie outside the delimited boundaries of Chianti Classico
Today, Chianti is only a red wine, but this has not always been the case. Until the early 16th century, the opposite was true. Only the white wine of central Tuscany was called Chianti, but during the Renaissance the dry red wine of the area, which was commonly referred to as Vermiglio by Michelangelo and his Florentine contemporaries, also adopted the name Chianti. By law, all Chianti must meet certain legal and qualitative standards. Chianti must contain only certain prescribed grape varieties, with Sangiovese always playing the starring role. Cannaiolo, Colorino, and small amounts of Cabernet and Merlot are other permitted red varietals for Chianti. And although no longer required, two white grape varieties are still permitted in Chianti. Some traditional Chianti producers still use small amounts of white grapes in the form of Trebbiano and Malvasia in producing their Chianti. Hence, there is a great variety of sizes and styles of Chianti from which to choose.
Even when legions of wine thirsty tourists descend upon the Tuscan hill town of Montepulciano, it manages to retain its charm and characteristic medieval feel. In fact, this bustling town is a strollers' paradise, replete with flower bedecked alleyways and steep steps in place of streets. And thanks to a ban on vehicles in much of the old town, one comes to quickly understand how Montepulciano emerged a pearl of the "16th Century." Set on a steep hill between the Val di Chiana and the Val d'Orcia, Montepulciano is the center of the thriving DOCG (Controlled and Guaranteed Denomination of Origin) of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, one of the greatest and oldest names in Italian wine.
The "noble wine" of Montepulciano has enjoyed its renowned reputation ever since the year 790. Even in the early medieval period, the "Vino Nobile" of Montepulciano was highly sought after, even outside of Montepulciano and the surrounding area. In 1549, Sante Lancerio, maître de chaîne to Pope Paul III, called the Nobile of Montepulciano the "Vino perfettissimo da Signori" or the Preferred Wine of the Nobility. It was, however, the 17th century doctor and poet Francesco Redi, who established the reputation of the Nobile of Montepulciano as "The King of all Wine". The name "Nobile" dates from the era when higher quality wines were exclusively reserved for noble families.
Even today, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is universally recognized as a special wine. Vino Nobile's primary grape variety is the local Prugnolo Gentile, a unique clone of Tuscan Sangiovese that must comprise a minimum 70% of any wine that bears the title of Vino Nobile. Many point to Prugnolo Gentile as the determining factor in the quality quotient of Vino Nobile. And with the supreme polish and depth of flavor that one sees in the finest Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, it would be hard to refute the claim. Since 1980 the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano has enjoyed the distinction of DOCG status, one of the first wines in Italy to be so named.
In order to be called Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a wine must, also, be matured in wooden casks for at least two years, starting from the 1st of January following the harvest. After maturing for three years, Vino Nobile is entitled to be called "Riserva". Prugnolo Gentile must always be the primary grape variety, but other traditional Tuscan varieties such as Malvasia Nero, Canaiolo Nero, Colorino, and Mammolo are also permitted. Small amounts of Merlot and Cabernet are now legal in Vino Nobile as well.
The Marches is the green, picturesque region of central Italy that lies wedged between the Appenine spine of the Italian peninsula and the cliff studded coast of the gleaming Adriatic Sea. Aside from the two month onslaught (in July and August) of Italian and Teutonic tourists that descend upon the coastal regions of the province, the Marches remains an oasis of calm, rural charm, art, religious shrines, fine food, and of course excellent wines - the very glories of Italy.
The most important wines of this rural oasis that sits just due east of Florence are Rosso Piceno, the most authentic and traditional of the regions wines; Rosso Conero, an even more robust version of Rosso Piceno in that its cepage is the same as Rosso Piceno, except here Montepulciano plays the dominant character and Sangiovese the supporting role; whereby, the opposite is the case with Rosso Piceno; and finally Verdicchio, the quintessential fish wine that hails from two distinct DOC's, Castelli di Jesi and Matelica. Verdicchio from either region can be quite good, depending upon the producer, but by and large Matelica remains the source of the finest, fullest, and most authentic Verdicchio - a wine that also happens to be the Marches most compelling white wine, especially with seafood for which the Marches is justifiably renowned.
Latium is the region of Rome. It is, also, the source of so much of the wonderful produce, meat, and especially wine that flows into the Eternal City to sustain Romans and visitors alike. Latium is unquestionably one of the most important wine regions in Italy, both in sheer volume as well as quality. And what may come as a surprise to many is that ninety percent of Latium's wines are white, including the region's best known wine - Frascati.
Frascati is Latium's most famous wine, and so pervasive is its presence in Rome that the name Frascati has become synonymous with white wine and all that is Roman. Frascati does indeed produce the finest dry white wine from the hills around Rome, which are known alternately as Castelli Albani, Castelli Romani, and Colli Romani. The name notwithstanding, the Alban Hills offer a sun-drenched climate and a mineral rich volcanic soil, conditions that have proven ideal for the cultivation of Malvasia, Trebbiano, and a hand full of other local white wine varieties that constitute Frascati.
Today, Frascati is most often made light, clean, and very dry. However, Frascati can still legally be made semi-sweet (amabile) or sweet (cannellino), but such versions are increasingly rare. The same can be said for the other notable white wines of the Alban Hills, including Marino and Colli Albani.
In addition to Frascati and its siblings Marino and Colli Albani, Latium is home to Est! Est!! Est!!! and Orvieto, as a part of the Orvieto DOC spills into Latium from neighboring Umbria. Furthermore, a growing number of select high quality red wines spring from the rural hills of ancient Lazio. Most of the region's quality red wines are bottled in small quantities under proprietary names. Two traditional grapes, Aleatico and Cesanese are the most widely cultivated red varieties throughout Latium, with Cesanese generally producing the more interesting dry red wine of the region. Increasingly, Cabernet Sauvignon is figuring in the quality quotient as well.
Italy's Campania retains the allure and magic of ancient mythology. From the mystifyingly beautiful Amalfi Coast that still manages to conjure visions of gods and sirens, pleasure and lore, to the volcanic, fog shrouded spine of the Appenines that bisect the Italian peninsula, the Campania never fails to enchant. Known to the Romans as the Campania Felix, meaning the "joyous country" or the "face with an open smile," the Campania is the ancient province of the Roman Empire that sits just south of Rome and neighboring Latium. As its name implies, this region produces friendly, gregarious wines in addition to an abundance of high quality produce. Learn more about the best wines of Southern Italy here.
At the height of the Roman Empire, the Campania served as the granary of Rome, supplying sustenance to the capital and provisions to the legions of soldiers and magistrates who administered an empire. Today, Campania continues the tradition by furnishing Rome and Naples with a host of culinary delights, most notably fresh, delicious fruit, vegetables, and of course wine. And although Campania languished for more than a century from the deleterious effects of war, political neglect, and phylloxera, it has in the past few decades witnessed a real renaissance in its wine industry. Specifically, Campania has re-focused its attention on its traditional assets: a host of premium grape varieties, both indigenous and transplanted, such as Aglianico, Piedirosso, Falanghina, Greco di Tufo, and Fiano di Avellino to name just a few. Aglianico, the highly flavorful red variety the Greeks brought to southern Italy more than 2,500 years ago, has in this century emerged as one of Italy's greatest red grapes, yielding staggeringly rich wines of depth, power, and age ability. In the Taurasi DOCG, Aglianico can match the finest red wines made anywhere in Italy, including the best wines of Tuscany and Piedmont. And what could be more exemplary of the good nature and open character of the land and people of the Campania than the region's fabulous white wines? Greco di Tufo and Fiano Di Avellino have re-claimed their rightful places among the finest seafood wines in the world, and the list goes on. So no matter if red or white is your preference, the wines of Campania are sure to put a smile on your face.
Sicily is a large and varied land that wears as many faces as a circus harlequin. Its land and people are as diverse as any earthly realm. At the crossroads of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, Sicily possesses a history and personality all its own. The Greeks called Sicily and nearby southern Italy Enotria, land of the vine, a description that is as apt today as it was 2,800 years ago. However, like its geography and people, viticulture in Sicily is an immensely varied proposition.
In terms of wine, Sicily is, indeed, more a continent than an island. Its sheer variety of grapes, autochonous and otherwise, set it apart from the rest of Europe. In addition, Sicily's grape harvest is the longest in Europe. Harvest begins the first days of August in the island's western provinces and doesn't end until the vine-covered slopes of Mt. Etna have been picked in November. Due to the proliferation of mountains, the surrounding sea, Sirocco winds, and extreme temperatures, more climates and zones exist in Sicily than in any other single wine producing region on earth, and this doesn't even take into account what are popularly referred to as microclimates. And then there are the island's soils, a countless array of colors and textures that are capable of imparting infinite variations to the wines they render.
Given the wide array of soils and climates that exist in Sicily, both red and white grape varieties thrive in this ancient land. Indigenous red varietals such as Nero d'Avola and Malvasia Nera produce most of the island's full-bodied, red wines that are the match for any fine Syrah. Syrah, too, is well-suited to Sicily's hot, dry summers and is gaining in popularity. However, the most pleasant surprise in modern Sicilian winemaking may be just how good the still, dry white wines of the island have become, especially those made from the native Insolia (also called Inzolia or Anzolia). Marsala, the island's most famous wine is making a comeback as well. Produced in both dry and sweet style styles, Marsala is a fortified wine made on the western side of Sicily from the indigenous Grillo grape and other assorted varietals. Marsala is best known for the flavor it adds to chicken or veal dishes that bear its name, but fine renditions of Marsala constitute some of the world's greatest dessert wines.
Today as always, Sicily remains an exciting and passionate place. From a wine grower's perspective, it remains a kin to an artist's palette or a blank canvas. Both canvas and palette speak forever of infinite potential and variety, they whisper the promise of greatness, and occasionally they give birth to a masterpiece for which a thirsty world is grateful.