Italy is one of the world’s biggest wine producers, making more wine than any other country in the world in 2008 at 45 million hectolitres. The Italians are also the greatest consumers of wine per capita.
Many of the international grape varieties can be found in Italy, but it also has an extensive range of indigenous varieties with more than 350 varieties authorised for cultivation. Grapes are grown everywhere in the country with over 300 zones classified as DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), and, more recently, IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica), which was created to prevent the ‘Super Tuscans’ being labelled as Vino Da Tavola, or table wine.
Italy consists of 20 wine regions, corresponding with the administrative regions. Within these, there are 48 DOCG wine areas, many of which are found in Piedmont in the north, where some of Italy’s most expensive and sought-after wines, such as Barolo are made, and in Tuscany.
In the northeast, Veneto is the most important wine producing region in terms of having the largest production. The often-maligned Soave, a dry white wine, is made here from a blend of Garganega and Trebbiano grapes. One of Italy’s most famous red wines, Valpolicella is made nearby.
But it is the central regions, particularly Tuscany, that are responsible for Italy’s most famous wine, Chianti. Nearby Montalcino and Montepulciano produce wines of great repute too.
Along the Adriatic coast is where the white table wine, Verdicchio, is made, while in the south of the country, Puglia is perhaps best known for its Primitivo.
The island of Sicily was historically one of the most important wine regions of Italy, and remains a region with one of the largest annual outputs of wine.
Sardinia, the second largest island in the Mediterranean after Sicily, is home to many ancient indigenous grapes. Roger Corder’s studies have shown that the Nuoro province of Sardinia is a centre of extreme longevity, where, despite the grape varieties being largely the same as those in other parts of Sardinia, the higher altitude of vineyards and traditional winemaking techniques, combined with greater diurnal variation in temperature, result in greater polyphenol synthesis. Combine with traditional winemaking techniques this results in red wines with higher procyanidins levels.
Climate and Terroir
Soil and climate vary throughout Italy, giving rise to many styles of wine. Very often, some of the most revered bottles will sit beside some of the most frivolous, as in the case of Barolo and Lambrusco.
Extensive mountains and foothills provide a wide range of altitudes and growing conditions, which influence the style of the wines that are produced. Many of the best quality wines of Italy are produced from hillside vineyards.
Grapes and Wines
While Italy has successfully cultivated most of the world’s most famous varietals, it is for the wine produced from its indigenous varieties, such as Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Trebbiano, that it is most renowned. Chianti is the most well know Sangiovese based wine. Sangiovese is also the central component in the ‘Super Tuscans’, created when blended with Bordeaux varietals.
The world famous Barolo is made from Nebbiolo in the Piedmont region. This is a wine that improves greatly with age. In its youth it can be exceedingly tannic. Once matured for five years, it gains the title of Riserva. Asti is also produced in the same region from the Muscat grape.
The Barbera grape of Lombardy and Piedmont is now making better wines than it did in the past, with the best quality wines being classified as Barbera Superiore. Dolcetto is an easy-to-grow vine grown in the Piedmont region and used to create everyday wines with flavours of blackberry and herbs.
Corvina is the main grape variety used to make Valpolicella and Amarone.
Sagrantino is one of the least known grape varieties of Italy. It is only grown around the Umbrian town of Montefalco, where it is carefully crafted into some of the most structured polyphenol-rich wines in the world. Other red grape varieties with increasing popularity because of the extra complexity they provide are Aglianico and Negroamaro.
As for white wine, Trebbiano and Pinot Grigio are often the favoured grapes. Trebbiano is the main constituent in Frascati, whereas Pinot Grigio is now hugely successful all over the world.
Garganega is the main component of Soave, while Verdicchio creates a varietal that is full of herb notes, hence the name. Vermentino is the grape of choice in Sardinia for making the crisp aromatic white wines classified as Vermentio di Gallura DOCG.
Did You Know?
Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano are two very different wines. The latter is made from Sangiovese from the town of the same name in Tuscany, while Montepulciano d’Abruzzo gets its name for the Montepulciano grape grown in Abruzzo on the Adriatic coast.
Gambero Rosso’s Vini d’Italia is considered by many as the best annual guide to the top Italian wines.