Despite the global stature and elite reputation carried by fine French wines, one would be hard-pressed to find a culture whose history and identity are more entwined with wine than that of Italy. In the country once called “Oenotria,” or “Land of the Vines,” by the ancient Greeks, the vine plays an important role in defining its very lifestyle. From its cool northern Alpine regions to the warm island shores of Sardinia and Sicily to the south, nearly every pocket of this almost perfectly situated, famously boot-shaped peninsula produces multiple signature wines, including robust reds, smooth whites, romantic rosés and festive sparkling wines. With over 1,000 varietals actively cultivated across more than 700,000 hectares nationwide, today’s Italian winemakers are creating interesting, sought-after modern blends that are quickly catching up to their more classic predecessors in popularity.
Viniculture has a long, impressive history in Italy. While the Greeks were certainly instrumental in the development of wine production in the region, it would be remiss not to recognize the importance of the Etruscans as well. Settling in Italy as early as the 8th century B.C., they are thought to be the first to harness the country’s indigenous grapes and cultivate them for wine. Archeological evidence, including remnants of amphorae (ceramic vessels used to transport products) suggests that by the 7th century B.C., the Etruscans were not only producing wine, but were exporting it to southern Italy and France (then Gaul). By the 3rd century B.C., literary references were made by Greek writers citing their admiration for Italian, and specifically Tuscan, wines. The Etruscans are also credited with introducing more sophisticated fermentation practices by burying grape must into the ground in clay vessels, and later storing the wines in even deeper underground “cellars” for further maturation.
When the Roman Empire later flourished in the region, wine production did the same. The Roman palate also evolved, and curious Romans began testing new ways to enjoy both red and white wines, including adding such extras as herbs, honey and spices. More importantly, however, they advanced many winemaking techniques: the Romans instituted the use of trellises, refined the design of Grecian wine presses, matched grape varietals to optimal climates for maximum cultivation, invented the wooden barrel for more effective aging, and introduced the first bottling system.
With the onset of the Middle Ages, monasteries became the main purveyors of Italy’s vineyards, partially due their need for ample supplies of sacramental wine.
That changed as aristocratic and merchant classes emerged, inheriting an agriculture system called mezzadria. Mezzadria allowed landowners to provide their land and resources for the planting of new crops in exchange for half, or mezza, of the annual crop. Savvy landowners often turned their half of the harvest into wine that would be sold in Florence, an established commercial hub. References to Florentine wine retailers go back as far as 1079, and the first wine guild was created in the city in 1282.
With a vast number of designated wine-growing regions, Italy is currently the largest exporter of wine in the world. The country’s abundance of varietals, coupled with its diverse terrains and climates, allows it to produce an incredibly broad range of wines, with many ranked among the finest on the international wine market. But the country’s three main winemaking regions continue to be Piedmont, famous for its full-bodied Nebbiolo grape; Tuscany, home to the abundant Sangiovese; and Veneto, featuring Italy’s beloved sparkling white wines as well as assertive reds.
To maintain wine quality – which declined temporarily in the 19th century – the Italian government introduced more stringent production guidelines as well as a classification protocol similar to France’s own appellation system. Most recently modified in 2010 to align with new European Union wine regulations, it includes four tiers: Vini (Wines), the least regulated designation, and referring to generic wines produced anywhere in EU territory; Vini Varietali (Varietal Wines), referring to generic wines that are produced anywhere in EU territory, and present at least 85% of an international varietal (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah), or are entirely made from a combination of two or more of them; Vini IGP, also known as IGT (Wines with Protected Geographical Indication / Typical Geographical Indication) designating wines that are not only produced in a specific territory in Italy but also comply with a more rigid protocol regarding production practices, alcohol content, flavor profiles and other instructions; and finally, Vini DOP (Wines with Protected Designation of Origin) which is the highest classification tier. With two sub-categories – Vini DOC (Wine with Controlled Designation of Origin) and Vini DOCG (Wine with Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin), DOP wines must follow the strictest of all protocols defined by components including place of origin, winemaking traditions, highly restricted climate and geographic parameters, expert committee analysis, and commercial appeal and success. There are also three additional layers of classification within Vini DOP: “Classico,” meaning wine produced in the historic center of a protected area; “Superiore,” designating wines with at least 0.5% more alcohol than its corresponding DOP wine and produced from less crowded vineyards; and “Riserva,” which refers to wines aged for a specifically required minimum period of time depending on type.
Italy’s prolific wine production is primarily supported by native grapes, but the cultivation of international grapes has grown more popular in the last several decades. In fact, it is the practice of blending those varietals with or without Italy’s indigenous grapes that sparked the Super Tuscan movement, and by extension, the Vini IGP / IGT classification tier. While classics including Chianti, Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano and still remain among the country’s signature offerings, Super Tuscans, such as Bolgheri’s Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant Sassicaia, are receiving more and more attention as well as commanding highly competitive prices across the fine wine market.
The beauty of Italy’s wine industry is that there truly is something for every palate. From weeknight table wines to elegant reds, and effervescent whites to sweet desert wines, Europe’s “boot” continues to be, as the Greeks claimed so long ago, the Land of the Vines.