One of the oldest and most diverse winemaking countries in the world, Italy also exports more wine than any of its rivals. From its northern regions that are protected by the Alps to the warm island shores of Sardinia and Sicily, nearly every pocket of this almost perfectly situated peninsula produces its own signature style, including robust reds, smooth whites, romantic rosés and festive sparkling wines. With over 1,000 varietals growing across the boot, Italy has perhaps pushed the winemaking envelope more than any Old World producer, creating interesting, sought-after modern blends that are quickly catching up to their more classic predecessors in popularity as well as collectible value.
Three of the areas most known for their winemaking artistry are Tuscany, Piedmont and Veneto, each possessing a unique approach to history while looking ahead to new and exciting possibilities from the vine.
Tuscany: Beauty and the Juice
With its unsurpassed, almost spellbinding visual appeal, coupled with some of the finest vineyards in the world, Tuscany has long been a favorite spot for wine lovers everywhere.
Tuscany boasts of a long history of viticulture, dating back to when Etruscan populations settled in the region in the 8th century BC. Naturally abundant in wild grape vines that covered its hilly terrain, the Etruscans are credited with taking the grapes and using them as a basis for domestic crops. Archeological evidence, including remnants of amphorae (ceramic vessels used to transport products) suggests that as early as the 7th century BC, the Etruscans were not only producing wine, but were exporting it to southern Italy and France (then Gaul). By the 3rd century BC, literary references were made by Greek writers citing their undying admiration for Tuscan wines.
During the Middle Ages, the main purveyors of wines in the region were monasteries. That changed as aristocratic and merchant classes emerged, inheriting a system of agriculture the Italians 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. Many savvy landowners would turn their half of the harvest into wine that would be sold in Florence, an established economic hub. References to Florentine wine retailers go back as far as 1079, and a guild was created in the city in 1282.
By the 14th century, an average of 7.9 million US gallons of wine was sold annually in Florence. The earliest references to Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, one of Tuscany’s best-known products, date to the late 14th century. The Vernaccia and Greco wines
of San Gimignano, still a top white wine region today, were considered luxury items more valuable than saffron. During this time, Tuscan winemakers also began experimenting with the process, eventually inventing governo, a technique which helped stabilize the wines and ferment the sugar content to yield a drier-tasting product.
Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, noted Italian politician Bettino Ricasoli inherited his family estate in Broglio, located in the heart of the Chianti Classico zone. Directing all his energies towards enhancing the property, Ricasoli traveled to Germany and France, studying grape varietals and wine production practices. He imported several varietals back to Tuscany for trial and error development, but soon discovered that three native varietals — Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Malvasia— produced the best wine. According to many, this opinion still holds true.
Today, nearly 75% of the Tuscan wines produced are red, with a dominant, if not sole, presence of the Sangiovese grape. While Chianti Classico may hold the most name recognition (with Chianti boasting of seven sub-zones), Brunello de Montalcino reigns as one of Tuscany’s most desired. Deep and rich, it is required to age for at least four years prior to release; however, for the more impatient Tuscan lovers, Rosso de Montalcino, a lighter version of Brunello, is produced for earlier enjoyment. Both wines are collector-quality, and feature an earthy, spicy and complex profile with dark cherry notes and cedar aromas.
Denominazione di Origine Controllata and the Birth of the Super Tuscans
Tuscany has its own designation of origin system to ensure quality. The Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which is modeled on the French AOC, was instituted in 1963. It has, however, faced major challenges from winemakers. During the 1970s, the DOC regulations of Tuscany’s Chianti region featured very rigid restrictions on which grape varieties could be used in Chianti wine and in what proportions. Many Chianti producers became frustrated, believing that they could produce a better class of wine without such regulations. This led to a wine revolution, resulting in the emergence of what are now called Super Tuscans.
The Super Tuscan movement was ignited in the Post World War II era, when the imagination of the Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, director of the Tenuta San Guido estate on the coastal town of Bolgheri, began to explore blending Bordeaux staples Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc to produce Sassicaia. The wine was first released commercially in 1968, and was quickly followed by the release of Tignanello, a new, progressive blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese, in 1975. Initially unimpressed, the DOC system refused to truly acknowledge these upstarts, referring to them instead as Vino de Tavola, or “table wines.” But this rejection only fueled interest and demand: the rebellious, high-quality wines continued to gain notoriety, eventually earning the endorsement of such notable oenophiles as Robert Parker, whose affirmation catapulted them towards international fame. Tignanello and Sassicaia quickly became the most popular wines hailing from Tuscany. The demand for a new designation was finally met with the creation of the Indicazione Geografica Tipica, or ITG, which to date covers over 100 types of wine, with Super Tuscans leading the pack.
If there is a wine region that defines the word “eclectic,” it is Italy’s Piedmont in the northwest corner of the country’s boot. With no less than 58 different appellations, and offering a diverse spectrum from deep, intense Barolo to the sparkling sweetness of Asti, the region carries the most diversity of any other in Italy.
The Piedmont, meaning ‘the foot of the mountain” is, as its name suggests, situated at the foot of the northwest Alps. Cold winters and hot summers characterize the region, which features three sides of slopes ideal for robust vine growing and a less friendly environment for more delicate grapes. As a result, the dark, heavyweight Nebbiolo grape is king, yielding the full-bodied, high tannin Barolo and somewhat lighter Barbaresco complete with notes of spice, cherry and fig. Due to their depth, acidity and improvement with age, they remain favorites of connoisseurs and collectors alike, although serious collectors lean more towards Barolo. Barbera and Dolcetta grapes yield delicious, lighter, herbaceous and less acidic but equally desirable wines.
While most of the Piedmont’s head-turners are red, there are some equally notable whites. Moscato Bianco, an ancient grape famous for rose and orange notes, provides the base for Asti Spumante and Moscato d’ Asti, both sweet, bubbly and sparkling to the palate. Asti and Moscato are wonderful alternatives for those who don’t respond to brut Champagne.
Cortese, or “Gave” wine, hails from the southeast Piedmont. Known for their citrusy overtones, Cortese-based wine resemble the best of fruity Pinot Grigio and Chablis wines.
Stretching across Italy’s Alpine border to the regions of Venice, Veneto has become one of Italy’s top producers of wine that runs the gamut from sweet and bubbly whites to smoky reds. Smaller than the country’s other major wine producing regions of Piedmont, Tuscany, Puglia and Sicily, it generates more wine than any of them. And, with its location that transitions from the chilly Alps to the warmer Italian climes, it accommodates a broad variety of grapes and, by extension, wines.
Best known is perhaps Prosecco, also called Italian Champagne. Grown around the region of Valdobbiadene, it has, for many, the same effervescent appeal as champagne but without the higher price tag. Other fruity white wine grapes indigenous to the region include Garanega, which features appealing citrus, melon and almond touches.
For all its contributions to delicious white and sparkling wines, Veneto also delivers when it comes to reds. Characteristic of the area is a smoky Amarone, as are vineyards of Bordeaux-inspired Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. But for all their popularity and desirability, the native Corvina grape is at the heart of the regions best loved reds. Corvina is used for Bardolino and Valpolicella, two of Veneto’s most noted offerings.