According to my mate Giovanni, a former sommelier, trying to understand Italian wine is like trying to understand Lord of the Rings: you think you’re finally on nodding terms the cast of characters and then they hit you with Mordor. Having focused on Italian wines for most of this year (French is my firmer ground), I see what he means: where wine is concerned, Italy, is annoying in its complexity. In fact, it’s the worst subject for a beginner’s guide in the entire world.
But why is this KINKY BOOT of a country so hard to fathom when it comes to wine? Here’s why.
Italy crosses 10 degrees of latitude – from the Alpine peaks of PIEMONT to the sunbaked expanses of SICILY, with the fuming colossi of VESUVIUS, STROMBOLI and ETNA inbetween. Even with this huge variation – of soil, climate and topography – wine grapes are grown everywhere.
Italy boasts more indigenous grape varieties than any other country on earth – more than 2,000. Grape-wise, it is blessed. But along with that dizzying variety comes a remarkable rubbish standard of classification. Many of these grapes are not region-specific, but are grown across several regions, and have different names depending on which region you’re in. It’s very parochial in that respect, which brings me on to…
Despite having a longer wine-making tradition than anywhere outside Eurasia (where wine-making began more than six millennia ago), winemaking has remained very much a local enterprise. It was only in the 1963 that the Italian government brought in its Denomiazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denomiazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) system (a system of geographical/administrative protection that also sets limits on the type and style of wine that can be made in a given region – like the French Appellation D’Origine Controleé (AOC)). As a QI aside, even as late as the 1960s, only 5% of Italian wine was bottled at the winery, the rest being transported in bulk for blending and bottling elsewhere.
What this localism means is a very vernacular approach to the wine market – labels that only make sense to people within a 1km radius of the village the grapes were grown in, stuff like that. A more formal labelling is making it a bit easier for consumers to find what they want, but the appellation system is still a bit of a mess. The 1992 implementation of INDICAZIONE GEOGRAFICA TIPICA (akin to France’s Vin de Pays) was supposed to help, but often just muddies the waters. It’s supposed to rank below DOC, but in reality many IGT wines are superior to DOC ones.
Anyway, as befits such a Boschian wine region, below is a totally non-methodical, non-comprehensive glossary of Italian wine regions and grapes. It will not make you an expert (even the experts aren’t especially expert on all Italian wines), but it will give you a way in, a window on some of the best wine tasting experiences you’re ever going to have.
The wine regions of Italy
The 20 wine regions of Italy, roughly from north (on the border with France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia) to the south are: Aosta Valley, Piedmont, Liguria, Lombardy, Trentino Alto Adige, Triuli-Venezia Giulia, Venice, Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Marche, Umbria, Lazio, Abruzzo, Molise, Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, Sardinia and Sicily.
Some red grapes
Sangiovese – Main grape in Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Nobile Di Montepulciano (NB: get to know these wines); also features as the main indigenous grape in most so-called Supertuscans (blends of international and indigenous grape varieties, making big, rich, expensive reds; Sangiovese (it means ‘blood of Jove’) is the most heavily planted grape in Italy. Its many strains can plumb the depths of dreadful, tangy pub wine or scale the heights of the most lip-quiveringly lovely aged Brunellos.
Nebbiolo – Used in some of Italy’s most revered wines – Barolo (aka the ‘wine of kings’) and Barbaresco. Native to Piedmont where, in addition to Barolo and Barbaresco, it also makes Nebbiolo di Langhe and Nebbiolo D’Alba. In the middle ages, people could be heavily fined – and recidivists actually hanged – for cutting down a nebbiolo vine. Naturally high acidity and tannin levels make nebbiolo a wine that could age for a long, long time and develop a hugely complex flavour – fruity, earthy, herbal, chocolately. Often compared to pinot noir for its relative lightness and potential for complex flavour.
Aglianico – The grape of Taurasi (Campania) and Aglianico del Vulture (Basilicata). Similar high levels of acidity and tannin to nebbiolo (in fact, it is sometimes called the ‘Barolo of the south’); capable of producing richly plummy, chocolatey wines that could age for decades. An amphora-aged aglianico – Ognostro, made by winemaker Marco Tinessa – was one of the most sensationally delicious wines I tried in 2014.
Montepulciano – Widely planted in central Italy, especially Abruzzo. Montepulciano D’Abruzzo can be an excellent value Italian red, richly fruity with good, grippy tannins; also produces Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno in the Marche. Montepulciano is also the name of a town in Tuscany that makes Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano – though not with the montepulciano grape. Well done, Italy, well done…
Corvina – The main grape of Valpolicella and Bardolino in Italy’s north-east. Produces generally light, easy-going red with a distinct sour-cherry note. It’s best expression is in amarone, for which the grapes are dried for a period of months in order to concentrate their sugars. Valpolicella ripasso is known as Amarone’s ‘little brother’ because the young ripasso wine is strengthened by being refermented on the unpressed skins of Amarone wine (‘ripasso’ means ‘repassed’).
Nero D’Avola: One of Sicily’s most reputable and widely planted grapes, also known as Calabrese. Not a million miles away from French syrah in profile. Often blended with other grapes but can produce lovely single-varietal wine as well.
Frappato: I’m betraying a Sicilian bias here. I happen to think Sicily is one of the best wine-producing regions in the world. I’m planning to travel there for the grape harvest this year. Nero d’avola and frappato are the two blending partners for Sicily’s only DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria. They go together to make my absolute favourite wine of 2014: COS Pithos Rosso (another amphora wine). Frappato is the lighter of the two: singingly fresh cherry and pomegranate fruit, dried herb, pure deliciousness. If you haven’t tried it, do so immediately.
Some white grapes
Vermentino: A prized, aromatic white variety of Sardinia and Liguria. Also known as Favorita in Piemonte. Usually picked early to retain acidity and crispness, but also capable of producing richer more full-bodied whites, as is done in the Vermentino di Gallura appellation.
Verdicchio: Responsible for two classic whites of the Marche in central Italy – Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Verdicchio di Matelica. In the past has been made with skin maceration during fermentation (in common with many other Italian whites of old), which gives the wine a beguiling combination of lemony freshness and almondy bitterness. The best verdicchios, though made in the modern style (no skin maceration), maintain this profile. In the north of Italy, verdicchio is known as Trebbiano di Soave; in the west, as Trebbiano di Lugana. Excellent grape for sparkling wines.
Garganega: Main grape of the Venice (Veneto) region, whose most famous incarnation is Soave. Soave is lemony, with almond and mineral notes and a subtle spiciness. Garganega is also found in Bianco di Custoza and Colli Berici.
Cortese: Grape most closely associated with south-east Piemonte and with the deliciously refreshing, subtly aromatic GAVI (Gavi is sometimes compared to white Burgundy).
Prosecco: Native to Veneto and the grape that produces the sparkling wine of the same name. These days it’s usually referred to as Glera, ‘Prosecco’ being reserved for the DOC label, which is better for international recognition, and therefore company profits.
We ride to Mordor…
It’s plain to see that, when trying to understand Italian wines, you’ve got an EPIC JOURNEY ahead of you. But these little knowledge nuggets will help you on your way. And here’s the main point: these wines are so worth getting to know. Anyone who has tried a really special PINOT NOIR, who has had that experience of divine berry fruit combined with a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’, a hard-to-define but oh-so-exquisite perfume, well that’s what you’re going to find in a lot of Italian wine.
I could have included so many other wonderful native Italian grapes here – ruché, ribolla gialla, refosco, pignolo, nero mascalese, negroamaro, greco – but, well, I did say this was the worst subject for a beginner’s guide in the entire world. If you’re seething about some borderline-criminal omission, please let me know (comment below or on Twitter @darrennsmith #thefinestwinesavailabletohumanity), let us all know, and let’s booze our way through this Middle Earth-style maze together.
PS: this is the last time I will ever make reference to Lord of the Rings