Italian wines

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Depending on the vintage, Italy is the world's largest or second largest producer of wine, along with France (each country is generally the source of around 1/5 of the world's overall production). In 2005, Italy was second globally, producing about 20% of the global production of wine compared to France, which produced 22%.

In 2005, Italy's share in dollar value of table wine imports into the U.S. was 32%, Australia's was 24%, and France's was 20%. Italian and Australian share has rapidly increased in recent years (Ewing & McCarthy).

Wine is a popular beverage in Italy. Many Italians drink it with every meal and in-between, and offer it to guests as soon as they arrive. Grapes are grown in almost every part of Italy, with more than 1 million vineyards under cultivation. Each region is proud of its carefully tended, neatly pruned vines. In some places the vines are trained along low supports. In others they climb as slender saplings. The people of each region are also proud of the wine they make from their own grapes.

Most winemaking in Italy is done in modern wineries. But villagers, making wine for their own use, sometimes tread the grapes with their bare feet until the juice is squeezed out. They believe this ancient method still makes the best wine.

As far as generalizations can be made, Italian wines tend to be acidic, dry, light-to-medium bodied, and subdued in flavour and aroma. Because of these characteristics, Italian wines are, in general, a better accompaniment to food than they are beverages to be enjoyed on their own.

Italian appellation system

Italy's classification system is a modern one that reflects current realities. It has four classes of wine, with two falling under the EU category Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Region (QWPSR) and two falling under the category of 'table wine'. The four classes are:

Table Wine:

  • Vino da Tavola - Denotes wine from Italy. NOTE: this is not always synonymous with other countries' legal definitions of 'table wine'. The appelation indicates either an inferior quaffing wine, or one that does not follow current wine law. Some quality wines do carry this appelation.
  • Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) - Denotes wine from a more specific region within Italy. This appellation was created for the "new" wines of Italy, those that had broken the strict, old wine laws but were wines of great quality. Before the IGT was created, famous wines such as "Sassicaia" were labeled "Vino da Tavola".

See also: Super Tuscans

QWPSR:

  • Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC)
  • Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG)

Both DOC and DOCG wines refer to zones which are more specific than an IGT, and the permitted grapes are also more specifically defined. The main difference between a DOC and a DOCG is that the latter must pass a blind taste test for quality in addition to conforming to the strict legal requirements to be designated as a wine from the area in question. Presently, there are 120 IGT zones. In February 2006 there were 311 DOC plus 32 DOCG appellations, according to the PDF document V.Q.P.R.D. Vini (DOCG – DOC): Elenco e Riferimenti Normativi al 07.02.2006, published by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture.

Geographical characteristics

Important wine-relevant geographic characteristics of Italy include:

  • The extensive lattitudinal range of the country permits wine growing from the Alps in the north to almost within sight of Africa in the south;
  • The fact that Italy is a peninsula with a long shoreline, contributing moderating climate to coastal wine regions; and
  • The extensive mountains and foothills providing a range of altitudes for grape growing and a variety of climate and soil conditions.

Italian wine regions

Italy's 20 wine regions correspond to the 20 political regions. Understanding of Italian wine becomes clearer with an understanding of the differences between each region; their cuisines reflect their indigenous wines, and vice-versa.

Key Italian Wine Varietals

Italy's Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MIRAF), has documented over 350 grapes and granted them "authorized" status. There are more than 500 other documented varietals in circulation as well. The following is a list of the most common and important of Italy's varietals.

Rosso (Red)

  • Nebbiolo - The most noble of Italy's varietals. The name (meaning "little fog") refers to the autumn fog that blankets most of Piedmont (Piemonte) where it is grown, a condition the grape seems to enjoy. It is a somewhat difficult varietal to master, but produces the world renowned Barolo and Barbaresco, along with the lesser-known Sfortzato, Ghemme, and Gattinara. The wines are known for their elegance and bouquet of wild mushroom, truffle, roses, and tar.
  • Montepulciano - The grape of this name is not to be confused with the Tuscan town of Montepulciano; it is most widely planted on the opposite coast in Abruzzo. Its wines can run the gamut of easy quaffers to world class, with silky plum-like fruit, friendly acidity, and light tannin.
  • Barbera - The most widely grown red wine grape of Piedmont (Piemonte) most famously around the towns of Alba and Asti. The wines of barbera were once simply "what you drank while waiting for the Barolo to be ready." With a new generation of wine makers, this is no longer the case. The wines are now meticulously vinified, aged in French barrique, and intended for the international market. Expect bright cherry fruit, a very dark color, and a food-friendly acidity.
  • Corvina - Along with the varietals rondinella and molinara, this is the principal grape which makes the famous wines of the Veneto: Valpolicella and Amarone. In Valpolicella, you will find dark cherry fruit and spicy. After the grapes undergo passito (a drying process), the Amarone they yield is elegant, dark, and full of raisinated fruits. Some Amarones can age for 40+ years.
  • Nero d'Avola - Nearly unheard of in the international market until recent years, this native varietal of Sicily is gaining attention for its robust, inky wines.
  • Dolcetto - A grape that grows alongside barbera and nebbiolo in Piedmont, its name means "little sweet one"", referring not to the taste of the wine, but the ease in which it grows and makes great wines, suitable for everyday drinking. Flavors of concord grape, wild blackberries and herbs permeate the wine.
  • Negroamaro - The name literally means "black and bitter". A widely planted grape with its concentration in the region of Puglia, it is the backbone of the acclaimed Salice Salentino: spicy, toasty, and full of dark red fruits.
  • Aglianico - Considered the "noble varietal of the south," it is primarily grown in Campania and Basilicata. The name is derived from hellenic, so it is considered a Greek transplant. Thick skinned and spicy, the wines are both rustic and powerful.
  • Sagrantino - A native to Umbria, it is only planted on 250 hectares, but the wines are world-renowned. Inky purple, with rustic brooding fruit and heavily tannic, these wines can age for many years.

Other major red varieties are Gaplioppo, Lagrein, Lambrusco, Monica, Nerello Mascalese, Pignolo, Refosco, Schiava, Schiopettino, Teroldego, and Uva di Troia.

“International” varietals such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc are also widely

Bianco (White)

  • Trebbiano - Behind cataratto (which is made for industrial jug wine), this is the most widely planted white varietal in Italy. It is grown throughout the country, with a special focus on the wines from Abruzzo. Mostly, they are pale, easy drinking wines, but trebbiano from producers such as Valentini have been known to age for 15+ years. It is known as Ugni Blanc in France.
  • Malvasia - Another white varietal that peeks up in all corners of Italy with a wide variety of clones and mutations. Can range from easy quaffers to funky, musty whites.
  • Moscato - Grown mainly in Piedmont (Piemonte), it is mainly used in the slightly-sparkling (frizzante), semi-sweet Moscato d'Asti. Not to be confused with moscato giallo and moscato rosa, two Germanic varietals that are grown in Trentino Alto-Adige.
  • Nuragus - An ancient Phoenician varietal found in southern Sardegna. Light and tart wines that are drunk as an apertif in their homeland.
  • Pinot Grigio - A hugely successful commercial grape (known as Pinot Gris in France), its wines are characterized by crispness and cleanness. As a hugely mass-produced wine, it is usually delicate and mild, but in a good producers' hands, the wine can grown more full-bodied and complex. The main problem with the grape is that to satisfy the commercial demand, the grapes are harvested too early every year, leading to wines without character.
  • Tocai Friuliano - A varietal distantly related to Sauvignon Blanc, it yields the top wine of Friuli, full of peachiness and minerality. Currently, there is a bit of controversy regarding the name, as the EC has demanded it changed to avoid confusion with the Tokay dessert wine from Hungary.
  • Ribolla Gialla - A Slovenian grape that now makes its home in Friuli, these wines are decidedly old-world, with aromas of pineapple and mustiness.
  • Arneis - A crisp and floral varietal from Piedmont (Piemonte), which has been grown there since the 15th century.
  • Pigato - A heavily acidic varietal from Liguria, the wines are vinified to pair with their seafood-heavy cuisine.
  • Fiano - Grown on the southwest coast of Italy, the wines from this grape can be described as dewy and herbal, often with notes of pinenut and pesto.
  • Garganega - The main grape varietal for wines labeled Soave, this is a crisp, dry white wine from the Veneto wine region of Italy. It's a very popular wine that hails from northeast Italy around the city of Verona.

Currently, there are over 3,500 distinct producers of Soave.

Other important whites include Carricante, Catarratto, Coda de Volpe, Cortese, Falaghina, Grillo, Inzolia, Picolit, Tocai Friulano, Traminer, Verdicchio, Verduzzo, Vermentino and Vernaccia.

As far as non-native varietals, the Italians plant chardonnay, gewurtztraminer (sometimes called traminer aromatico), riesling, petit arvine, and many others.

Super Tuscans

The term "Super Tuscan" describes any Tuscan red wine that does not adhere to traditional blending laws. For example, Chianti Classico uses Sangiovese as its dominant grape, blending it with red grapes of lesser character, like canaiolo and mammolo, and sometimes the two white grapes, malvasia and trebbiano.

In the 1970s Piero Antinori, whose family had been making wine for more than 600 years, decided to make a richer wine by eliminating the white grapes, and instead adding Bordeaux varietals (namely, cabernet sauvignon and merlot). The result was the first Super Tuscan, which he named Tignanello, after the vineyard where the grapes were grown. Other winemakers started experimenting with Super Tuscan blends of their own shortly thereafter.

Because these wines broke the archaic and strict Italian wine law, they were initially labeled with the plain vino da tavola, or "table wine," which is normally reserved only for the poorest quality. The category of Indicazione Geografica Tipica, (which, in strictness, lies between vino da tavola and the DOCG) was essentially created to bring Super Tuscans "back into the fold" as far as regulation was concerned; a way to recognize these quality wines.

The emergence of the Super Tuscans reflects the fact that although strict appellation laws discourage experimentation, they do not entirely prevent it.

References

  • Mulligan, Mary Ewing and McCarthy, Ed. Italy: A pasion for wine. Indiana Beverage Journal, 2006, 62(7), 21-27.

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