Outside of delicious or hedonistic, the best word to describe Italy would be diversity. Every wine style under the sun is produced in Italy – and a few have originated here. Sweet aromatic sparkling wines, dry and sweet reds and whites, orange wines, dry bottle-fermented sparkling wines and the famously fizzy reds of Lambrusco. The geographical variation is vast too with vineyards along the coast, in the flat plains and up into the Alpine mountain ranges.
One simply can not think of Italy as one country with one style making the key to understanding Italy’s diversity is to think of it has a congregation of separate wine regions. All of these wine regions have specific grapes and laws that dictate the resulting wines. These regulations have made sure that quality is upheld in top regions such as Barolo and Chianti.
Italy is generally known for its reds and rightly so with names like Barolo, Barbaresco, Chianti and Valpolicella – all fit for a New York restaurant’s wine list. The whites have traditionally been bland and produced in bulk with no attention given to the quality of them but since the 1980s and 90s they have been given attention from a younger generation of domestic and international winemakers wanting to make their stamp on the world. Nowadays both the reds and whites combine fruit and floral flavours with a refreshing aspect.
Italy’s diversity grows further when you mention that it has more indigenous grapes native to the vineyards spread across the country than any other in the world. This has lead to many small appellations being set up to protect a certain grape or style – adding to an already very long list of regions.
Main Grapes or styles
Sangiovese – is hands down the most important grape variety of Italy. It is found in practically all the wine regions across the country and allowed in half the total appellations as either the main grape or a bonus feature. It is most known for producing the world-famous wines of Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino.
Montepulciano – has long been planted across the plains and mountainous terrain of the eastern coast. It is a principle red grape in the regions of Abruzzo, Molise and Puglia.
Nebbiolo – after Sangiovese it is the most important grape varietal as it produces the most sought-after wines that Italy creates. The two appellations of Barolo and Barbaresco set the world alight with men and women the world over often battling to get a taste of these historic and legendary wines. The best bottles of Nebbiolo are hauntingly beautiful and get better with every year they age – best at around the 15-20 year mark.
Pinot Grigio – is the grape behind the leading refreshing white wines of the same name. Practically every bar or restaurant in the world holds a Pinot Grigio in their wine lists. It is the easy to understand, light white that makes summer both fly by and even more enjoyable. It is mainly planted in the northeast but can be found all across Italy.
Moscato – is the grape behind the sparkling wines of Asti and Moscato d’Asti. These are highly aromatic sparkling wines made in both dry and sweet styles. Both wines are lightly sparkling, not as much pressure is found in these bottles than bottle-fermented wines like Champagne, and are very easy to drink. They are produced in the north-western region of Piemonte. Moscato is often used around the country in production of sweet wines made in a Passito style.
Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella – these grapes are mentioned together as they produce the wines of Valpolicella. The wines of Valpolicella are known the world over for their rich character and complex flavours. It always has been and always will be a blend of these three red grapes.
Piemonte – in the northwest of Italy and home to many of Italy’s most iconic wines: Barolo, Barbaresco, Moscato d’Asti and Gavi. Piemonte is considered the fine wine region of Italy thanks to Barolo and Barbaresco being so highly coveted across the globe. The region is warm and mountainous making viticulture hard on a good day – which makes the greatest wines even more of a triumph.
Tuscany – is right bang in the centre of Italy just south of Florence. It is mostly based around the central hillside sites but does extend out to the western coastline. The region is famous for full-bodied red wines made from Sangiovese in the regions of Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. It is also famous for producing the cult-wines of Super Tuscans like Ornellaia. Though the focus is on red wines there are some fantastic dry whites and sweet wines made here too.
Veneto – the region in the northeast of Italy where you’ll find vineyards devoted to the art of Valpolicella scattered amongst the hills. The wines of Valpolicella are made in a few classifications: Valpolicella Classico – wines made from the historical vineyard sites instead of the extended demarcation, Ripasso di Valpolicella – a fuller-bodied red made from straight Valpolicella as well as a partial second fermentation with the raisined skins used in the making of Amarone, Amarone della Valpolicella – the most famous wines of them all where the grapes are dried out for 60 days to concentrate flavours, and finally Recioto della Valpolicella – a sweet red wine made from fully raisined grapes, practically Amarone just with fully raisined grapes instead of partial raisining.
Trentino-Alto Adige – the wines of this region are all made at great altitudes raising up into the mountains that border Italy with Austria. Here the majority of wines are dry white wines with mouth-watering acidity, all of which are crisp and clean. The reds that are made here are light in body and tannins making for refreshing red wines.
Sicily – the ball the boot is attempting to kick. Sicily is home to a raft of vineyards planted all across the very mountainous terrain. Equally home to white and red wine production as well as Marsala. The whites tend to be medium bodied and full of citrus, stone-fruit and tropical flavours – made out of Pinot Grigio, Grillo and Catarrato Bianco. The reds are predominately made of Nero d’Avola and/or Nerello Mascalese which makes full-bodied reds with plenty of guts.
Climate and its effect on the wines made here
As Italy is such a large country with a raft of terrains, sub-climates and numerous regions it is hard to create an overall climate. If one had to you would say it was Mediterranean – which is a bit of a cop out giving the location of Italy. It does summarise the general heat impact across Italy though. The coolest parts that often lack the mention are up amongst the hills of the regions of Piemonte, Lombardia, Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. As you get to Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna and continue south it generally gets hotter – this is why the hillsides are utilised to give altitude.