Each year, it is not uncommon for Italy to find itself at the top of a number of wine-related lists, not the least of which ranks it as the largest producer, exporter and consumer of wine in the world. This fact is all the more impressive when you consider that Italy is not a very large country – indeed it is less than three-quarters the size of California. Even considering the roughly 8 billion bottles of wine it produces each year, the country manages to stay true to wine styles that go back four thousand years. As a result, Italy not only has more local grape varieties than any other country, but it also has some of the most distinctive wines on Earth.
One of the major considerations with Italy’s unique wine style is the wide range of diverse cultures that exist throughout its twenty wine regions. Each of these cultures has a robust sense of pride that translates directly into wine making. At best, understanding Italian wine is intimidating, at worst it seems all but impossible.
Like any journey of significance it’s best to take it one step at a time. While Italian wine is both vastly complex and inconsistent, there are some concrete starting points.
First, let’s take a look at the general qualities of Italian wine:
Italian wines tend to be high in acidity – This is because wine with a strong showing of acidity tends to pair better with food. No surprise then that the food oriented cultures of Italy have opted for wine that compliments their amazing dedication to cuisine! This means white wines tend to be crisp and red wines tend to be firm.
Subdued, earthy aromas – One of the overriding characteristics of Italian wine is the touch of the land that one can smell and taste in every bottle. The nose might have hints of mushrooms, soil, minerals or grass. These qualities are commonly referred to as an earthiness that prevents the wine from competing with food.
Medium Body – Though there are some excellent heavier wines in Italy (such as Barolo), the majority are more medium bodied in nature. Again, more suitable to the wide array of food dishes that perform better when not overwhelmed by a heaviness.
Distinctly Italian Grapes – While Italy does grow most of the grapes found throughout the world, it also has many, many local varieties that are only grown in their respective regions. Nebbiolo, for example, is the grape used to make Barolo and is only found in Piedmont and Lombardy. Because the Italian climate is perfect for grape growing, many varieties have evolved over thousands of years to respond specifically to one region. As such, it is extraordinarily difficult to try and transplant them to different countries.
Major Red Grapes
There are over twenty major types of red grape varieties in Italy, but we can start with what are arguably the most important three:
- Sangiovese (san joe VAE sae) – Planted in plenty throughout the country, particularly in Tuscany and Umbria, this is the major grape of Chianti and the popular Super-Tuscan wines. Medium in body, the grape typically carries strong tannin, high acidity and flavors of herbs and cherries.
- Nebbiolo (nehb be OH loh) – Specific to the Piedmont region, this grape makes two of Italy’s most notorious wines: Barolo and Barbaresco. These wines are a shoe-in for anyone building a cellar because they age particularly well. The grape is full-bodied with high acidity and strong tannin, invoking flavors of strawberries, mushrooms, tar and truffles.
- Barbera (bar BAE rah) – This grape runs neck and neck with Sangiovese as the most planted in the country. It is a lighter grape with little tannin and high acidity. The fruit flavors tend to be more pronounced than in other varieties and as such it is an excellent summer red and great on its own.
Important Italian Whites
- Pinot Grigio (pee noh GREE joe) – The Italian version of Pinot Gris, this white grape has won widespread acclaim all over the world. Though not as rich as its French counter-part, it carries flavors of peach with a high-acid, minerally quality.
- Trebbiano (trehb bee AH noh) – Though undeniably common in Italy, it has also suffered from casual growing habits. It is primarily known for producing inexpensive whites that are crisp and bland. It is a wine that at best pairs well with food, particularly shell-fish, and rarely can be enjoyed on its own.
- Tocai Friulano (toh KYE free oo LAH no) – Fans of Pinot Grigio tend to be pleasantly surprised by this grape. With characteristic Italian crispness and acidity, it can also carry rich and full textures that are more complex than is typical for whites. It grows primarily in the Friuli region.
- Verdicchio and Vernaccia – These grapes have some of the same body, crispness and acidity as Trebbino, but with a bit more spunk. Richer flavors and aromas including hints of lemon and sea air are common. They are typically un-oaked.
One could spend a lifetime learning all there is to know about the dozens of grape varieties grown in Italy, particularly when you explore how they are best paired with foods from their respective regions. Further articles will explore some of the rules governing wine production in Italy, including how to sift your way through wine labels, but having a familiarity with the major grapes listed above will form a firm foundation for discovering the distinctive personalities of Italian wine!