Thinking of Italy and the Mediterranean, the trinity of olive oil, bread and wine comes to mind – the historic staples of Mediterranean peasants through the ages. Italy, wine country extraordinaire, has been producing wine since ancient times and boasts some of the oldest wine regions in the world. Even before the Romans came to dominate the peninsula, the Etruscans and Greeks also had a flourishing wine-making culture.
The Ancient Greeks called Italy ‘Oenotria’ or ‘land of trained vines’. As well as building a huge empire, the Romans also developed prolific, well-organised, large-scale production of wine along with storage techniques such as barrel making. Since Viticulture outside Italy was prohibited under Roman law, they were able to export their wine to the provinces in return for slaves. Wine-drinking was a fundamental part of early Italian life – mixing wine with otherwise undrinkable water made it potable. However, wine at that time would be unrecognisable to modern palates – probably sweet, maybe spiced, sometimes boiled, and possibly even mixed with sea water!
Later, when the wines laws were relaxed in the Italy wine country, viticulture also flourished elsewhere in Europe, especially in Gaul and Hispania – today’s France and Spain, the other two European big vinous players. Italy itself also became an important import centre for provincial wines. Viticulture was part of daily life and the national consciousness. Medieval banking and merchant families, such as the Antinori and Frescobald dynasties diversified into selling and then producing wine. Wine and Italian civilisation are practically synonymous.
Naturally, the country churns out gallons of the ubiquitous Chianti, Soave and Pinot Grigio to be found on the menus of Italian restaurants around the globe, but Italy also has many hidden, traditional treasures, known only to the true Italian wine aficionado.
Italy still deserves the moniker Italy, wine country today. Boasting potentially thousands of native varieties and numerous DOCs and DOCGs, modern Italy is the world’s largest or second largest wine producer depending on the vintage. Vines are cultivated everywhere in the peninsula.
Naturally, the country churns out gallons of the ubiquitous Chianti, Soave and Pinot Grigio to be found on the menus of Italian restaurants around the globe, but Italy also has many hidden, traditional treasures, known only to the true Italian wine aficionado. Italy, despite its powerful Roman Empire in ancient times, remained fragmented until the early twentieth century and so is still very much a regional country with local traditions and specialities.
Each region has its own local grape varieties, or if it doesn’t, it has its own name for them. Tuscany is the stronghold of Sangiovese, although it is found all over central Italy, Nebbiolo is king in Piedmont, Garganega and Glera’s roots are in Veneto, producing Soave and Prosecco, Nero d’Avola, otherwise known as Calabrese, is at home in Sicily, Montepulciano reigns in Abruzzo and Aglianico is the red of Campania and Basilicata. However, there are numerous indigenous varieties, whose production may be combined to one region, or even around one village or one producer. Try Bombino Nero in Puglia, Nascetta in Piedmont, Carricante in Sicily, Lagrein in Alto Adige or Ribolla Gialla in Friuli. Naturally, you’ll also find international varieties, such as Merlot, Chardonnay and Syrah, produced in parts of the country too.
Italy produces numerous styles of wine from bone dry to lusciously sweet wines made using the ‘apassimento’ process, whereby the grapes are dried in lofts, in the sun or on the vine to concentrate the flavours and sugars. Feast your taste buds on Reciotos of Soave and Valpolicella, Tuscany’s Vin Santo, Malvasia delle Lipari or Passito di Pantelleria Wines can be still, frizzante or spumante. The second fermentation may take place in tank or bottle for ‘metodo classico’. Nutty fortified wine is produced a kind of solera system in Marsala in the southwest of Sicily.
Barrels are often large, rather than the trendy barrique, and are generally made from Eastern European oak, or even traditionally from chestnut.
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