GET Guide to Italian Wines
Ah, Italy: the picturesque hills of Tuscany and the cantering of gondoliers in Venice.
It’s no wonder this romantic country holds so much allure and wonder for travelers around the globe. And, just like so many incredible locations, experiencing the local food and drink scene is something that makes any trip here even more memorable and immersive. Trying the pasta parmigiana is a given in Italy, but what about the wines? Even if you’re not a regular drinker, wine in Italy is something you should absolutely surrender to during your travels. Here’s why...
It’s Historically Relevant
Italian wine is not a new fad. Unlike places like Australia, where vineyards are just starting to gain notoriety, Italian vineyards have been producing many of the world’s best wines for more than four centuries. Grapes grow easily here, and wine production is natural. In fact, according to some historical accounts, by the time the ancient Greeks arrived in Italy, the wine was so prevalent in society and custom that they first named the land, “Oenotria” meaning, “land of wine.”
The earliest references to wine in Italian culture come in references to early leaders taking a great interest in winemaking. First, the Etruscans and later the Romans would show keen interest and particular ability in the harvesting and fermenting of grapes. The wine was so influential over the Romans that they even have a named God, Bacchus, who was celebrated. In fact, festivals were held in his name that ultimately became so rowdy that that Roman state had to ban them!
Wine continued to dig deep roots in Italian culture with the rise of Catholicism. In this religion, wine was used as a sacrament, a means of directly communicating with God, through consumption. It was believed that blessed wine signified the blood of Christ, and consuming holy wine had the power to pardon the faithful from their sins.
Eventually, the vineyards of Italy, like many others in Northern Europe, would fall victim to a wine louse. This nineteenth-century infestation destroyed fields and threatened to change Italy’s entrenched relationship with wine. Concerned with losing the economical windfall wine had long provided, replanting efforts focused on the size of a vineyard as opposed to the quality of grape it produced. The result of these larger vineyards led to some of the more affordable, low-cost, table wines that are now readily available.
Eventually, in the 1960s, the government would step in to try and correct the quality issues with Italy’s vineyards in an effort to restore them to their former prestige. Laws and regulations were passed, marking what is known as Italy’s modern winemaking movement. Since that time, the variety and quality of Italian wines surged, once again making wines from this country among the most desired in the world. In fact, many varieties of grape used to make specific wines are grown only in Italy.
As you can see, wine has deep roots in Italian culture and history and is a bright star in their economic future as well. Wine is a central offering to Italians, and experiencing wine in Italy is akin to having a beer in Germany.
Wine for Beginners: a Crash Course
There is so much to know about wine that the simple lack of knowledge can be intimidating. In fact, it can downright scare people away from trying wine out of fear of incorrectly pairing the wine, not knowing the etiquette, or even not knowing how to pronounce the wine type.
First of all, understand that the current movement in the wine world, among many at least, is to do away with the rules entirely. You no longer have to know what red pairs with what meat, or which piece of glassware is appropriate for a blush, in order to be accepted at the table. Things like, “1943, what a great vintage!” are, largely, no longer part of the conversation. Whew. Here’s what you DO need to know.
Most beginners start with a white wine. Whites are generally less intense and are served cool, which is more palatable for many. A great place to start is with a Chardonnay, which happens to be the most popular white wine, potentially THE most popular wine, in the world.
When you’re ready to try a red, make sure to discuss with your waiter or sommelier what you enjoy about wine in general. Do you prefer it to be smooth, or do you like a little coarseness to the flavor? A great introduction to red wines is a Merlot, though the Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular red in the world.
Wine glasses are served half full on purpose. This is to allow the aromas and flavors to “breathe” and resonate a bit better.
You don’t have to sniff. Yes, many wine enthusiasts will swirl their wine and take a hearty smell before consuming. They do this to get a feel for the aromas and essences in the wine. But, if you’re new, don’t feel intimidated if all you smell is wine, and don’t feel obligated to swirl and sniff at all.
While it still exists, proper pairing is kind of a thing of the past. No one turns up their nose at a pairing that may have once been seen as cliché. If you want to try and pair your foods with your wine, there is a simple rule of thumb. Match your wine color to your meat color. Red meat, red wine. White meat, white wine. If you want to go a bit more in-depth, try matching flavor palates to the wine. Bolder, savory flavors call for reds, while delicate or sweeter flavors typically pair well with a white.
Never be afraid to ask for advice! Wine experts are only too happy to share their knowledge with an inspired student!
Wine Regions of Italy
Much like pizza in New York City differs from pizza in Chicago, wine from one Italian region can be vastly different from another region. While most regions produce a high-quality wine, understanding a bit about the regions, and how they influence the grapes, is key to a deeper appreciation of the glass of wine in front of you.
In total, Italy boasts 20 separate wine regions. The regions have less to do with temperature and soil conditions than they do with political boundaries and former dividing lines between Italy’s loose collections of states. With a production second only to France, each of the twenty regions produces wine, though each is subject to different labeling and winemaking laws. It is these laws that impact which wines areas best in each region.
In general, the Tuscany region is most prized for winemaking. Want to try each region’s superstar? Here’s a look at what to try in a handful of the twenty regions where your travels are most likely to take you.
- Valle d’Aosta- Located in the far north of France, try a sweet Moscato here.
- Piedmont- Perhaps the only region that can give Tuscany a fair run for its money, this northeastern region around the city of Turin is known for Moscato, Dolcetto, Arneis, and Cortese.
- Lombardy- The region surrounding Milan, better known for fashion than wine, also produces some incredible vino. While here, don’t miss your opportunity to try a locally sources Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.
- Trentino Alto Adige- Just west of the Lombardy region, near Trento, you’ll find a fine collection on Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.
- Veneto- Just south into the canals of Venice and history of Verona you’ll find a region prized for Merlot and Prosecco.
- Friuli Venezia Giulia- The far western region of Italy, think Triste, is known for some classics, including PPinot Grigio, Savignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Merlot.
- Tuscany- Into the most prized region of Italy, and around the city of Florence, you’ll be hard pressed to find a pressing that doesn’t suit you. If you’re going for authenticity though, be sure to try a red wine. Namely, the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are world renowned from this region.
- Emilia Romagna- Due west and a bit north in Bologna, you’ll fine incredible food, and a Malvasia to write home about.
- Lazio- This region calls Rome home, and offers a variety of rich wines. As you go south in the country, the focus shifts to lighter, less bodied wines like Trebbiano and Malvasia.
- Campania, Basilicata, & Calabria- The southern tip of Italy, including Naples, is known for Syrah, Moscato, and Aglianico.
Tis the Season
The next thing to know before ordering wine is to understand the pressing process and the wine seasons. The same grape can produce two entirely different flavor and aroma palates based on when it is pressed and fermented. The wine seasons are generally referred to as “pressings” and broken into two halves;
- First, or “early” pressings, and
- Late pressing
A major part of a wine’s taste is determined by when the grapes are picked and crushed. While all grapes produced for wine have a sweeter taste than table grapes, allowing the grapes to mature on the vine a bit later into the season, for a “late pressing label” generally amounts to a sweeter wine like a Riesling. Late season grapes are left on the vine longer than normal in order to naturally dehydrate and increase sugar concentration. Sometimes called “ice wines” in countries where the grapes can freeze on the vine, these dessert wines are often enjoyed after dinner in place of a dessert.
Having an Experience
Fired up about wine now? If you’d like to have an authentic wine experience during your Italian travels, there are several options available to you. Planning to tour a vineyard is perhaps your most memorable experience. Strolling the lines of grape trellises is just romantic and unforgettable. Not to mention, if you time your trip correctly, you could even take part in a ceremonial grape crushing and tasting.
Perhaps the best time to plan a trip to Italy, if traveling for a wine experience, is during the three month “crush season.” In the northern hemisphere, which includes Italy, the crushing season runs from August through October. During this time the weather has started to cool, grapes are in full bloom everywhere, and there is a spirit of excitement in the air around the wineries.