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Italian Wine

 

A Review of Italian Wine

The following survey of the wines of Italy's 20 regions follows a geographical pattern which divides the country into four sections: Northeast regions; Northcentral and Northwest regions; Central regions; The South and Islands.

Similarities often exist within these sections in terms of climate and geography, as well as in grape varieties and viticultural and oenological practices. But the divisions are rather arbitrary, designed more to aid the reader's orientation than to point up clear distinctions. Italian wines are most accurately perceived region by region.

Each of the 20 regions is a political entity with certain powers of its own in balance with national laws. Every region is further divided into provinces which take the name of a principal city or town.

The Northeast

The three northeastern regions, known collectively as the Tre Venezie or simply the Venezie, set the pace in Italy in the crafting of modern wines. Together they produce more classified wine than any other section of the country - more than a third of the DOC, the more remarkable when you consider that they account for less than a sixth of the nation's total production. The Veneto is first in volume of DOC and Trentino-Alto Adige leads in percentage of its total, while Friuli-Venezia Giulia enhances the classified ranks with its stylishly contemporary white wines.

The technology of winemaking overall is more sophisticated and better organised here than elsewhere, thanks in part to the continuing demand from neighbouring Germany, Austria and Switzerland, as well as more distant markets such as the United States and United Kingdom. Two of Italy's leading wine schools are here (at San Michele all'Adige in Trentino and Conegliano in the Veneto). The world's largest vine nursery is at Rauscedo in Friuli. The nation's most important wine fair, Vinitaly, is held each spring in Verona.

The determinant quality factor in all three regions is the climate influenced by the Alps, of which the Venezie are on the sunny side, protected from the damp cold of northern Europe. Vineyard conditions range from cool at high altitudes to warm in the plains near the Adriatic Sea and along the valleys of the Po, Piave and Adige rivers.

Admirers of Soave, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Tocai and other popular whites are often surprised to learn that the Venezie make more red wine than white. But, as elsewhere, the worldwide demand for white wine is rapidly changing that pattern. Friuli and the Veneto have reversed earlier patterns and now make more white wine than red under DOC.

Although the culture of the Venezie, like the name, was determined by the ancient Venetian Republic, strong influences can be felt from Austria and Slovenia. One result is a cosmopolitan mix of vine varieties. Growers here work with an amazing assortment of native and imported vines to produce what are indisputably a majority of Italy's finer white wines, a number of the better rose's and a multitude of reds, ranging from the young and simplistic to the aged and complex.

Verona's Soave, Valpolicella and Bardolino are the best known of the many DOCs. They derive almost entirely from native varieties. But in the central and eastern Veneto and Friuli imported varieties - such as Merlot, Cabernet, the Pinots, Chardonnay and Sauvignon - are vying successfully for vineyard space against the local Tocai, Prosecco, Verduzzo, Refosco and Raboso.

In Trentino-Alto Adige red wines prevail, dominated by the ubiquitous Shiava or Vernatsch, though the more distinguished Teroldego, Lagrein and Marzemino hold their own against Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Nero. The emrging favourites, however, are the white Chardonnay, Pinots and Sauvignon.

Since so many varietal wines are produced in all three regions the practice has been to group the wines under a single DOC name for a geographical area, such as the Veneto's Piave, Friuli's Collio Goriziano, and the provincial apellations of Trentino and Alto Adige. Though the lists may be long, this geographical identity seems to aid consumers in connecting places with grape varieties.

 

North by NorthWest

The five regions of north-central and northwest Italy cover much of the great arc of the Alps and Apennines that walls in the Po as it flows east through its broad valley to the Adriatic. The types of wine - like the topography, soil and climate - vary to extremes in these regions, which are grouped rather loosely as neighbors but, in true Italian style, maintain their own proud identities.

This most affluent part of Italy comprises the "industrial triangle" between Milan, Turin and the Mediterranean port of Genoa and the agriculturally fluent flatlands of the Po and its tributaries. Since property is valued and mountains take up a major share of space, vineyards are confined and wine is a commodity that must be either financially or spiritually rewarding. Yet between the cool terraces of the Alps and the often torrid fields of the Po basin, contrasts abound. Along with some of Italy's most revered bottles can be found some of its most frivolous. But whether the label says Barolo or Lambrusco, the producer probably takes his work seriously.

Between them, the five regions produce about 20% of Italy's total wine and account for about 30% of the DOC. Emilia-Romagna contributes heavily with the fourth largest output among regions after Apulia, Sicily and the Veneto. Piedmont stands tall in the quality field with the most DOC or DOCG zones of any regions, as well as the most classified vineyards, even though it ranks only seventh in overall production.

Piedmont dwarfs its neighbours of Valle d'Aosta and Liguria which, by Italian standards at least, are mere dabblers in wine. Valle d'Aosta, the smallest region, produces by far the lowest volume of wine from its rocky slopes. Its DOC output is surpassed by some single wineries in other regions. Liguria, with little space for vines between the mountains and the Mediterranean, is second from the last in production, offering wines that are rarely more than esoteric.

Despite the proximity of France, whose vines have been warmly welcomed elsewhere in Italy, growers in Piedmont, Valle d'Aosta and Liguria prefer their own vines and tend to make wine in their own style. Piedmont's host of worthy natives includes Barbera, Dolcetto, Grignolino, Freisa, Cortese, Arneis, Brachetto, the Canelli clone of Moscato (for Asti Spumante) and the noblest of them all in Nebbiolo (source of Barolo, Barbaresco and Gattinara). The vines of Valle d'Aosta often have French names - Petit Rouge, Gros Vien, Blanc de Valdigne, for instance - due to the Savoyard history of the region. Liguria favours the local Rossese, Pigato and Vermentino, while working with its own version of Dolcetto, known as Ormeasco.

Lombardy, the most populous region, ranks only twelfth in wine production, but it does boast the nation's largest spread of Pinot vines in the southern Oltrepo` Pavese and a major concentration of Nebbiolo vines for the DOC reds of the mountainous Valtellina.

Emilia-Romagna is a prolific region that had been a leading exporter with shipments to America of sweet and bubbly Lambrusco, whose vines spill over the fertile plains of Emilia. But lately growers have been concentrating on distinctive wines from the hills. Best known are the Alban and Sangiovese of Romagna, but gaining notice are Barbera, Cabernet, Chardonnay and Sauvignon from the Apennine foothills of Emilia.

 

Central Italy

The historical hills at the heart of the peninsula, favoured by ample sunshine and moderate temperatures, boast what seem to be the nation's most extensive natural conditions for fine wine. In the past winemaking methods were often rustic. The practices of overproducing grapes and undervaluing scientific techniques too often squandered the excellent potential. But today the central regions, led by Tuscany with Chianti and other noble reds, are rapidly moving to the forefront of Italian enology.

Between them, the six regions produce less than a quarter of the nation's wine, yet they account for about a third of the DOLC or DOCG. The conflict between progress and tradition persists in places, but overall the renaissance in Italian wine has generated unrivalled momentum in the heartland. There is no doubt that greater things lie ahead. The regions of central Italy are divided physically, and to some degree culturally, by the Apennines. To the west, on the Tyrrhenian side, lie Tuscany, Latium and landlocked Umbria. To the east, on the Adriatic side, lie the Marches, Abruzzi and Molise. Viticulture on the Tyrrhenian side is dominated by the dark-skinned Sangiovese (whose various clones include some of Italy's noblest grapes for red wine) and the lightskinned Trebbiano and Malvasia (designed chiefly for quantities of tasty if rarely inspiring whites).

The realm of Sangiovese is Florence's region of Tuscany, where it prevails in Chianti - the nation's archetypical wine - as well as in Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and most of the noteworthy classified and unclassified reds. White Malvasia reigns in Rome's region of Latium. It is prominent in Frascati and the wines of the Alban hills, and combines with the ubiquitous Trebbiano in Est!Est!!Est!!! and most other whites of the region. Umbrians have had the chance to pick and choose, favouring Sangiovese for their reds and the Procanico strain of Trebbiano for their prominent white Orvieto.

The trend, though perhaps more evident in Tuscany and Umbria than elsewhere, is to introduce noble outsiders - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, the Pinots, Chardonnay and Sauvignon. But efforts are also being directed at upgrading such worthy natives as Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Umbria's Sagrantino and Grechetto and Latium's Cesanese.

The Adriatic regions have a rather neat and straight-forward structure of vines and wines. Vineyards are almost all planted in hills running in a tortuous strip between the sea and the mountains, where the climate is tempered by cool currents.

Two native varieties stand out along the Adriatic coast, the white Verdicchio in the Marches and red Montepulciano, which originated in the Abruzzi and is now widely planted in all three regions. The influences of Tuscany and Romagna can be tasted in Sangiovese (especially in the Marches) and Trebbiano (planted nearly everywhere that worthier varieties are not). Montepulciano can be remarkable on its own, though it also has a natural affinity for blends with Sangiovese, in such fine reds as the Marches' Rosso Piceno and Rosso Conero.

 

The South & Islands


The six regions of Italy's south take in the sunwashed vineyards that prompted the ancient Greeks to nickname their colonies Oenotria. From Hellas they brought to Magna Graecia vines which are still planted today, under such names as Aglianico, Greco, Malvasia, Gaglioppo and Moscato.

The Romans in their turn recognised the potential of the slopes that gave them Falernum, Caccubum, Mamertinum and other heady wines that were eulogised by poets from Horace to Virgil. Pliny the Elder and Columella were among those who recorded methods of viticulture and oenology that included descriptions of how to age and preserve wine and even to make it bubbly. But wine had its ups and downs under the Romans, too, reaching a low point when the Emperor Domitian ordered vines removed and restricted trade to combat excess production.

Many outsiders left their marks on these Mediterranean shores. Foremost among them were the Spaniards, who dominated until the Risorgimento and brought vines into Sardinia, Sicily and other places centuries after the Arabs and Phoenicians planted what may have been the first "foreign" vines in Italy.

It might be argued that at times in the past the vineyards of the Italian Mezzogiorno were put to better use than they have been in recent times. Apulia and Sicily vie for leadership among the 20 regions in volume produced, much of it in the blending wines shipped to northerly places or in bulk wines distilled into industrial alcohol. Though the six regions produce about 40 per cent of Italy's total wine, they account for less than 7 per cent of the DOC. Yet, after decades in which the emphasis had been steadfastly on quantity, producers in all regions have become increasingly convinced that the future lies in quality, as the volume steadily decreases.

The notion that Italy's south is suited only to the production of hot-blooded wines is neither fair nor accurate. Studied techniques of grape growing and methods of temperature controlled fermentation and storage in oxygen-free conditions have permitted production of dry, balanced wines that can be attractively light and fruity. Several of Italy's most impressive red wines for long ageing originate in the south. And there has been a welcome trend to upgrade the quality and status of the traditional sweet wines from Moscato and Malvasia, as well as Sicily's fortified Marsala and Sardinia's Vernaccia di Oristano.

An unfortunate misconception has it that the Mezzogiorno has a torrid climate, when in fact much of the territory is temperate and parts are downright chilly. Conditions depend on altitude and proximity to the Tyrrhenian, Ionian or Adriatic seas. Some good wines are made in relatively hot places: the slopes of Vesuvius, the isle of Ischia, Apulia's Salento peninsula, Sicily's western coast and Sardinia's Campidano. But many wines of scope come from higher, cooler places - the hills around Avellino in Campania, Basilicata's Vulture, Sicily's Etna and central highlands, Apulia's interior plateau and Sardinia's eastern coastal range.

Each of the six regions has an abundance of hills with conditions considered ideal for modern viticulture. The challenge is to put them to their best use.

 

Wine Statistics

Export Situation of Italian Wine as of End of 1994

Italian wine, together with French wine, is among the most requested and therefore most exported in the world. In Italy export of wine has passed from 14,667,147 hectolitres in 1989 to 18,249,941 hectolitres in 1994, with an average decrease in price of -4%.

The quantity of wine exported from 1989 to 1994 has increased by 31% while the value has increased more than 25%.

Principal importers of Italian wine are:

Germany: 32%
France: 25%
Great Britain: 9%
United States 7%

In 1994 Germany imported 5,834,531 hectolitres of wine with a value of 892,212,594,000 Lire, at an average price of 1,529 Lire per litre.

France imported during the same year 4,627,547 hectolitres with a value of 292,265,598,000 Lire with an average price of 632 Lire per litre.

In Great Britain 1,619,761 hectolitres were imported with a value of 324,569,624,000 Lire and an average price of 2,004 Lire per litre.

The United States imported 1.245,171 hectolitres of wine for a total of 490,236,507,000 Lire.

Over the past ten years many Italian wine producers have concentrated on producing a higher quality of wine resulting in a lower quantity, with the result of an increase in the value of the wine exported.

Text Copyright 1992 Italian Institute for Foreign Trade/ICE,
Italian Trade Commission, Wine Center
499 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10022

            Wine Laws and Labels

Italians over the centuries have pioneered laws to control the origins and protect the names of wines. The ancient Romans defined production areas for dozens of wines. In 1716, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany delimited the zones for important wines, setting a precedent for modern legislation.

Yet only since the mid-1960s have controls been applied nationwide to wines of "particular reputation and worth" under what is known as "denominazione di origine controllata" or, by the initials, as DOC. At last count there were 240 DOCs, all delimited geographically. Wines from nine zones have been further distinguished as DOCG (the G for "garantita" or guaranteed authenticity). These are Barbaresco, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti (in seven subzones), Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Chianti (in seven subzones), Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Albana di Romagna, Gattinara, Carmignano (red only) and Torgiano Rosso "riserva".

Within the DOC and DOCG zones more than 900 types of wine are produced. They may be defined by colour or type (still, bubbly or sparkling; dry, semisweet or sweet; natural or fortified). Or they may be referred to by grape variety (e.g. Trentino DOC with 17 varietals in its 20 subcategories). Or by age (young as "novello" or aged as "vecchio, stravecchio" or "riserva"). Or by special subzone as "classico" or "superiore", though the latter may also apply to a higher degree of alcohol or a longer period of ageing.

Sweeping changes in the wine laws of 1992 opened the way for DOC and DOCG wines to carry names of communities, areas of geographical or historical importance in the zones and names of individual vineyards of established reputation. Such wines may also carry the European Community designation of VQORD or VSQPRD (for "spumante:), VFQPRD (for "frizzante") or VLQPRD (for "liquoroso" or fortified).

Yet in recent times DOC and DOCG have accounted for only 12 to 15 percent of Italy's production. Some unclassified wines may be referred to a "spumante" or "frizzante" or as "amabile" or "dolce" (for sweet) or as "liquoroso", but the majority of dry, still wines had to be labelled as "vino da tavola". In its simplest version such tablewines could specify colour but no vintage, grape variety or place name. More specific were table wines with geographical indications, such as Rosso di Toscana or Barbera del Piemonte.

But now, thanks to the new laws of 1992, much of the better "vino da tavola" is expected to qualify under the category of "Indicazione geografica tipica" (IGT), designed to officially classify wines by colour or grape varieties and typology from large areas. IGT will be the Italian equivalent to the French "Vin de pays" and German "Landwein".

The aim is to increase the proportion of classified wines to a majority of national production, but it is important to remember that many good to excellent Italian wines are still not classified. The reason might be that vineyards are in a non-DOC area or that the wine has been made under a new formula or that the producer chose to retain an individual identity. In the end, the most reliable guide to the quality of any wine from anywhere is the reputation of the individual producer or estate. Certain names are worth getting to know.

Labels must carry the wine's generic name and status (DOCG, DOC, IGT, Vino da tavola), the producer's name and location, alcohol by percentage of volume, as well as the net contents in millilitres (with an "e" as an EEC approved measure). DOCG wines must also carry a paper strip seal of guarantee at the top of the bottle.

Text Copyright © 1992 Italian Institute for Foreign Trade/ICE,
Italian Trade Commission, Wine Center
499 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10022


 

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