Italy’s wine country

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Image: Heidi Butzine

            Very soon, I will be heading to Italy in search of some great wines.  Last time I was in Italy, I was in my early twenties and visited Rome where the only wine I recall drinking was in an oversized juice box.  Honestly, it was not that bad and was enjoyed right along with a picnic lunch in a park not too far from the Trevi Fountain.   This time, I will be going to the heart of wine country.  Chianti, Montepulciano, Montalcino and San Gimignano.

           In some ways, Italy can be considered the originator of wine in Europe.  Among many gods, the Romans also worshipped Bacchus, the god of wine.  It was the Romans who introduced wine growing to France, Germany, and Spain.

              Wine is grown all over Italy.  Vineyards can be found from the north in the cold foothills of the Alps to the warm, dry climate in the south and islands of the coast.  Italy’s wine region is split into 20 different growing areas.  Each of these zones has a particular type of grape that it specializes in and grows best.

           Wine is ubiquitous in Italy.  The lunch and dinner tables always have a bottle of wine.  This may have also given Italy a reputation for cheap, low quality wines.  However, the reputation was unfairly won.  Italy produces some of the finest wines in the world.  There are numerous wines in Italy so we will focus on just a few here.

Wines of Italy 

Barolo

           Barolo is made from Nebbiolo grapes which are grown in Piedmont, in northwestern Italy.  These grapes are luscious and flavorful. The name of the grapes, Nebbiolo, refers to the fog that helps in the ripening of the grapes.  They produce the robust, full-bodied red Barolo wine.

           Barolo is not a wine that should be enjoyed in its youth.  It has a very strong flavor that needs to mellow with age and bring out more of the wine’s qualities.  Most Barolo is aged for two years, but some Barolo Riserva may be aged for at least 5 years.  Aging for this length of time calms the intensity of the wine and allows it more complex flavors to develop.  A well-aged Barolo is often reminiscent of earthy aromas such as truffles or mushrooms.

Chianti

           Chianti has earned its reputation in America as the epitome of Italian wines.  Besides using the straw encased bottles to create ambiance (albeit cheesy) in an Italian food restaurant, Chianti is a wine that is enjoyed by many in America and elsewhere.  Chianti is a light wine; dry, with fruity and cherry flavors.  It is a perfect companion to Italian food.  Gallo nero (black rooster)

           Chianti is made from Sangiovese and Canaiolo Nero grapes which are grown in Tuscany.  Chianti has traditionally included approximately five percent white Malvasia del Chianti or Trebbiano Toscano grapes, which mellowed the wine out so it didn’t require as much aging.  Over the years, the percentage of white wine in the blend slowly increased possibly due to cut costs or increase production, causing the wine to become much more commonplace.  Eventually, good wine producers realized what was happening to Chianti’s reputation and quality and went back to the five percent white formula.  Now, the white Trebbiano and Malvasia are permitted in Chianti but rarely used and for Chianti Classico, they are no longer permitted in the blend.  Chianti Classico is a designation for wines produced in the middle of the region and like Chianti has a minimum of 75% of Sangiovese but can be produced from 100% Sangiovese grapes.  Chianti Classico Riserva is aged longer allowing for further refinement of the wine in its later years.

Vernaccia di San Gimignano

           Italy, while known for its red wines, produces some exceptional white wines as well.  Vernaccia di San Gimignano is one of these.  This wine is made in Tuscany, from Vernaccia grapes, which are grown near the town of San Gimignano.

           The town and wine named for it both have roots going back to the Etruscans, but the character of the wine has changed over the centuries.  Originally, the wine was fairly dark and aged in oak barrels.  Today’s wine is lighter and milder.  It is a bright, lemony white wine with some minerality.  It is usually best in its youth and its fresh taste complements chicken and vegetarian dishes well. 

Valpolicella

           Valpolicella is a light, fruity red wine that is similar to Chianti, but with an added hint of almonds.  It is made in the northeastern part of Italy in the Veneto region.  Several grapes make up the blend for Valpolicella including Corvina, Molinara, and Rondinella grapes.  Valpolicella must be drunk young and after a year of aging, considered superiore with 12% alcohol.

           The main city in the Veneto region is Verona, which hosts Italy’s biggest wine festival called Vinitaly.  Veneto is a region with wide variety.  It includes green fields and rich farmland and being at the foothills of the Alps, has a view onto Austria.  Most of the wine produced in the region is grown in the north.

Bardolino

           Bardolino is also from the Veneto region of Italy.  It is a red wine rather unlike Valpolicella.  It is a much lighter bodied wine with rather low alcohol content.  Like Valpolicella, Bardolino is made from a combination of Corvina, Molinara, and Rondinella grapes. This grape combination is used in most of the Veneto wines.  Bardolino has a superiore and classico superiore designation as well.  Bardolino may be dry red or rose still or sparkling.

Pinot Grigio

           Pinot Grigio is rather popular in America, likely because it is a middle of the road easy going white wine that is usually cost effective and appeals to the masses.  The wine is crisp with a light clean taste, but usually lacks complexity.  This may be one of the reasons why the reputation of Italian white wines may have suffered.  Unfortunately, as with most wines high demand and over production usually has this impact.  This white wine does not live up to what it could be.  Pinot Grigio from Italy tends to be bland and simple.  The grape it is made from is Pinot Gris which has been featured much more favorably in some of the wines produced in Alsace and Oregon.

Super Tuscans

           Super Tuscans came about in the 1970s, when some Tuscan wine producers began to break tradition by using French grapes and producing wine in non traditional areas using methods that were outside of the regulatory permitted grape varieties and maturation criteria.  The most popular of these French grapes for use in super Tuscans are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah.

           Super Tuscans won’t tell you that’s what they are on the label.  The name applies to such wines as Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Solaia, Tignanello, Sammarco, and Fontalloro. 

           Most super Tuscans are long lived red wines which are often at their best after aging for decades.  They are often too bitter if drunk too young.  They tend to be very intense and very pricey.  They generally go well with red meat.

             There are many other smaller wine-growing regions throughout Italy to be explored; from Mount Vesuvius to the boot’s heel in Puglia and even Sardinia and Sicily.  Once you’ve tried a few from this list, branch out to the others.  Abbondanza!

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