Regions and Styles
Brunello, Tuscany's great red... ...and its baby brother who deserves more limelight
May 23 2002 - Tony Aspler
2000 Lohsa Morellino di Scansano
Mar 28 2002 - James Halliday
Mar 21 2002 - James Halliday
Divine Magazine offers the best of Italy
Feb 25 2002 - Winepros
Tenuta Di Trinoro
Jan 22 2002 - Clive Coates MW
Puglia blocks transfer of planting rights to other regions
Sep 10 2001 - Franco Ziliani
The greats of Trentino get greater
Aug 13 2001 - Franco Ziliani
Alto Adige Wines shine in International Gewurztraminer Competition
Aug 09 2001 - Franco Ziliani
A second wine of Tenuta San Guido at Bolgheri is born
Aug 07 2001 - Franco Ziliani
Starry Chalices on August 10th
Aug 01 2001 - Franco Ziliani
Sori' San Lorenso, Angelo Gaja 1998
Chianti Classico Riserva, Castello di Fonterutoli 1997
Toscana IGT Siepi, Castello di Fonterutoli 1997
Valpolicella Superiore DOC Monte Lodoletta, Romano dal Forno 1995
Rosso di Toscana IGT Brancaia, Podere la Brancaia 1997
More Wine Reviews
If it's true that good things come in small packages then Italy, with its multiplicity of often pocket handkerchief-sized wine zones, must have good things in plenty. The profusion of its wines and the abundance of the grape varieties making them are both Italy's glory and its downfall, however. For some the country's wines are a treasure trove, for others they are just complicated and confusing.
Italy is geographically complex, too. To the north, the well-drained lower slopes of the bordering Alps provide prime grape-growing territory before they give way to the plainlands of the Po valley, about the only part of Italy where grapes are not consistently grown. This entire northern part has a gently continental climate with marked inconsistencies from year to year giving pronounced vintage variations.
The long, narrow peninsular part of the country is defined by the Apennine mountain chain that forms its spine. There are numerous hill ranges and comparatively little flat ground. In some places the mountains fall right to the sea, creating the most dramatic of scenery and growing conditions.
While Italy's climate is naturally categorized as Mediterranean, the great variety of altitudes and exposures gives a far greater spread of climatic conditions than might be expected.
Much of the glorious lack of consistency in Italy's wine production derives from its history. Wine has been produced on its lands for several thousand years, at least since the time of the Phoenicians and Greeks. Yet Italy has been united politically only since the 1860s, and socially only since the arrival of television half a century or so ago. Even now a journey of just 50 miles can seem like 500, so frequent are the changes in dialects and eating habits.
Italy's wine scene today is principally the result of two major, comparatively recent movements. The first followed the devastation of the Second World War; in the economic boom that accompanied reconstruction, partly from necessity the wine producers' motto appeared to become "more is better," and the industry was aimed firmly at ever greater quantities, with hardly a thought given to quality. The second was the realization that this path was dreadfully flawed and that survival lay in high quality. This change, often called the Italian wine renaissance, started in the mid-1970s and hit its peak in the late 1980s, although it must be said that a few corners of the country are learning the lesson only now; it left its mark mainly in the vineyards, where mediocre but high-producing varieties sometimes squeezed out the more characterful, and in complex wine laws.
Italy has a vast heritage of grape varieties, possessing a wealth of indigenous vines as well as the varieties more often seen worldwide. What ended up where hundreds of years ago depended not only on the suitability of growing conditions but also on how well the wines made from a particular variety suited the local diet.
The rediscovery and repropagation of the less well-known varieties, many of them rendered almost extinct during the quantity-driven days, is now in full swing. Often these are "troublesome" varieties, in the sense that they are naturally low-yielding, ripen with difficulty or are prone to disease. In compensation they may well give wines of incomparable flavor or, used in a blend, turn a good wine into an exciting one.
Dozens of varieties can be considered emblematic of one or more regions--Piedmont's nebbiolo, the tocai of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, nero d'avola in Sicily, for example. In general the only varieties found nationwide are what the Italians call the innovative varieties and what we would term the classics, cabernet and chardonnay leading the field. There is a strong penchant for varietal wines in the northeast; in the rest of the country the attitude is more pragmatic, making both varietals and blends. Italians become a little coy about revealing the make-up of their wines only in those cases where they have added a small amount of chardonnay to an indigenous variety to make it more international in taste; they prefer you to think that such a wine comes from a pure indigene.
In the early stages of the quantity-to-quality shift the emphasis was on winemaking, a vast amount of investment going into cellar equipment and the acquisition of technical know-how. Out went the old concrete vats and other rudimentary bits of equipment and in came stainless steel vats, automatic temperature control, oxygen-free systems, cold sterile bottling, air-conditioned storage areas and all the other baggage of the standard modern winemaking plant. On most estates the changeover took no more than a year or two, and while it was achieved with little interruption to production, there were huge effects on the wines produced. Some altered so much they became almost unrecognizable.
The next stage reached to the core of the matter: the vineyards. Revamping a vineyard is a much longer and more complicated procedure. Most estates have had to start from scratch to find the best combinations of rootstock and variety for their heterogeneous terrains, the most suitable clones and optimal planting density. Such research can take years and the vineyard must be replanted in stages to avoid massive interruptions to production. The improvements this stage brings will no doubt continue to emerge over the next decade. One thing is clear, however. The direction in vineyard plantings is towards high density. A few wine producers have taken the "more is better" theory to the extreme, planting up to 25,000 vines or more per acre (62,000 vines per ha), regardless of the cost or the effect on cultivation efficiency.
From "Encyclopedia of Wine"
©Global Book Publishing Pty Limited 2000
Regions and Styles
Italy's wine laws follow the standard European Community breakdown into "quality wine" and "table wine." Within quality wine Italy has two categories, DOC (
denominazione di origine controllata) and the higher-level DOCG ( denominazione di origine garantita). At the beginning of 2000 there were over 300 DOCs, wines with basic controls on origin, grape varieties and style, and several cultivation and winemaking parameters. Increasingly, larger DOCs are becoming nested with, for example, a DOC zone containing one or more subzonal DOCs which have tighter production constraints (and, therefore, presumably higher quality). In theory the nesting can continue right down to single-vineyard DOCs, but it will be quite some time before this level is reached.
DOCG was conceived as a class apart to represent the top wines. Currently either an entire zone may gain the additional qualification or at some stage along the nesting process a subzone can move from DOC to DOCG. Originally, though, zones had to be promoted whole or not at all and this caused some undeserving wines to gain their
garantita along with other, more worthy ones. Perhaps the best--or worst--example is that of Chianti. Good wines from the Classico heartland and the higher quality subzones, lesser wines from the lower quality subzones and poor stuff from the periphery, became DOCG together. This means that the G does not guarantee very much, although producers still cherish the qualification and keenly seek promotion to it.
At the table wine end of the spectrum, simple VdT (
vino da tavola) is about as basic as you can get. A large and increasing number of wines fall into the higher subcategory, IGT ( indicazione geografica tipica). Conceived to offer broadly regional wine styles, which to some extent it does (although there are regional DOCs too), just as often it is used as a sort of catch-all category, especially for wines that don't fit into their DOC for some reason (usually the grape varieties used). Hence the quality can be anything from mundane to marvellous. The only sensible advice is to ignore the category and go by the name of the producer.
Italy is a country that changes rapidly, sometimes breathtakingly so. Wine trends perforce come and go a little slower but there are always talking points which, given the impassioned nature of most Italian discussion, often become the subject of intense debate. Recently the use of the classic varieties provoked argument. On one side were those who saw use of the innovative varieties as a way of making Italian wines more readily acceptable on the international market; on the other were those who saw them as compromising Italy's unique wine styles, leading to homogeneity of tastes. The fence-sitters argued that innovative varieties were useful initially to gain entrance to foreign markets; once there, classic Italian styles could take over. It is now generally accepted that international varieties have their place but that the future of Italian wine lies in the individuality pro-vided by the indigenous grapes.
The use of the
barrique is a current talking point. Traditionally, Italian wines, if aged at all, were put in large wooden barrels ( botti), which were used for decades. These were most commonly made of oak from the forests of Slavonia. Today there is scarcely an estate that hasn't replaced or supplemented its botti stock with barriques--here used to mean small casks of new oak, usually but not always French. While most winemakers seem convinced that they are needed to produce high-quality wines, a growing voice holds that many Italian grape varieties are not well-suited to the barrique treatment. Even with those that are, say dissenters, the barrique tends to homogenize styles, squashing individuality with its oaky overlay.
There is also discussion about roving enologists. Producers of all sizes are increasingly placing their trust in well-known, highly skilled contract winemakers to guide production. While this does ensure that a wine is competently made, producers risk their wines reflecting their enologist's ideas on style and character rather than their own--and resembling others made by him. Worse, the enologists most in demand are taking on dozens of estates and cannot possibly give detailed personal attention to each one. It must be admitted, however, that scores of estates have seen their wines improve out of all recognition.
Even sweet wines have come under the microscope. The classic method for creating the additional grape sugar necessary to produce a sweet (or strong) wine is to pick the grapes when normally ripe (sometimes even slightly underripe) and leave them to dry out until sufficient concentration has been reached. In the north the bunches are either hung from hooks or laid out on shallow racks in airy indoor locations. The drying process, called
appassimento, is slow, lasting up to four months. In the hotter south the grapes are laid out on racks out of doors, and the appassimento is much faster, sometimes lasting just two to three weeks. The resulting passito wines can be delicately or richly sweet but they retain freshness and rarely cloy. Increasing numbers of producers, however, lured by the siren song of "renowned international style," are turning to late harvesting to ensure high sugar content, and once more the local traditional methods are having to fight for their place.
One thing does not brook debate, however. In Italy wine is conceived and made as a food accompaniment. Drinking wine on its own is a habit for foreigners, not Latins. As a result, many wines that taste disappointingly harsh or neutral when unaccompanied suddenly spring into life when drunk with food, so hasty judgments at a tasting bench are not always wise.
Italy is split into 20 administrative regions. While these do not often tally with viticultural zones it has become customary to use the regional breakdown when discussing Italian wines and this convention is followed here, if loosely.
From "Encyclopedia of Wine"
©Global Book Publishing Pty Limited 2000