Italy is a country full of wonders. Not only does Italy have a wide range of beautiful traditional dishes, breathtaking architecture, and incredible landscapes, it is also home to some of the most historic and diverse wine regions in the world. Wine and Italian culture have been intertwined for millennia, even before most other countries had learnt the ways of viniculture. It has over 2000 indigenous grapes, and only a quarter of which have been documented, scattered across its mountainous landscape. The country itself is a narrow, long strip of land that extends itself from the cold continental Alps to the hot Mediterranean Sea, creating diverse climates across the regions. As a country, Italy is a force to reckon with when it comes to wine both in production volume and diversity of style. This tasting will only show the tip of the iceberg for what it is known for.
When it comes to Italian wine history, there is a lot of ground to cover. As previously stated, Italy is a force to be reckoned with, but this hasn’t always been so. Like all of Europe, it’s certainly had some trials and tribulations. From the fall of the Roman Empire, to phylloxera, the World Wars and the uprising of Fascism, Italy has been through it all. Yet, wine has always remained intertwined with its culture.
Dating back to 1000 BC, Italy saw many tribes (such as the Rhoeti, Salassi, Liguri, Veneti, Piceni, Samnites and the Nuragic etc.) cultivating vines to produce wine. It wasn’t until the Etruscans came along that the indigenous tribes learnt how to properly domesticate vines and produce wines. The Etruscans brought a wealth of knowledge and promoted the linkage of wine and culture.
The Greek settlers arrived around 800-600 BC, mostly landing in Southern Italy, to which they called Oenotria (Land of Vines). They brought with them grape varieties, innovative viniculture and winemaking technology that ultimately created the foundations for the Romans. Not only that, they turned wine into a commodity for their economy, setting up a wine trade that spanned the Mediterranean. They created more linkage between wine and culture, telling tales of Dionysus and the myths of Tanit’s seduction of Apollo with the sweet Muscat wine of Pantelleria.
The Romans brought the first unification of Italy in 42BC, where all of Italy was under Roman control. They refined viticulture and wine production, which created a base for vinicultural practices across Europe, and created the first text that linked grape varieties to soil (‘De re Rustica’ – Columella 37BC). Wine was extremely important to the Romans, to the point where vines were the most important crop. Everywhere they invaded, they brought viniculture with them. They loved wine so much that vines started to replace wheat crops, which led to the banning on vine planting in 92 AD. Soon after is where we start to see the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and when the empire split in 395 AD after the death of Theodosius, Italy was divided in a way that created the foundations of the country’s economic differences we see today.
The Western and Eastern Empires were practically sitting ducks. The western Empire was invaded by the German groups the Goths and the Vandals which led to the fall of the Empire in 476 AD. The region’s economy collapsed and went into a profound recession which started the Dark Ages. This was the beginning of 13 centuries of economic instability within Italy. Roman society vanished, and with it so did superior wines. Wooden barrels started to appear in the wine world, which contributed more to the poor quality of wine. And if that wasn’t enough, Northern Italy was constantly invaded by Germanic tribes, and when Justinian of the Eastern Empire defeated the Germanic Invasion in 533 AD, the country was left in ruins. The Lombard’s saw this and used it to their advantage and invaded Northern Italy in 568 AD and had taken control of most of Italy soon after. King Albinos of the Lombards split the region into different kingdoms, which created weakness and the Franks seized Central Italy in 751 AD, donating the land to the Pope, creating the Papal States. Then the Franks seized Northern Italy from the Lombards, creating the Kingdom of Franks. During this time, Southern Italy was still under the rule of the Eastern Empire and the Lombards. Monasteries, however, were to show a beacon of light for wine, as they continued to practice roman traditions due to religious purposes.
We would see the segregation of the Frank Kingdom into multiple, smaller cities in 814 AD after the ruler Charlemagne died. Southern Italy would be continuously invaded by the Arabs and Normans until the 13th century, which allowed Northern Italy to gain more economic and political stability than its sister to the south. Northern Italy saw a resurgence of viniculture also and saw the first documentation of Italian grapes (such as Nebbiolo, Barbera, Garganega etc.). We see the practice of sharecropping increasing (a practice where landowners would take half of the tenant’s crop as rent) and Venezia and other northern cities gain their own military and trade power.
Leading into the Modern Age, Italy was still divided into 8 different entities. Italy was weak, and Spain had control of most of the Southern parts, including Sardegna and Sicilia. When the Americas had been ‘discovered’ by the Spanish, the led to yet another economic crisis for Italy. Yet again, the North was invaded, this time by the Austrians. It created isolation for the region, to the point where Italy was 200 years behind the introduction of corks and wine bottles. The 18th century brought a winter freeze that destroyed multiple crops and led to the planting of resistant varietals (such as Trebbiano and Verduzzo). It also brought some promise. In 1720, the Duchy of Savoy seized Sardegna which would soon lead to the unification of Italy in 1861.
During this time, the wine regions of Barolo, Chianti and Brunello started to adopt a more contemporary style, like what we see today. Enological schools opened which lead to an academic vinicultural comeback. This era also brought on the il Risorgimenti, a movement in which multiple regions moved towards unification. The Kingdom of Sardegna was the forefront of this movement, with only the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in the way. They were shortly defeated in 1859, and on March 17th, 1861, Italy was once again unified (well, mostly. Northern Italy and Papal states were still under different rulers until 1870 in which Friuli joined and the Kingdom of Italy annexed Roma and the Papal States.) At this point, it became obvious that there were challenging times ahead, especially when the south was economically and politically behind the North.
You know, at this point, you might be thinking “okay, Italy has been through a lot, what more could go wrong?” Well, pretty much everything. The 19th and 20th century brought disease and war that would destroy almost all vines. Italy tried to recover vines after the Phyllorexa outbreak in the late 19th century, introducing international varietals to help keep the wine industry alive. Then, World War 1, which Italy had joined the Allies and had won. This led to Trentino, Alto Adige, Friuli Venezia Giulia finally joining Italy. Then, just like most everywhere else in the western world, the Dirty ’30s arrived and once again Italy was in an economic crisis, which allowed fascism to fester within the borders. Mussolini then became Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Italy, and we all know how that went. In 1946, Italy became a Republic and was in major need of rebuilding. The practice of sharecropping and the mezzadria was abolished (finally), and we started to see areas of land planted to only vines, which brought a resurgence of superior wines. During this time, we saw an economic boom and Italian wine producers responded by offering better quality wines, and since then, Italian wine has kept on improving and modernizing. The Introduction of DOCs (Denominazione di Origine Controllata/Controlled denomination of Orgin) came in 1963, which protected the notable wine regions and appellations. It welcomed an era of mass experimentations, such as single-vineyard production of Barolo and the first vintage of Sassicaia. The Postwar economic development transformed Italy into one of the most powerful economic entities in the world, and wine was right with it.
Finally, Italy became more stable and more united than ever before. Even so, the South was still much weaker than the North, yet the south is enthusiastic about their development, and have become the leading areas in Italy for entrepreneurship.
(Now, if you made it this far, I applaud you. I am a nerd when it comes to Italian wine and need to spill every bit of information, I know to make this blog more resourceful for you.)
Now, let us talk about the wines of the evening, and why they are important to the Italian wine scene.
This couldn’t be an Italian wine tasting without everyone’s favourite bubbly. Prosecco originated from the North East corner of Italy, in the regions of Veneto and Fruili. Before, Prosecco was the poor-mans champagne, due to its low quality and cloying sweetness. It was a broad category of sweet fizzy wines. But with the modernization of the Italian wine scene, Prosecco became more complex, the bubbles became finer and the excessive sugar additions lessened, and thus we started to see higher quality Proseccos being produced.
Yet, the name Prosecco became the center of controversy. Australian producers started to label bottles under the name Prosecco, against the DOCs protecting the name. This was because of the Australians use of the grape Prosecco, not the style of wine being produced. Obviously, people were not happy, and Italy changed the name of the grape to Glera, hoping the Australians would follow suit. They didn’t, and still label some wines as Prosecco, and this has been a major bone of contention during free-trade talks between the EU and Australia.
Prosecco can be made into a sparkling Frizzante of a foaming Spumante. Under the DOC, it must contain 85% Glera, with other regulated grapes making up the remainder. There are four different sweetness levels in Prosecco:
Brut: Less than 12g/L
Extra Dry: Between 12-17 g/L
Dry: Between 17-32 g/L
Demi-Sec: 32-50 g/L
At this point in time, most people have enjoyed a glass of Prosecco, so I decided to step it up a notch and pour a Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG. What’s the difference? DOCGs are the top-quality wines produced in the region/appellation. You’re welcome!
Andreola Mas de Fer Prosecco NV
Coming from the hills of Col de Fer and St. Gallen, comes a selected cru named ‘Mas de Fer’ which makes a delicate wine with a floral fruity flavour and fine lingering perlage. This wine is 100% Glera done in an Extra-Dry style with only 14g/L of sugar. It is ideal as an aperitif, with lighter dishes and dessert, or with a patio!
Alto Adige & Germanic Influence within Northern Italy
Now, not many know but Gewurztraminer originates from Italy, in the small hillside town of Tramin, hence the name. Most would expect this grape to be of French or Germanic origin due to it popularity within these countries, but it was when the Germanic and Austrian powers seized Northern Italy that the grape became popular within these countries. The Germans saw the heartiness of the grape and tried to graft it to their native varieties to create resistant vines. It didn’t necessarily go down as they were expecting but they continue to produce Gewurztraminer due to its beautiful aromatics and hints of spice. With the Germans also continuously seizing the Alsace region of France, we saw an influx of the varietal planted there, and now it is considered one of the noble grapes of Alsace!
The reason this grape is a feature in this tasting is to show how diverse Italian grapes are. It would be too easy to pour a grape that you all know to be famous in Italy (i.e. Pinot Grigio).
This dry Gewürztraminer is golden yellow in colour, spicy in aroma and flavour, reminiscent of yellow roses, cloves, lychees and nutmeg, Luscious and powerful on the palate with an elegant, dry and aromatic finish. Perfect with Thai Green Curry and mild Indian dishes, pasta dishes with aromatic sauces, grilled and fried fish and seafood.
Skin Contact Whites and Orange Wines
As mentioned previously, the Italian wine scene started to modernize during the 1950s and ’60s. With that, we saw Italian white wines change. Before the modernization, white wines were traditionally fermented with skin contact, just like the way we make red wines. What this does is extract colour, flavour and tannin, creating a wine with more complexity, structure and an amber or orange colour. Not all producers stopped creating skin contact/orange wines during the ’50s, and we are seeing a resurgence. For those producers, most do ferment and age their wines in amphora, which was introduced by the Etruscans back in 1000BC! These wines are more oxidative in character and are some of the most interesting wines on the market.
Radikon Sivi Pinot Grigio
If I’m talking about Italian skin contact/Orange wine, I must talk about Radikon. Based in Friuli Venezia Giulia, Radikon sits on the border to Slovenia. They are a force to be reckoned with!
This Pinot Grigio is from their S range where the wines are natural fermented, macerated (in contact with the skins) in oak cask from 8-14 days, matured in oak casks for 18 months and then further aged in bottle for two months before release. Coppery colour, the nose is complex and persistent with hints of blossom and fruit. The mouth is full, elegant and with a great minerality. Hints of blossom can be perceived at the aftertaste.
Often seen as the epicentre of Italy, Toscana is one of the top producing wine regions in the whole country and produces some of Italy’s most prized wines. Here is where we see Sangiovese in all its glory. Wines such as Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano are all based on Sangiovese, and showcase the best wine produced with the grape. In this tasting, it would be easy to do a Chianti or Brunello di Montalcino because a lot of people are familiar with it. But the wines of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano are just as equally as impressive and have just as much history behind them. This is a wine of nobility! During the Middle Ages, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano was so highly regarded that it was constantly served to nobles, and thus gained its name as the Noble Wine. Here, Sangiovese is called Prugnolo Gentile and must account for at least 70% of the wine.
Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
This wine is made with Sangiovese grapes highlighting the balanced and harmonious traits of its habitat. The wine shows a sleek medium body, seamless tannins and a distinctive tasting profile. Though great for the ‘now’, it also reveals an impressive ageing potential. The wine shows garnet red hues, intense aromas of ripe, red berry fruit, such as red plum, pomegranate and red vine peach, sweet spices and Mediterranean herbs. On the palate, the wine is well balanced, with generous pulp, seamless tannins and an endless finish
Sicilia & It’s Volcanic Wines
Sicilia is a hotspot for volcanic wines. Here, we see the appellation of Etna DOC, where the vineyards are terraces along the steep slopes of Mount Etna. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of volcanic soil around the mountain, which has created a huge surplus of wineries seeking to showcase their unique take on Volcanic Wine. It is also home to some of Europe’s highest vineyards, some of which were planted pre-phylloxera!! The wines are predominately Nerello Mascalese which is a grape that expresses nuances of individual sites (just like Riesling). Its almost only found on the slopes of Etna, where it showcases the unique attributes of volcanic soils. Sicilia is also a hotspot for natural wines, where produces use very little if any chemicals in their wines. Sicilia is considered to have one of the most diverse cultures due to the vast number of tribes that settled on the island, and its history of wine is dated back to 2000BC!
Cornelissen Munjebel Rosso – Joint Favourite!
A rich and fragrant wine of pure Nerello Mascalese from different vineyards, partly from their best parcels where they produce their crus (Zottorinoto-Chiusa Spagnolo, Feudo di Mezzo-Porcaria, Pontale Palino) as well as designated vineyards for this specific wine (Rampante, Piano Daini and Crasà). A classic, traditional Nerello Mascalese with tannins and sweetness of ripe fruit. Frank Cornelissen’s vision of a traditional, balanced and rich Northern Valley Etna wine.
The heartland of Amarone! Valpolicella is the most famous red wine district in northeastern Italy, so it is an important one to mention this evening. This region gives a diverse look at the grapes Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and Molinara. Mostly, Corvina makes up about 45-95% of the blend, with Corvinone allowed to substitute up to 50% of Corvina’s amount. The wines of Valpolicella can range from easy-drinking, light Valpolicella, to the powerful and intensely flavoured counterpart, Amarone Della Valpolicella. What makes Amarone so powerful to Valpolicella (even though they use the same grapes), is the fact the dry the grapes out from roughly 3 months after harvest, to concentrate the juices, thus the flavours in the grapes. This is a very laborious way to make wine, so it can be quite expensive to find a good Amarone. Tonight, I present you one of the gems of the regions that allow you to enjoy the elements of Amarone Della Valpolicella without breaking your wallet. Valpolicella Ripasso is a style of wine where they ferment Valpolicella juice with the leftover Amarone skins/lees, to create the perfect bridge between wines. Not only does it mean a lower price point (typically), but it also means that you can enjoy a fresh note of ripe red fruit, with the warming aspects of cocoa, coffee and plum. It’s truly a revelation, and honestly, the perfect wine to enjoy during our cold, dark winters!
Tedeschi San Rocco Ripasso
Ripasso wine is made using an ancient winemaking technique called “Ripasso.” (Some call it the poor man’s Amarone!) The young Valpolicella wine is fermented with the unpressed but drained skins and lees leftover from making Amarone. This adds flavour and intensity though Ripasso normally has a lighter taste than Amarone wines, which makes it easier to combine with food, and is often less expensive. Fruity, well-balanced and very well structured. Best food matches include red meat, game and cheeses.
Wines of Piemonte
Piemonte is the most prestigious wine region in Italy, producing some of Italy’s most prized wine. The reason why Piemonte is considered the ‘Burgundy of Italy” is due to its proximity to France. During all the invasions of Italy, Piemonte was continuously invaded by the French, and the region started to pick up some of the French techniques for viticulture. Here Nebbiolo is Queen, a thin-skinned yet hearty grape that produces some of the most structured wines around. Barolo and Barbaresco are the most sought after regions, yet some of the best examples of this wine do demand some years of ageing before drinking (or at least I recommend it because Nebbiolo produced in these regions are so well structured that it does take some time to soften.) given that Barolo needs some time to age, I chose to pour a more fresh, youthful style, and it turned out to be joint first for favourites this evening!
Cascina Adelaide Barolo – Joint Favourite!
Ruby red wine with a wide garnet rim; on the nose expect notes of wild cherries and undergrowth with a delicate hint of oak, the palate is rightly tannic with a long finish that outlines a fresh acidity. A classic style of Barolo that can age, but also can be enjoyed in youth. Perfect with red meat dishes, game, recipes based around truffle, blue or aged cheeses.
Sweet Wines of Italy
There is a lot of sweet wines produced in Italy, such as Vin Santo, Moscato d’Asti, Recioto Della Valpolicella etc. But this evening I decided to showcase a wine that was a secret to Italy itself for 2000+ years, the wines of Pantelleria. Located 45miles (70km) from the north-east coast of Tunisia, in Northern Africa, this volcanic island is home to some of Europe’s most southerly vineyards. Here the grape Zibibbo (Muscat of Alexandria) thrives, producing wines that are mineral focuses, musky and fresh. The Greeks landed on the island way back when and fell in love with the wines of the island so much that it was mentioned in Greek Mythology. The Greek goddess Tanit seduced Apollo, with the advice of Venus, with the sweet Muscat wines of the island. Because of how popular the wines were on the island, they kept it secret from the mainland for 2000 years. It wasn’t until 1890 that the wines started to be export to the mainland! Crazy! Passito di Pantelleria DOCG is the most famous appellation from the island, producing noble rot affected wines. Donnafugata is the leading producer of this DOCG, so it’s was suiting to pour this evening!
Donnafugata Ben Rye Passito
Explosive, highly perfumed aromas of ripe apricot, peach, citrus fruits, cinnamon and pepper. Pure and clean, with impressive depth to the ripe citrus and peach flavours; an undercurrent of tropical fruits contribute volume and flesh. The concentrated, very long finish throws off notes of lavender and acacia honey. Perhaps the best-ever Ben Rye, amazingly intense yet elegant and impeccably balanced
Italy is full of wonders, and multiple wine styles. I couldn’t pour everything to really showcase Italy’s diversity, so I would highly recommend exploring more! Thank you to everyone who attended this evening, and thank you to Peasant Cheese for all the nibbles!