Italian Wines

Even before the Etruscans settled in Italy around 1000 B.C., there had already been a tradition of vines, grapes and wine. Though the Etruscans came from the east where cultivation of crops and winegrowing already had reached a certain stage of evolution, there was no doubt that the vine and winemaking already existed in Italy. The Greeks called Italy Oenotria, when they colonized it, the land of wine. In the Homerian Odyssey, in Sicily on Mount Etna, after Homer is able to blind the Cyclops, the Cyclops falls asleep due to an excess of wine. Italy has perhaps the richest variety of grapes, some believe that there are over 2000 different varieties in that small country. Virgil exclaimed that knowing and recognizing the variety of vines in Italy would be no different than counting the sands of the Libyan desert. And, like France and a number of other wine-producing countries around the world, there are almost as many different climate and soil combinations. Many of the wines from Italy are considered the best of the world, with aging potentials of decades and price tags to match. But like France, much of the wine is excellent for what it is and reasonably priced. These everyday wines are prized not only in Italy, but abroad as well.


The Veneto region with its three sub-divisions (Veneto, Trentino Alto Adige and Fruili Venezia Giulia), rival Puglia in the total volume of wine production, yet is home to many well-known quality wines. In Veneto, near Treviso is the world’s first oenology school in Conegliano, founded in 1877, which added an experimental laboratory in 1923 and has made many contributions to winegrowing and winemaking over the years. The Treviso area is well-known for its Prosecco production, with Conegliano and Valdobbiadene being the DOC appellations for these wines. The grapes here grow on rolling foothills to the Alps to the north alongside rivers, primarily the Piave. Trentino Alto Adige, north and west, is marked by steeper Alpine slopes with warm days and cool nights and many grapes varieties of its own. When the Alps heat up during the morning sun, warm breezes come off the Adriatic Sea, making the area one of the warmest in Italy during the day. During late afternoon, the sun leaves the Alpine slopes and they immediately cool, sending cool air all the way down to the sea. At higher elevations, this provokes a brief rain shower as the Alpine air takes the moisture out of the atmosphere. To the east Fruili Venezia Giulia is also an area of foothills that overlook the Adriatic, with many vineyards being terraced. Of Its production, over 40 percent is DOC wine, with an emphasis on whites. Like its neighbors, many of the varieties are those unique to this region, with a number having origins farther north in Europe.


Although most recognized for its prized Barolos and Barbarescos, Piemonte is also well-known for its Moscato. Virtually all of its heralded wines come from native varieties. Piemonte has the most vineyards classified as DOC or DOCG of any region (38), yet is only seventh in production among them. The area not only benefits from a wide variety of soils, but also has a very varied climate, with snow in the winter, with fog and cool temperatures in the spring and fall, and dry, warm summer weather. Barbaresco, like Barolo, is made from the Nebbiolo grape and is grown on a steep hillside overlooking the right bank of the Tanaro River. These wines also benefit from oak aging, but tend to mature more rapidly than the Barolos. Although many of the wines from Piemonte are known from their district’s (appellation) names, there are a number of varietals whose name describes the appellation: Barbera, Dolcetto, and Moscato, with the vineyard’s or village’s names attached to designate the climat. Barbera represents perhaps half of Piemonte’s wine production and can yield a lighter, easy drinking style or one that is rich and complex with aging potential, especially when it has the right soil and climatic conditions. One other white wine of note is the Gavi, made from the Cortese grape, which gives a light-bodied wine that goes very well with the local fish dishes.


‘The King of Wines’ and ‘the Wine of Kings’ is a well-known description of Barolo. Made from the Nebbiolo grape, which was in wide use in this area of Italy before 1300 A.D. Barolo was the drink of choice of the monarchs of the House of Savoy, who unified the Kingdom of Italy from 1861 to the end of World War II (and governed other countries and districts of the Mediterranean basin). This aristocratic grape variety demands a carefully chosen climate and soil to produce great wines. When the conditions are right, the vineyards produce very low yields of very high quality grapes. Because of the concentration of the grapes, the tannins are quite strong when young, and in order to be labeled Barolo, the wine must first mature for a minimum of 3 years in barrel. Most wineries then continue aging in the bottle for another year or two before release. This wine shows very well with game, red meat roasts, and stews, especially those that feature the porcini mushroom or truffle in the preparation or sauce. Even when well-aged, the wine should be decanted and served at cellar temperature.