The state of Italian wine-making – and its international reputation – have undoubtedly suffered over the years from unhelpful wine laws, confusing labelling, inconsistent, often rough wine-making and a reputation for cheap wine, supplied by volume rather quality.
Decades of working within a strait-jacket of regulations has led to unhelpful anomalies in the Italian fine wine scene. Some of the best, most progressive, most expensive wines in Italy have been forced to carry the humblest “Vino da Tavola” designation: the same category as a sea of cheap plonk, simply because the men-in-suits had forbidden the use of certain grape varieties and treatments within the rigid Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) classification.
All that changed – or should have changed – in 1992 when a whole new set of regulations came into force. Aimed at modernising the Italian wine industry, the reforms should iron out the ludicrous anomalies and re-position Italy on the world stage. For a start, a new classification system has been introduced with a brand new designation, Indicazione Geografica Tipica, or IGT (a similar concept to France’s Vin de Pays). More importantly, it allows flexibility within the DOC and higher DOCG categories. In theory, any wine can qualify if it achieves certain quality standards over a period of time.
At the top of the 1992 quality pyramid, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) is awarded to the most prestigious wines of a region. It enforces tight regulatory controls, such as restricted yields. Particularly outstanding proprietary wines (namely the “super Vini di Tavola”) can be awarded DOCG all of their own. One rung below, at DOC level, are wines that maintain consistently high standards. These can move up to DOCG depending on their performance over a period of years. The new IGT classification is currently a bit unloved and unused. Not too many have appeared on the shelves and we must wait to see if it is embraced by the wine-makers. At the base of the pyramid, VdT wines are mostly pretty ordinary stuff, with high yields and lax regulations. Confusingly, many of the superstar wines still carry this classification for now.
Italy is in many ways the ideal grape growing factory. A tradition of wine-making stretches back thousands of years to the Etruscans. It is the country with the largest wine output in the world. From the cool, Alpine climate of the north-east, to the baking heat of the far south, Italy has a variety of climatic conditions and soil types that are capable of a huge diversity of agriculture. All of this lies within ideal vine-growing latitudes, with a backbone of mountains and hillside slopes running the length of the country.
Up in the north-west lies Piedmont, home of some of Italy’s greatest and most profound wines. Red wines made from the Nebbiolo grape, like Barolo and Barbaresco, are long-lived, complex, very serious wines. Traditionally these wines need long periods of cellaring before they reveal a core of intense fruit and a tremendous array of evocative flavours. A group of dedicated and quality conscious producers such as Gaja, Aldo Conterno and Giacosa lead the field here, and although age-old traditions persist, some visionaries are pushing the boundaries to create less forbidding, more approachable styles. East of Piedmont, the Veneto is a vast area producing oceans of wine, much of it cheap and not particularly cheerful. Names are familiar to British wine lovers, like Valpolicella and Soave. There is excellent wine being made in this region however. One of the keys is to look for the term “Classico” on the label. Soave Classico and Valpolicella Classico come from the superior hillside vineyards and are usually far removed from the expressionless versions made from grapes grown on the valley floor. Over on the Austrian border, the areas of Trentino and Alto Adige are making some flavourful, fresh white wines of high quality. Up and coming fast are the traditional method sparkling wines of the Franciacorta retgion in Lombardy.
In the centre of the country is Tuscany. This is the land of Chianti and of beautiful, rolling countryside, olive groves and cypress trees. Though a huge amount of plain, easy-drinking wine is made in the region, the best quality wines generally come from the Chianti Classico zone, stretching between Florence and Siena. These wines, at regular and Riserva levels, are usually reliable and can be breathtaking. Based on the Sangiovese grape, Chianti is normally a firm style of wine with a notable bitter edge, but plenty of ripe, cherry fruit and spicy, tobacco and herbal notes. The best producers, including Antinori, Castell’in Villa, San Felice and Isole e Olena, are making expensive but wonderful wines.These often include single vineyard grands vins, which scale the heights of world wine-making. Look out too for wines from the coastal Maremma, a relatively recent development that has seen Bordeaux varieties planted alongside Sangiovese in areas like Bolgheri, to produce some excellent high-end wines.
There are some extremely interesting and inexpensive wines being produced in the south-eastern part of the country, from the Marches down to Apulia (Puglia) in the heel of Italy. Value for money favourites include Salice Salentino and Brindisi. Look for the wines of Taurino – amongst the best and most reliable names in the area. Some superb whites are also being made in the south, using New World techniques with cool, stainless steel fermentation. The local Greco grape makes lively and lemony-fresh wines of some distinction. Look for Campania and Basilicata on the label – also for reds made from the Aglianico variety.
The dried grape wines
An interesting range of wines which are unique to Italy are made with grapes dried in the warm air by laying them out on mats after harvesting. These recioto grapes make two basic styles of wine: Amarone, which is vinified to be dry and very alcoholic, and Recioto, where the fermentation is stopped earlier so that sweetness remains – though these are still deeply coloured, strong red wines. Something of an acquired taste, but look out for Amarones and Reciotos from producers like Alighieri, Masi and Allegrini.
Along with the more classic Chianti and Barolo, the wines which perhaps point the way for the Italian fine wine industry are the “super Vini de Tavola”.
These wines, mostly emanating from Tuscany, are made from a high proportion of international grape varieties like cabernet sauvignon or merlot. They are aged in new oak, and subjected to very non-traditional methods. For just as long as these wines have been breaking the rules, they have also been snapped up at high prices by international wine-lovers. They have helped put Italy back on the fine wine map and are wines of world-class quality. Names to look out for include Ornellaia, Tignanello and Sassicaia, but you’ll pay through the nose for them.Though I feel it would be a great shame for Italy to lose sight of its indigenous grape varieties and age-old methods (as long as these are kept under review to avoid stagnation), there is no doubt that such a prolific wine producing nation needs pioneers and standard-bearing wines to, hopefully, cause a rippling effect throughout the entire industry.
Italy certainly has the raw materials to compete on the world wine stage at all levels. It is surely one of the European wine countries to watch most closely.