If the Roman Empire didn’t venture much further than where vines could be grown, it’s because wine has always been at the heart of Roman civilisation. Here is our guide to one of the most stunningly beautiful wine-making countries, Italy.
The tradition of Italian winemaking can be traced all the way back to the Etruscans. Since Antiquity, therefore, the vineyard has been accorded careful attention. So much so that Emperor Domitian ordered the destruction of vines in provinces under Roman rule in order to protect his own from competition in the year 92. Nevertheless, Italy had looked at the success of French wine with envy up until the 20th century. Since then, however, many brilliant winemakers have displayed the quality of Italy’s incredible terroirs to the world. The climates, terroirs, and grape varieties on the peninsula are unparalleled in their diversity.
The hierarchy of Italian appellations
The system of Italian appellations has evolved since 1963, becoming relatively easy to follow:
In the same way as IGP wines in France, Italian IGPs (Indicazione Geografica Protteta) refers to the loosest boundaries. This ranges from varietal wines to the best producers who don’t wish to submit themselves to the restrictions that come with appellations.
Among the DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta), the equivalent of AOP, we find DOCs (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and DOCGs. The DOCs impose more specific and demanding requirements and regulate the use of grape varieties.
DOCGs (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), the equivalent of a grand cru, are subject to even stricter regulations, a serial number, and tasting before bottling. Most DOCGs are found in the regions of Piedmont, Tuscany and Venice.
As is the case in the French system, there is a minimum time frame before an appellation can progress from IGP to DOC, or from DOC to DOCG.
The main Italian regions
This is the most northern of the Italian winemaking regions. At the foot of the Alps, production here has something in common with Swiss and Savoy wines: the combination of mature fruit and marked acidity. Yet the climates here vary depending on the altitude and the valleys where the domains are found. These wines are largely produced in IGP.
There are several grape varieties grown in this region. You can find native grape varieties like Morei, Terodelgo, Lagrein and Schiava, as well as French varieties like Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet. The reds are flavourful and fruity, with some of them being well-structured and wonderful for ageing. For white wine there is Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Riesling and Gewurtztraminer. These are all superb, being at once mature and fresh. Whether it’s white or red, we love the wines made by Elisabetta Foradori, who farms her vines biodynamically. Her lower-range wines are fruity and flavourful, whilst her finest cuvées are among the best produced in the whole of Italy.
This region extends from the foot of the Alps to south of Turin, and mainly produces red wine. The Barbera and Dolcetto grape varieties give delicious wines that are easy to drink and bursting with an impressive fruitiness. But the star variety of this region is undoubtedly Nebbiolo. Its clear colour might be reminiscent of Pinot Noir, but its brick-red hue makes it distinguishable. The nose is more powerful, evolving into notes of leather and spices. To taste, the finest Nebbiolo is equal in finesse to the best of the Côte de Nuits, with a higher level of alcohol. If you like reds from Burgundy, you’re bound to love Barolos and Barbarescos.
This DOCG is one of the best, and certainly the most famous, appellations in Italy. South of Alba, in the Langhe, it extends across two valleys and five villages: La Morra, Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Monforte d’Alba and Serralunga d’Alba. As is the case for Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo is very sensitive to soil, exposure and other climate factors. Whilst there isn’t an official classification, the highest-quality places are often marked on the label like Rocche dell’Annunziata, Monfortino and Brunate. There is a very long maturation period of at least 38 months, increasing to 62 months for the Riserva wines. There are two philosophies that clash here, between the traditionalists who defend their deep but sometimes austere wines, and winemakers who prefer Barolos with a fruitier character. In any case, Barolos are exceptional wines that require at least 15 years of ageing in order to fully evolve. Among the best producers, we can cite Elio Altare, Luigi Pira, Roagna, Luciano Sandrone, Burlotto and Roberto Voerzio.
Located just a few kilometres from Barolo, the DOCG Barbaresco also produces magnificent Nebbiolo wines. The vast majority of this region’s producers have vines in both appellations. Barbaresco wines are quite similar but can usually be enjoyed well before Barolos. Angelo Gaja’s wines are absolute must-haves.
Tuscany mainly produces red wine, and Sangiovese is the grape variety of choice here, also known as Montepulciano or Brunello. The Corsican Nielluciu is a clone of the Italian Sangiovese. The region also produces white wine from Trebbiano and Vermentino grapes.
Sangiovese’s worldwide reputation is owed to Chianti. It represents at least 80% of the blend, completed with Merlot or Canaiolo. Unfortunately, this appellation has been somewhat tarnished by the intensive production introduced in order to meet demand. This said, talented producers like Sebastiano Castiglioni and his Querciabella domain and the Martini di Cigala family’s San Giusto a Rentennano create breath-taking wines. The bottles produced are concentrated, warm, and comparable to the structured wines of the southern Rhône or the Languedoc.
Brunello di Montalcino
Legend has it that a local winemaker, Clemente Santi, isolated a local variety of Sangiovese, called Brunello, adapting it perfectly to the terroir. After this, the Biondi Santi domain only produced its Brunello di Montalcino in the best vintage years, giving it legendary status. Still to this day the domains regularly downgrade their produce to DOC Rosso di Montalcino. Brunello di Montalcino is a mythical appellation, producing concentrated wine with superb ageing potential, austere in their youth but incredibly complex. The wines from Conti Costanti, Angelo Gaja and la Fortuna are unmissable.
The ‘Super Tuscans’
This is a movement that was launched by Tenuta San Guido, a domain that wished to leave the DOCG Chianti in order to plant Bordeaux grape varieties. Their fine wine Sassicaia set an example, and other domains followed closely in their footsteps. These wines are fantastic, with a style closely resembling that of the finest Bordeaux crus. Originally labelled an IGP, Tenuta San Guido now has its own DOC, Bolgheri Sassicaia.
Sicilian producers, too, manage to make wonderfully balanced wines thanks to its island climate. The rising star of the region is Arianna Occhipinti, who masterfully blends native grape varieties like Frappato and Nero d’Avola for red wines, and Albanello and Zibibbo for whites. Superb, mature, and balanced wines that might remind you of the finest cuvées from Corsica.
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