Italian wines: history, origins and grape varieties
Italian wines are known all over the world, but what made them so famous? What are their characteristics? What are the finest wines of the peninsula? Italy is one of the most important wine-growing countries in Europe, as well as one of the oldest. Let's find out together what made it so.
The history of Italian wines and their success
From recent discoveries, we know that viticulture in Italy was due to the Etruscan people, already in the 8th century B.C. and probably even earlier. Then the Greeks followed, bringing along technique and knowledge improvements, as you can tell by the name of some Italian vines still existing, such as Greco and Aglianico (which comes from Hellenic). However, it’s thanks to those bon vivant of the Romans, great enthusiasts, that winemaking was greatly promoted and wine trade as well. And as their influence expanded, so did the Roman taste for wine, not only in Italy, but throughout Western and Central Europe.
With the fall of the Roman Empire and the turmoil brought about by the Barbarian invasions a long dark period begined for the entire industry. For a long time the only wine that was made was intended for mass and it’s mostly the monks who took care of wine growing.
Let's jump forward to the arrival of the great Florentine and Venetian merchants. Some of these ancient noble families are still known today and are more active than ever, as great wine producers such as Antinori and Frescobaldi, who started a flourishing business in the 13th and 14th centuries, especially in the trade of Bordeaux wines. The real viticulture in Italy only returned to full capacity in the 19th century, thanks to the impulse of Piedmont and Tuscany, which began to apply some French techniques to produce their own wines: this is how Barolo, Brunello and Chianti.
However, the twentieth century brings bad news to the whole continent. It’s the phylloxera, a parasite that destroyed all European vineyards until the early decades of the 1900s. The two World Wars, in addition to wreaking havoc in European countries, stole labor from the fields which in many cases remained uncultivated. After the war, Italian winemakers rolled up their sleeves and got the Italian wine sector back on its feet. Initially they chose to focus mainly on mass production, but there was a change in trend starting from the 60s. Local vines were rediscovered and they learned how to cultivate international vines on Italian soil, like for the elaboration of great Tuscan wines, which critics eventually started to call Super Tuscan.
Its history already gives the weight and measure of how important and valuable is viticulture in Italy: today it represents a giant in the wine world on a global level and as for the quantity of wine produced, but above all for the high quality standards.
The classification of fine Italian wines: what do the abbreviations mean? Italy holds a treasure unique in the world. That is the incredible variety and quantity of local grape varieties. The latest counts show more than 500, and new ones are registered every year. A very strict classification adds to the confusion of all these names, which, however, serves to preserve the uniqueness of different traditions. These are the most common wording that you can find on Italian wine labels:
IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica)
DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata)
DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita)
For the classification of Italian wines, you might want to picture a pyramid system. Let's start with the so-called Generic Wines, produced outside the regulations. At the base of the pyramid is IGT (Geographical Typical Indication), wines that come for at least 85% of the geographical area whose name they bear. The next appellation is the DOC (Appellation of Controlled Origin), whose specifications provide for quality controls for the entire production cycle, which must comply with the provisions of the same. At the top of the pyramid is the prestigious DOCG (Appellation of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin), which means that regulations are even stricter than those of DOCs.
For both appellations of origin, the legislation also provides for sub-areas, which represent the highest step of the pyramid of the classification of Italian wines: these are specific areas, limited to a municipality, a district, a farm, a vineyard or even a plot, which are an expression of superior quality and need even more restrictive rules. Finally, the legislation also provides for the mentions "Riserva" for wines subjected to longer aging than that of the appellation, "Classico", only for non-sparkling wines produced in the area of older origin, and "Superiore”, used to qualify wines with an alcoholic volume of at least 1% higher than the minimum established by the official guidelines. Sometimes, but not always, it can also provide a lower yield per hectare and, therefore, a better quality than the version without the mention.
The types of wine in the Italian regions
If it is true that some areas abroad are hugely more renowned than others, it is also true that in every Italian region vines are grown and wines of all types are produced. Northern Italy is famous in particular for the production of immense red wines, in Piedmont, and sparkling wines, in Lombardy with the Franciacortas, and in Veneto with the well-known Prosecco. And if you go to the Northeast regions, you’ll find more fine wines, like Friuli Venezia Giulia known especially for whites, and the high quality of both reds and whites from Alto Adige and Trentino. On the west side, on the other hand, there is Liguria, famous for its fresh white wines from Vermentino grapes.
Central Italy includes Tuscany, known all over the world for its prestigious red wines, Marches, famous above all for the whites from Verdicchio, Umbria and Abruzzo, emerging regions in the Italian wine scene. On the Adriatic side, you will find a region that stands out for the production of sparkling red wines: Emilia Romagna.
In Southern Italy, Campania leaps to the eye for important white wines from Fiano, and Basilicata, known for red wine Aglianico. Finally, there are the islands, Sicily and Sardinia, which offer absolute pearls in the production of both whites and reds.
Other regions entered at a later time the market of fine wines. Among these: Puglia, which is slowly taking off with its red wines from Primitivo, Calabria and Lazio, and where some companies are increasingly enhancing the territory in the production of both whites and reds, and finally Molise.
The most prestigious and important grape varieties in Italy
The most sophisticated red wines of Italy derive mainly from two grape varieties, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, which cover just 1% of the total national vineyards, although a role of growing importance is also played by Barbera and Aglianico, able to offer wines of considerable longevity; among the white grapes, on the other hand, there is an actual mosaic across all Italy, but we could say that the greatest Italian whites are obtained in Alto Adige and Friuli from indigenous vines Gewürztraminer and Ribolla Gialla and international grape varieties, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. From these grapes some of the finest of the world wine aristocracy are elaborated, highly sought after and of absolute prestige, such as the Piedmontese wines Barolo, Barbaresco and the Tuscan Brunello.
The great Tuscan wines and their importance on the market
Tuscany wines represent some of the foundation of the entire Italian wine culture: red Tuscan wines are famous all over the world and are a must for all winos. Tuscan wine is known for having an important structure, recognizable aromas and flavors, thanks to the organoleptic qualities of its territory which produces red and white wines, excellent in all respects. The most famous Tuscan wines benefit from a variety of grapes which are deeply expressed on the Tuscan terroir. Furthermore, the Tuscan DOC wines have over 100 appellations, while there are about 20 appellations of Tuscan DOCG wines.
But which are the most famous Tuscan wines? Among the most desired wines you can find Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti, probably the best Tuscan wines and most representative of this land. They are both based on Tuscan Sangiovese, the most local of all Tuscan varieties, from which the fine Tuscan wines are born. Another excellent red Tuscan wine is Nobile di Montepulciano, produced in the province of Siena. Even the white Tuscan wine is very qualitative, although less renowned than the red. If you are looking for fine Tuscan wines, check out the selection on our online wine store.
The most recent Tuscan wine history also witnesses great wines being produced from international vines: these are the Super Tuscans, issued from Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, such as Sassicaia, Masseto, Ornellaia and Tignanello. Sassicaia is one of the most renowned wines of the Tuscan tradition. Bolgheri Sassicaia, commonly known as Sassicaia, is a DOC wine whose production takes place in a specific area of the municipality of Castagneto Carducci, near Livorno, with a blend of at least 80% of Cabernet Sauvignon. Bolgheri Sassicaia is created by Tenuta San Guido, which owns all the vineyards within the delimited area. The challenge of planting Cabernet Sauvignon in Maremma was an immediate success, when in 1972 Sassicaia won in a blind tasting in London against the best Cabernets of the world. The 100/100 rating given by critic Robert Parker then marked its destiny forever.
Other important Italian wines and spirits
In addition to the production of great red and white wines, Italy is also famous for some great fortified wines. The famous "meditation wines" are exactly that. There are examples of great passitos and fortified Italian wines capable of conquering palates all over the world.
The Italians have learned to master the art of withering grapes long ago. This consists in letting the grapes dehydrate - they must “appassire”, wither, in fact - losing water and becoming more concentrated before making wine. A great example is Amarone della Valpolicella. Apart from the withering operation, for the rest these wines use normal vinification techniques and therefore are dry.
To get to a sweet wine it’s necessary to stop the alcoholic fermentation, adding a certain quantity of alcohol: in other words, you have to “fortify” them. This is how the renowned Sicilian sweet wines Zibibbo and Marsala were born. Finally, we’d like to mention a famous spirit, Grappa, distilled from grape skins and its seeds, the marc. Among the most renowned areas, the Geographical Indication Grappa Veneta or Grappa del Veneto is reserved exclusively for marc spirit, made from grapes produced and vinified in the region, distilled and bottled in Veneto.
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