Exploring different wines (grapes) through their regions
Wine is an integral part of Italy’s culture – gastronomically, economically, socially and otherwise. Italy produces a huge amount of table wine, Vermouth, and cooking wines (such as Marsala). Bread, wine, and olive oil are the country's culinary staples, and wine is seen as a part of the table, with the whole family sharing bottles from local wineries.
Italian wine can be a little confusing and overwhelming. Italy itself is blanketed in vines from head to toe, with 20 individual wine regions across the country, each with its protected geographical denominations and wine classifications.
At the moment, there are about 350 official Italian wine varieties. Each unique grape variety creates a completely different wine in terms of aroma, texture, flavor profile, and body. With that said, grape varieties themselves are only one aspect of the finished wine. Other factors that influence the final result are the climate and soil types in which the grapes are grown, as well as the type of barrel the wine is aged in and the length of time the wine is aged before it's released.
Get up to speed on the basics of Italian wine by exploring these five iconic wine regions.
Tuscany is home to Italy's most scenic vineyards, verdant rolling hills and likely the country's best-known wine, chianti. It is Italy's most ancient wine-producing region, dating back to the 8th century BC. Tuscan wine is characterized by the red Sangiovese grape, which is grown throughout the region and its wines are often blends that incorporate these native Sangiovese grapes. Tuscany is home to the Chianti region which is the most famous region for Sangiovese. The grape is used in several iconic wines: Chianti, Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. When Sangiovese became the required major grape in Chianti during the 1970s, the other noble grapes (Cab and Merlot) ended up creating a new style of wine: Super Tuscan.
White wine is far less common in Tuscany. But keep in mind that Trebbiano is Italy’s most produced white grape and Vermentino has quite a few taste similarities to Sauvignon Blanc.
Try a sweet wine called Vin Santo as well.
Northeast Italy: The "Tre Venezie"
Love white wine? Look no farther than this northeast corner of Italy, which actually comprises three regions―the Veneto, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, and Trentino-Aldo-Adige―and is anchored by Venice. Northeastern Veneto is among Italy’s most productive wine regions, best known for producing its sparkling Prosecco wine. The region’s cool climate near the Alps helps grow fresh and crisp white wines such as Soave (‘swah-vay’), made from Gargenega grapes. it's a wine that’s rich like Chardonnay. Friuli-Venezia Giulia is known for several unique and more intensely flavored styles of Pinot Grigio, (including Ramato) and Sauvignon Blanc, with a slightly meaty undertone.
In Trentino Alto-Adige look for white wines and sparkling wines. This region is butted up to the Alps and makes fabulous white wines from Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Gewürztraminer, and Müller-Thurgau (the latter two are sweeter). In Trento, they also produce a sparkling wine made with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that easily rivals the best Champagne. Copy the locals and enjoy seafood or risotto or crisp salads with these wines.
Around the warmer areas, close to the Adriatic and Lake Garda, you'll find notable red wines: light-bodied ones like pinot nero (otherwise known as pinot noir), lagrein, and schiava. From around Verona, comes one of the most famous red wines of Italy: Amarone della Valpolicella. Besides the great red blends of Valpolicella made with Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara, the area also produces some very savory and umami tasting Merlot.
Italy’s northwestern Piedmont region produces some of the country’s most renowned red wines: Barolo and Barbaresco. Nestled within the Po River Valley, the region is flanked by the frosty Alps up north and is in close proximity to the balmy Mediterranean. The climate creates a characteristic fog that helps to ripen the Nebbiolo grape used in both of these wines. Nebbiolo produces light-colored red wines that have long been famous for its bristling acidity and high tannins, and age well, becoming richer with time. Barolo develops a rich perfume with touches of licorice, rose and truffle when aged, and it pairs well with hearty fare such as red meat. The region is also home to Barbera, Moscato d’Asti and the underdog varietal: Dolcetto which are considered more “everyday” wines; they should be enjoyed young and have soft tannins, making them more palatable and versatile with food pairings. Barbera produces wines with a rich, fruity flavor that retains a light mouthfeel, while Dolcetto is well balanced in terms of acidity and tannins.
Picture the "heel" of the "boot," and you're in Puglia, at the southern tip of eastern Italy. The region has a Mediterranean climate of short, mild winters and hot, dry summers. There's a relaxed bohemian culture here, boating and surfing are common pastimes, and the land is full of lush olive groves. At the market there are incredible fruits and vegetables but historically Puglia hasn't been known as a notable wine region. As a result of an influx of young, passionate winemakers drawn by the potential of the land, this is an upcoming wine region ready to be discovered.
Look for juicy, smooth, easygoing reds made with the Primitivo grape and the Negroamaro grape. The fruit forward red wines from Puglia (Apulia) are a great way to get started with Italian wines. Most are very affordable and the region has a great number of esoteric sweet red wines that grow nowhere else in the world. These easy-going wines pair well everything from pastas to crisp fried eggplant.
Puglia is also a known value region for Chardonnay.
The Italian island of Sicily is one of today's trendiest wine regions. Red wines from Sicily are dark, rich, and fruit forward because of the warm climate. Go to any hip wine bar, and you'll find they offer plenty of selections from Mount Etna as well as the areas surrounding Palermo. The volcanic soil gives a very distinct earthy and mineral quality to Sicilian wines.
The reds are based on grapes varieties Nero d'Avola and Nerello Mascalese, both generally medium-bodied wines with dark fruit-driven flavors. The other main style of red wine in Sicily is frappato.
For white wines, keep an eye out for grillo, a refreshing, light, aromatic white perfect for cooling down in the summertime.