Italian Wine Guide for Beginners

VineyardInteresting Facts about Italian Wine

  • Italy is the worlds largest producer of wine.  In 2014 Italys output took second place after France due to a poor harvest but re-established itself to it’s customary role of making more wine than any other country in 2015
  • Italy is the worlds largest exporter of wine (by volume)
  • The Greeks introduced viniculture to Italy around 800 B.C.
  • Italians drink more wine than anyone else in the world
  • more than one million wine growers live in Italy
  • Sometimes the name of the wine and the grape are the same and sometimes they’re not so you really need to know your stuff e.g. Montepulicano wine is made with the Montepulciano grape.  Wine made in Montepulciano, the place, is not made with the Montelpulciano grape – it’s (mainly) made with the Sangiovese grape, Valpolicella wine is made with, predominantly, the Corvina grape but can also contain Rondinella and Molinara grapes
  • Italy boasts over 2,000 indigenous varieties of grapes, more than any other country in the world
  • until the 1960s only about 5% of Italian wines were even bottled
  • Italy was referred to as the “land of wine” because of its rich diversity of grape varieties and many acres dedicated to cultivated vines
  • the most difficult thing about learning about Italian wine is learning about the grape varieties

Geography

Italy is vastly varied in soil, climate and topography and vines are grown the length and breadth of the country, from top to bottom, in the mountains to the islands, on improbably steep cliffs and terraces overlooking the sea, on the slopes of volcanoes, just about everywhere.

There are 20 regions in Italy, all of which produce their own wines with their own methods and customs.Map of Italy

Northern Italy

All seven regions in Northern Italy (Liguria, Piedmont, Valle d’Aosta, Lombardy, Trentino-Alto Adige, Fruili-Venezia Giulia and Veneto) are connected by the Alps and each has its own microclimate and its own grapes and special wines.

Starting in the North West at Piedmont, the Nebbiolo grape is grown producing the revered Barolo (the “wine of kings”) and Barbaresco wines, named after the hilltop hamlets where the wines were born with most wines are produced on family estates, made up of relatively small parcels of land.

Further east, in the Veneto region, home to some of Italys best know wines, Soave and Valpolicella.  Soave is made with the Garganega grape and Valpolicella with the Covina grape.  One of Italy’s most distinctive wines is also made here, silky Amarone, with its intense concentration of red berry and spice, high alcohol and full body, wine makers follow an ancient formula known as passito in which wine is made from grapes dried on straw mats.

The Veneto, Trentino, Alto Adige, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia are celebrated for their white wines—with Pinot Grigio leading the way.  Italy’s best sparkling wine is made in Trentino and the Franciacorta area of Lombardy under strict regulation with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes.  The ever-popular Prosecco is made in Veneto and Fruili-Venezia Giulia areas from the Glera grape.

Central Italy

Tuscany is the more well-known of the Italian regions in Central Italy.  The others being Umbria, Lazio, Le Marche, and Abruzzo each producing their own distinctive wines.

The most dominant and prestigious grape of Tuscany is Sangiovese which is used to produce well-known wines such as Chianti (minimum 70% Sangiovese), Brunello di Montalcino (100% Sangiovese), Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (minimum 70% Sangiovese), San Gimignano whites, Bolgheri and Maremma reds.  Wines produced in Tuscany that are either blended with international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah or are made entirely from international varieties are known as ‘Super Tuscans’ – the term keyed when winemakers began mixing these non-indigenous wine varieties into their blends to make high quality wines.

Umbria is know for its white wine Orvieto which is made from a blend of Grechetto, Trebbiano and sometimes some other local grapes.

Lazio is best know for Frascati which is a blend of Malvasia and Trebbiano.

Le Marche, located on the eastern side of the Appenines is most famous for Verdicchio which, some say, is the best European white wine to pair with seafood.  Also produced in Le Marche, which is gaining more and more prominence in the wine world, are Rosso Piceno and Rosso Conero, both of which are a blend of Sangiovese and Montepulciano grapes.

Abruzzo is most famous for the production of Montepulciano d’Abruzzzo made with the Montepulciano grape.

Southern Italy and the Islands

The regions of southern Italy (Campania, Basilicata and Puglia), and the island of Sicily in particular, are regarded as Italy’s enological frontier.

Campania has been making wine since the 13th centruy B.C. and boasts wonderful whites such as Fiano and Greco di Tufo.  It has, more recently, begun to command international respect for its “Barolo of the south”, Taurasi, produced with the Aglianico grape.

That same grape (Aglianico) makes Basilicata’s Aglianico del Vulture.

Puglia produces the most wine of all southern regions.  It is most famous for its Primitivo (Zinfandel) and Negroamaro grape varities.

Sicily has been producing wine for thousands of years, even before the greeks arrived.  Nero d’Avola (red) has become the star of Sicilian wines in the last two decades and Grillo (a white once used in the production of Marsala wine) have both helped in promoting the Italian south in general as a great wine region. Some of Europe’s most sensuous dessert wines come from Sicily’s islands, like the honey-rich Passito di Pantelleria.

Famous Wines of Italy

The more famous of the Italian wines are:

BaroloArguably the most expensive wine produced in Italy.  Made from the Nebbiolo grape in the northern region of Piedmont. It’s a particularly rich, full-bodied red.

Asti SpumantiOne of the most famous sparkling white wines in Italy again from the Piedmont region.

ChiantiMade in the area of Chianti in Tuscany, this red wine contains at least 80% Sangiovese grape. Chianti is one of the best wine regions for both quality and accessibility.

Brunello di Montalcino: Another famous Tuscan wine.  Made in Montalcino from 100% Sangiovese grapes and historically considered Tuscany’s number-one wine.

Super Tuscans: Another Tuscan delight.  These wines are those that don’t adhere to the region’s usual blending laws, meaning they vary greatly. Some, though, are among the most expensive and renowned in the region.

Prosecco: Italys most popular sparkling white wine produced in the Veneto region of northern Italy from the Glera grape.  In recent years Prosecco has become more and more popular outside of Italy and has become the go-to sparkling wine, particularly in the UK where sales have increased 6,000% in the past 4 years.

Learn more about other Grape varieties here

Vocabulary

  • “Vino rosso”: red wine
  • “Vino bianco”: white wine
  • “Vino rosato”: rosé wine
  • Vino amabile”: a medium-sweet wine
  • Vino dolce”: sweet wine
  • “Vino secco”: dry wine
  • “Vino abboccato”: semi-dry wine
  • “Vino corposo”: a full-bodied wine
  • “Vino aromatico”: aromatic wine
  • “Vino frizzante”: semi-sparkling wine
  • azienda”: estate
  • “anno”: year
  • produttore”: producer
  • “Gradazione alcolica”: alcohol percentage
  • “imbottigliato all’origine,”: wine bottled by the producer
  • “Vendemmia” harvest (i.e. the vintage)
  • vitigno”: vine

Pronunciation of Italian Wine Names

  • Amarone: ah mah RO nae
  • Brunello di Montalcino: brew NEL lo dee mahn tahl CHEE no
  • Chianti Classico: key AHN tee CLAHS see co
  • Dolcetto: dohl CHET toh
  • Frascati: frah SKAH tee
  • Lacryma Christi: LAH cree mah CHREE stee
  • Montepulciano: mon tae pull chee AH noh
  • Moscato d’Asti: mo SCAH toh DAHS tee
  • Pinot Grigio: pee noh GREE joe
  • Rosso Cònero: ROHS so COH neh ro
  • Salice Salentino: SAH lee chae sah len TEE no
  • Soave: so AH
  • Taurasi: touw RAH see
  • Verdicchio: ver DEE key oh

Conclusion

And that’s just the beginning.  There is so much more to learn.

I hope you found this interesting and now have a better idea about Italian wines.  Feel free to leave any comments or suggestions below.

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