Just Perfetto: A Guide To The Rich History Of Italian Wines
Jan 19, 2024
Italy produces some of the world’s most popular wines, including Prosecco and Pinot Grigio. However, with over 600 grape varieties and 20 wine producing regions, there’s far more to Italian wine than a few famous names. Here is an overview of the long and proud history of winemaking in Italy.
Wine is a part of the culture in Italy, with roots stretching all the way back to the 8th century BC. The Greek first introduced the art of viticulture to southern Italy and Sicily, with the warm sunny Mediterranean climate and fertile soils creating ideal conditions for vineyards to thrive.
The wine-making era really took off after the Roman defeat of the Carthaginians, which opened the way for larger plantations to be created, often through the use of slave labour. The Romans developed many of the winemaking techniques that are still in use today, such as the process of ageing wine in oak barrels to make it taste better.
They also experimented with adding flavourings such as herbs, honey, and even salt. The prolific Italian wine industry fell into a decline after the fall of the Roman Empire, but during the Renaissance it sprang back to life. The Christian monasteries had kept the viticulture quietly ticking over in the background, and it once again flourished.
However, during the mid-nineteenth century the vine louse phylloxera devastated many of Europe’s vine species, spread by agricultural workers who moved around vineyards. The insect feeds and lays its eggs on the roots of the vine plant, causing them to weaken and eventually die.
Eventually, vine species were able to evolve and develop a resilience to these insects. However, in many areas including some of Italy’s most prestigious vineyards, the quality of the new vines was inferior, leading to some rather indifferent wine being produced in the early to mid twentieth century.
During the 1960s, stricter laws and quality control standards were introduced alongside a new classification system. This helped to raise Italian wines back to the high standards that they have a well-deserved reputation for today.
There are four basic classifications of Italian wine that are defined by regional wine laws, known as Denominazione de Origine Controllata (DOC). The Vini DOC wines are generally generic table wines, while the Vini DOP wines have a protected designation of origin, indicating a higher level of quality. Italy produces over 350 types of wine, more than any other country in the world.
Types of Italian wines
Italy is particularly famed for its sparkling white wines such as Prosecco, Asti, and Lambrusco. These wines have a great flavour profile and are an excellent affordable alternative to Champagne. The best quality proseccos originate from the Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia regions in the north of the country.
Prosecco must be produced using at least 85% Glera grape and it is fermented in a tank to produce the characteristic bubbles and fruity flavours. Asolo Prosecco is regarded as one of the highest quality varieties. It has the most prestigious DOCG status, ensuring it is produced by the approved methods.
However, the most expensive prosecco is produced to the east side of the Piave river in the Veneto region, and is known as Conegliano Valdobbiadene, quite a tongue-twister for a non-native speaker. It has crisp and complex flavours with sweet undertones.
Italy also produces some of the world’s finest red wines, with complex and full-bodied flavours. Well known types include Chianti, Barolo, Barbaresco, and Primitivo.
Also noted for exceptionally high quality is Amarone della Valpolicella from the Veneto region. Its flavours are described thus: “dried strawberry and raspberry supported by notes of espresso, dark chocolate, cinnamon and raspberry jam as well as balsamic vinegar and sour dark cherry.” That sounds extremely impressive for a single wine type!
Pinot Grigio is probably one of the most popular types of white wine in the world, it’s named from the grape it's produced from, and is produced in the Veneto and Alto Adige regions. It’s one of the most affordable wines from Italy, and has a classic fruity flavour profile, with top notes of spices and hazelnut.
Other Italian whites of note include Gavi, which is produced from the Cortese grape in the Piemonte region. It’s a crisp and fruity wine with nutty overtones, and is a perfect accompaniment to seafood.