Wine and Italy

wine and italy

With over 50 liters per person per year, Italy is one of the largest wine consumers in the world. It goes without saying that wine is deeply entrenched in Italian culture. Wine is standard on the dinner table of every family and it’s generally not seen as a decadent treat, but rather as a noble complement to the meal, at par with bread. And, right next to bread, wine is even “sanctified” by being an important part of the Catholics celebrations.

Even though Italians are exposed to wine from the time they are very young, children are generally not attracted to it. This is partly due to the fact that table wines tend to be an acquired taste, and arguably also because the wine’s appeal is demystified by its wide availability. As a result, generally, there is no need for the law to regulate wine commercialization or consumption based on age. Anybody can buy wine (or any other type of alcohol, for that matter) in regular grocery shops and supermarkets. The young generations, however, are nowadays getting more and more attracted to wine in a phenomenon that has seen the rebirth of ‘enoteche’. Literally meaning wine cellars, enoteche are wine-tasting bars that offer wine by the glass or by the bottle, usually along with cold cuts and cheese.

The passion for wine is big in most Italians, but excluding professional winemakers almost no Italian is interested in making their own – certainly, there are no wine kits available! This is because winemaking is considered a challenging process that is usually not worth the effort, given that in Italy basic wines are inexpensive and generally far more pleasing (to the refined average palate) than any amateur wines. Some people, however, order large quantities of wine from the makers and have it delivered to their homes by tanker. They usually store it in their own demijohns and then fill one flask at a time, or bottle it in glass bottles meant to be reused. This is a relatively common practice in certain areas, both and as a hobby and to save money on an item of everyday consumption, as wine is.

Vineyards in Tuscany
Vineyards in Tuscany

As we were saying, winemaking is complex. The process starts with the preparation of the grapes, which is different for red and for white wines. To make red wine, black or red grapes are machine crushed (no one stomps on the grapes with their feet anymore!) and allowed to have a first fermentation along with their skins. White wine is instead fermented grape juice, extracted by pressing grapes and discarding the skins. As a result, it’s technically possible to make white wines out of red grapes, though generally, this is not the case. Rosé wines are made by extracting juice from red grapes while allowing a minimal contact with their skins (and absolutely not by mixing red and white wines!) The reason why the skin makes so much difference lies in its high content of polyphenols, compared to the grape’s pulp. Not only do polyphenols affect the flavor and the color of the wine, but they are also responsible for the tannins (and the astringent mouthfeel that they bring). Polyphenols also act as antioxidants with a stabilizing effect that allows red wines to age far longer than any white wines.

The first fermentation starts when yeast is added to convert the sugars into ethanol (and CO2, which is released into the air), a process that usually takes a couple of weeks. If this transformation is incomplete, some of the sugars contained in the grapes remain in the must and the resulting wine will be sweet (the fermentation can be interrupted by lowering the temperature or by adding chemicals to kill the yeast). Wines then undergo a second fermentation: a bacterial process meant to reduce the wine’s acidity. White wines are generally fermented in stainless steel containers, whereas reds can be transferred to wood kegs to absorb additional flavors. To obtain sparkling wines, a third fermentation takes place inside of the bottle, where CO2 is trapped.

Because of their different composition, red wines and white wines have unique properties and different uses. White wines usually have a lower percentage of alcohol (10-12%), they are consumed slightly chilled (around 10 °C) and are paired up with appetizers, delicate first courses, white meats, and particularly fish and seafood. Red wines have instead generally higher alcohol content (11-14%), they are consumed at room temperature, or slightly below it (around 18 °C) and are paired up with strong first courses, aged cheeses, and red meats. Both white and red wines are also fundamental in cooking, and, generally, they are not interchangeable.

Most commercial wines are sold “ready to drink” and are not meant to be stored for a long time. Aging wine is a very difficult process that requires perfect conditions of temperature and humidity, conditions that can’t be easily achieved without proper equipment or environment. Storing wine is instead relatively easy: wine bottles should be kept away from direct sunlight and laying on their side to keep the cork wet (a dry cork will shrink and let some air into the bottle). Once opened, some wines need to rest briefly in a decanter both to allow sediments to deposit and to promote some “aeration.” Though slightly controversial, aeration is considered beneficial to “soften” strong red wines, reducing the harshness of their tannins. Aeration is generally not recommended for white wines and more delicate reds as it may disperse some of their aromas and is never recommended for sparkling wines.

Main types of wine glasses
Main types of wine glasses

Wine is best appreciated in proper stemware. The stem allows the wine to maintain its temperature by ensuring minimal contact with the hand of the person holding it. Red wines are generally served in larger glasses, with wide openings to allow for more aeration (large surface of contact between wine and air). White wines require less aeration and are usually tasted in taller, narrower glasses that also help the wine better maintain its temperature. Sparkling wines are instead served in very narrow and tall glasses (called flûtes) to reduce the contact with the air and keep the bubbles inside and towards the nose of the person drinking it.

Before introducing a list of the main Italian wines, let’s go over the denominations recognized by law:

  • Table wines that don’t follow naming regulations. Generally, these are lower quality wines where the grape and the year of production are not indicated on the label. In some cases, however, table wines can have very high quality and be sought by connoisseurs that don’t need any official certifications.
  • IGT – Table wines with Indicazione Geografica Tipica. The grapes are certified to come from a geographical area where the named grape is typical. Currently, there are about 120 wines under this category.
  • DOC – Wines with Denominazione di Origine Controllata. The exact location of the origin is certified. In Italy, there are currently about 300 DOC wines.
  • DOCG – Wines with Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. The designation of origin is certified and guaranteed. Currently, only 35 wines belong to this category.

The law also specifies which qualifiers can be appended to the name and their exact meanings:

  • When a wine’s name contains the word ‘Classico‘ (e.g. Chianti Classico), the wine is guaranteed to be made in the core of its typical region. All ‘Classico’ wines are DOC or DOCG.
  • The word ‘Riserva‘ can only be used on wines that have been aged more than the time strictly required by their denomination. The label must show the year of production.
  • When a wine’s label shows the word ‘Novello‘, the wine is guaranteed to have been bottled within the end of the year of when (at least 30% of) its grapes have been harvested. The label must show the year of the vintage.
  • The qualifier ‘Superiore‘ can only be used to indicate a wine whose alcohol level is greater by at least 1% than the minimum established for its designation.

Finally, here is a list of some of the most renowned Italian wines. Many of them are named after the grapes that they are made of (highlighted in bold). Some other wines, instead, have their own unique names, usually to reflect their areas of origin.

Amarone -Veneto-, e.g.: Amarone della Valpolicella [DOCG]. Like the actual Valpolicella, it’s made with a grape called Corvina after it has been partially dried out (in a process called ‘passito’) to increase its sugar level and consequently the alcohol level of the wine (up to 15% and higher). Amarone is a well-known wine that improves when aged and can get quite expensive.
Barbaresco [DOCG] -Piedmont-. High-quality wine made with Nebbiolo grape, aged at least 2 years in kegs, and with an alcohol level of 12.5%. Its color is ruby with a burgundy tint, with a full body and hints of spices and bitter almond. It’s usually at its best after aging for 10 or more years.
Barbera -Piedmont-, e.g.: Barbera d’Alba [DOC], Barbera d’Asti [DOCG], Barbera del Monferrato [DOC], Barbera del Monferrato Superiore [DOCG]. Barbera is the most common grape in Piedmont, its wines are intensely ruby in color, quite dry and with relatively high acidity that decreases with aging.
Barolo [DOCG] -Piedmont-. Considered the best Italian wine, Barolo is made with Nebbiolo grape, like Barbaresco, but is aged at least 3 years, 2 of which in oak or chestnut kegs. With a minimum alcohol level of 13%, Barolo reaches its best characteristics after 10-20 years. It’s burgundy in color, full-bodied, complex and balanced in flavor, with berries and violet inflections and a spice aftertaste. Barolo can reach astronomical prices.
Brachetto -Piedmont-, e.g.: Brachetto d’Acqui [DOCG]. Brachetto is a grape used to make a red dessert wine. Sweet red wines are not very common, aside from Brachetto the only other renowned one is the somewhat similar Fragolino. The commercialization of Fragolino is however illegal in the European Union because it’s made with a grape not indigenous to Europe (called Concord grape, ‘uva fragola’) – it’s however sold in Switzerland, because not part of the EU.
Brunello di Montalcino [DOCG] -Tuscany-, made with the Sangiovese grape. Brunello di Montalcino is bright ruby in color, with dry strong tannins. It is aged a minimum of 4 years. It’s younger version is called Rosso di Montalcino [DOC], more fruity and with more moderate tannins.
Chianti [DOCG] and Chianti Classico [DOCG] -Tuscany-, made with a blend of grapes including Sangiovese and Malvasia. One of the most famous Italian wines in the world, Chianti has a dark ruby color, with burgundy hints, a very balanced dry and just slightly tannic flavor that turns more velvety with aging. It used to be known for being bottled in the typical ‘fiasco‘ (nowadays, however, this is no longer the case).
Dolcetto -Piedmont-, e.g.: Dolcetto d’Asti [DOCG], Dolcetto d’Alba [DOCG], Dolcetto d’Acqui [DOC]. The name means ‘cute little sweet’ and refers to the fact that the Dolcetto grape grows very easily and produces good everyday’s wines. Its flavor is fruity with hints of almonds and bitter herbs.
Grignolino -Piedmont-, e.g.: Grignolino del Monferrato [DOCG], Grignolino d’Asti [DOCG]. Grignolino has a light ruby color and a dry flavor, just slightly bitter.
Lambrusco, e.g.: Lambrusco Salamino di Santacroce [DOC] -Emilia-Romagna-, Lambrusco Mantovano [DOC] -Lombardy-. Lambrusco wines are sparkling, either dry or semi-sweet and have intense fruity perfumes and rich flavors, with low acidity and alcohol levels; their color is dark ruby, with violet foam. Lambrusco is usually enjoyed chilled and paired up with pasta and white meats.
Malvasia Bianca, e.g.: Malvasia di Grottaferrata -Lazio-, Malvasia di Cagliari [DOC] -Sardinia-, Malvasia delle Lipari -Sicily-. Malvasia Bianca is the most common variety of the Malvasia grape, used in the production of many white wines (including Frascati [DOC]). White Malvasia has a full body and fruity/nutty inflections. A red version (Malvasia Nera) also exists.
Marsala [DOC] -Sicily-. Marsala is a fortified wine similar to Port, made by adding ‘Grappa’ (an alcoholic beverage made by distillation of wine press residue) to elevate the alcohol level to about 20%. Different varieties exist (golden, amber, ruby), made with different Sicilian grapes.
Montepulciano -Abruzzo-, e.g.: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo [DOC], Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane [DOCG]. The Montepulciano grape produces intense dark wines, with moderate acidity and low tannins.
Moscato, a grape grown all throughout Italy used for making sweet, lightly sparkling or sparkling dessert wines. E.g.: Moscato d’Asti [DOCG] -Piedmont-, moderately sparkling, golden in color and Asti Spumante [DOCG] -Piedmont- sparkling, light yellow in color.
Nebbiolo -Piedmont-, the grape used to make several DOCG wines, including Barbaresco, Barolo, and Nebbiolo d’Alba [DOCG]. The wine commercialized under the name Nebbiolo is the youngest of all three, with a minimum aging of 1 year and a minimum alcohol level of 12%.
Prosecco, e.g.: Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene [DOCG] -Veneto-. Prosecco is a dry, very sparkling wine (‘spumante’ in Italian, which means foaming). Considered the Italian (cheaper) substitute of Champagne, can go from slightly sweet to very dry (‘brut’).
Sangiovese, e.g.: Sangiovese di Romagna [DOC] -Emilia-Romagna-. The Sangiovese grape is also used in the production of several renowned wines, including Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, and Rosso di Montepulciano.
Tocai, e.g.: Tocai Friulano Colli Orientali del Friuli [DOC] -Friuli-Venezia Giulia-. The grape is related to Sauvignon Vert, light yellow with hints of green in color, and hints of bitter almond flavor.
Trebbiano, e.g.: Trebbiano d’Abruzzo [DOC] -Abruzzo-, Trebbiano di Romagna [DOC] -Emilia-Romagna-. Trebbiano, pale in color and relatively light in flavor, is the most common white Italian wine. It’s used used to make several DOC wines including Orvieto [DOC] -Umbria-.
Valpolicella [DOC] -Veneto- made with Corvina grape and a blend of other red grapes. A very balanced wine, with inflections of almonds and spice.
Verdicchio -Marche-, e.g.: Verdicchio di Matelica [DOCG], Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi [DOCG]. The name comes from the word ‘verde’ (green). The wines made with Verdicchio grape have relatively high acidity and a nutty flavor.
Verduzzo – e.g.: Verduzzo Piave [DOC] -Veneto-, Verduzzo Friulano Colli Orientali del Friuli [DOC] -Friuli-Venezia Giulia-. Like for Verdicchio, the name also comes from ‘verde’ (green). Verduzzo wines are dry and slightly sparkling (‘frizzanti’).
Vermentino -Sardinia, Liguria, Piedmont-, e.g.: Vermentino di Sardinia [DOC], Vermentino di Gallura [DOCG] -Sardinia-. Vermentino is light yellow in color, with slight hints of green. Its flavor is dry, fresh, slightly sour and with a moderately bitter aftertaste.
Vernaccia, the name of several unrelated grapes, used in the production of many important wite wines, e.g.: Vernaccia di San Gimignano [DOCG] -Tuscany-, Vernaccia di Oristano [DOC] -Sardinia-, Vernaccia di Serrapetrona spumante [DOCG] -Marche-.
Cantucci con vin santo
Cantucci with Vin Santo

Vin Santo, dessert wine usually made with Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes, e.g.: Vin Santo del Chianti [DOC], Vin Santo del Chianti Classico [DOC], Vin Santo di Montepulciano [DOC] -Tuscany-. The name ‘santo’ (which means holy in Italian) possibly comes from the fact that it was typically used during the mass. The wine’s elevated sugars and alcohol level is obtained by allowing the grapes to dry out before fermenting. A common way to enjoy Vin Santo is to pair it up with almond biscotti called Cantucci, according to the Tuscan tradition.

10 thoughts on “Wine and Italy”

  1. Great. It's 9:15 a.m. and I already want to start pouring. Is that bad?
    Seriously, though, this is a truly informative post – and in a practical sense. Your wine knowledge is impressive, to say the least!

  2. I like the little wine bottle images. How did you do that?

    Thank you for demystifying wines, although I have yet to acquire a taste for them. I still only like the sweet wines.

    Another great post!

  3. Rich, thanks! I did have a lot of fun "researching" this topic 🙂

    Jenny L, the wine bottles are done through some custom CSS, Blogger gives a lot of flexibility. Thanks for your comment and good luck with discovering the world of wine!

  4. what i really don't like is that here in Canada, lots of wine bottles don't show the year of production.

    great post by the way…i almost forgot how many good wines we have from Piemonte! Marta wants to drink some Brachetto… and what about Bonarda, one of the first red wines i really loved!

  5. I am very surprise that the white Malvasia (one of my favourite wines) is more popular than the red one, which is usually the only one I find at home.
    Also let's name the Passito di Pantelleria..such a beautiful sweet and fruity wine. I used to sip it during the fall paired with roasted chestnut: truly delightful !

  6. Nice article as always Paolo.

    One quick addition is that the shape of the glass is also used to channel the wine to different areas of the mouth/tongue. Different areas tend to be more sensible in perceiving specific tastes and favours.

    Although there is scientific research against the old tongue taste map, the wine tasting community doesn't really care. Sommeliers are more interested in how a wide glass that allow red wine to reach the side of the mouth make you better appreciate it's taste and flavours and a narrow glass help you appreciate more some champagne.

    Keep up the good work 🙂

  7. Marta, thanks for your comment. Red Malvasia is produced in Piedmont and Apulia probably in larger quantities, but White Malvasia is better known. As for Passito di Pantelleria, I completely agree! It's made with the Zibibbo grape, a type of Moscato, and it's truly amazing.

    Thanks Stefano – I totally didn't know this. I'm guessing that the shape of the glass might also be designed to better convey the wine's perfume to the nose.

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