The wines of Italy
Italian culture is steeped in wine from the foothills of the Alps to the slopes of Mount Etna. Long before its unification, Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans planted vines from the top to the tip of its boot, resulting in the world’s most diverse grape collection. While international varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were behind the success of the so-called Super Tuscans, it is the country’s array of native varieties that now provides its distinctive personality.
The structured, long-lived Nebbiolo-based wines of Barolo and Barbaresco have no rival, while Tuscany’s Sangiovese grape reaches its apogee in Chianti Classico and the hilltop town of Montalcino, offering perfumed wines with scintillating acidity, tantalising texture and great ageing potential. And when it comes to Italian classics, is there anything more distinctive than the rich, dried-grape wines of Valpolicella?
While Italy experienced a slight dip in its fortunes in the latter half of the 20th century, focusing on bulk production and kitsch packaging, including Chianti bottles sold in straw baskets, it has undergone a revival with interest in quality wines from the road less travelled. The purity of Sicilian reds and the ability of the local grape variety, Nerello Mascalese, to translate terroir, particularly on the volcanic soils of Mount Etna has attracted many newcomers.
The country’s whites tend to be relatively subtle in their aromatic profile, which can lead to them being overlooked in a world so enamoured with the exuberance of Sauvignon Blanc, but the crisp, textured whites of Gavi, Soave in the north and the weightier Fiano and Greco-based wines of southern Italy offer attractive early drinking.