Our modern view of Italian wine scarcely begins to tell the story of its people’s perennial links to the vine. The nature of the place – the influence of Mediterranean sunshine and mountain air currents on the hillsides of the elongated peninsula and islands. Italy’s wine heritage dates back some 4,000 years to when prehistoric people pressed wild grapes into juice which, as if by magic, fermented into wine. The ancient Greeks, expanding into Italy’s southern reaches dubbed the colonies Oenotria, the land of wine. Mean while the Etruscans were practitioners of the art of winemaking in the hills of central Italy, as attested by the art and artefacts left in their tombs. Then came the romans with their cult of Bacchus bringing the fruit of the vine to all corners of their Empire. Then in the 19th century as techniques improved Italy once again flourished. Names like Chianti and Barolo became known throughout the world.
A century ago several Italian wines were already recognized as among the finest of their type: mainly Piedmontese and Tuscan reds from the Nebbiolo and Sangiovese vine varieties, but also white wines, still and sparkling, dry or sweet, merited international respect. But there was still cheap and dodgy wine to account for and for decades responsible producers had been trying to tighten regulations and put the emphasis on premium quality. But it was after the Denominazione d’Origine laws were passed in the 1960s that provided the basis for what came to known as the “modern renaissance” of Italian wine.
Vernaccia di San Gimignano became the first DOC in 1966, and the list has grown to include nearly 300 other zones, delimited geographically, within which a multitude of wines are controlled for authenticity. DOC/DOCG wines represent less than 20 per cent of the total wine produced in Italy. Just below them, and often of no less quality come a growing number of wines that qualify under the recently introduced category of Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT). The typical category applies to wines that range from locally admired to internationally acclaimed such as the Super Tuscans.
Despite the reduction through this century, Italy still has more types of vines/grapes planted than any other country, including natives and the complete range of the so-called international varieties. The number of approved grape varieties runs well into the hundreds. This heritage of vines permits Italy to produce a greater range of distinctive wines than any other nation. Though Italy is most noted for its noble reds for aging, ti also produces very drinkable Rosso wines and even the Vini Novelli (similar to Beaujolais nouveau) to be drunk within months of the harvest.
Italy is also a serious producer of white wines, with all styles represented; from light and fruity to oak-aged wines. Some regions are famous for bubbly wines, Prosecco, whether the lightly fizzy frizzante or the fully sparkling spumante. It seems that the Italian wine Renaissance was a complete success and without staking claims to supremacy, it seems fair to say that numerous Italian wines stand up to the international elite. But the most interesting thing about Italy’s wines is they offer a sense of something new and exciting especially now that Italians have become increasingly committed to quality and character at every level of price.