1. INTRODUCTION TO THE COURSE
1.1 Wine: but what is wine?
You’re probably already sitting down. So, if you have a bottle of wine in the house, open it. For now, it doesn’t matter what kind it is. Pour yourself a glass and get ready, if you feel like it, for a brief introduction to a tasting course that will guide you into the magical world of wine.
Even people in very ancient history considered wine to be magical: the inebriation provided by wine was in fact thought of as a means of getting closer to the gods. We do not want you to get drunk but, on the contrary, to help you discover wine from the right perspective, getting rid of its clichéd images as the heavy drinker's inseparable companion or, on the other hand, as an elitist product just for a few snobs. We would like to pass on to you our love for this product, which is a gift from the earth and which has an extremely long history, and show you that a glass of wine represents the work of men and their struggle with, and sometimes against, nature.
We shall explain how, where and when wine is produced. We shall teach you to recognize a wine's characteristics from its color and aroma, even before you have tasted it. We shall suggest how, when and with what to drink it. In short, we wish to give you a background which, while not overwhelming, should certainly be enough to help you understand a great deal and to know exactly what you are drinking.
By the way, what does a bottle of wine contain? Mainly water (78-85%) and sweet-tasting substances (including alcohols and sugars), but there are smaller quantities of thousands of other substances that give the wine its distinctive character and these can be identified by means of what is known as organoleptic examination of the wine. This is maybe a rather grand-sounding expression for a procedure that you will get used to performing every time you taste a glass of wine: one that you have probably seen done many times, maybe to your amusement, by people who were very carefully assessing the color of the wine and its clarity, and trying to find ways to describe more or less recognizable aromas. It is not a game - or rather, it can become one - but it has a serious basis. The color of the wine can tell us about its age and the stage it has reached in its development, just as the bouquet or aromas which it gives off can tell us about its condition, the grape variety and the way the wine was made. The reference to well-known smells is just a way to recall suggestions that are common to all of us, but which actually correspond to well-defined chemical substances; it makes more impact to say that this wine smells of tobacco rather than give the name of the chemical which is responsible for the tobacco aroma.
This short course, then, will teach you to judge a wine’s color, bouquet and taste - along with many other things - but you can learn the first rule straight away: if the color is clear and attractive, the wine smells clean and pleasant and the taste is appealing, then what you are drinking is already a good wine.
Though it was probably easy for prehistoric man to appreciate and enjoy the edible fruit of the vine, the discovery that the juice of this fruit, left forgotten in some simple container, could change and take on a different taste was almost certainly an accident. Moreover, this strange drink had a pleasant, inebriating effect on those who drank it. In the past, for this reason, fermented grape juice was often used in religious ceremonies: in the absence of scientific ideas, the changes caused by alcohol were regarded as being in some way “magical” and linked to the gods.
But when did people “get drunk” for the first time? Various archaeological finds show that the climbing plant Vitis Vinifera was already growing wild 300,000 years ago. The first signs of vines cultivated by human beings appear around seven to eight thousand years B.C. in Asia, the cradle of vinegrowing, especially in the regions of Georgia and Armenia on the far side of the Caucasus. From there the culture of the vine spread east through Asia into China. Only later did it spread to the west, reaching Europe thanks to the Greeks some time between the 7th and 8th centuries before Christ.
The Romans then carried on the tradition, taking vines and wine everywhere. The Imperial legions which moved around mainland Europe were actually obliged to plant salads (reflected in the word 'romana' for a type of salad) and vines in their camps. With the Romans wine enjoyed a real boom, as trade developed and people started to study viticulture. Pliny the Elder wrote the first “wine guide” and his Natural History (Naturalis Historia) listed 80 prime viticultural areas and 185 wines. It is clear that the idea of terroir or special local areas is of ancient origin.
Meanwhile the Gauls learned about of the properties of vines and wine. They invented wooden barrels, which revolutionized the world of wine, and developed a more frost-resistant variety of vine, thus giving rise to the vineyards of Burgundy.
At the end of the third century A.D., peoples of Germanic stock swept away the Romans, along with their culture, habits and ideals, including their dietary tastes. Fruit and vegetables were replaced by meat, banquets became more “barbarian” and beer and mead, the traditional fermented drinks of northern Europe, took the place of wine.
These centuries and those that followed were unstable times for Europe. Vine-growing was abandoned and it is only thanks to Christian monks that wines continued to be made. For the Christian religion wine was a vital element in the Mass, which is why a vineyard was to be found next to every church and ecclesiastical cellars always held stocks of the important beverage. Wine “picked up” again in the 11th century, during the reign of Charlemagne, hand in hand with the beginning of a social and economic upturn in Europe. Threafter, wine consumption continued to grow, eventually becoming very widespread in feudal society: the poorest classes drank “to forget” while those who were wealthy made drinking a vice with its own refinements.
The era of the Communes and the period of of the Renaissance that followed, with its Dukedoms and various Signories, led to wine spreading yet further throughout Europe. Later, English, Portuguese and Dutch traders made the wines produced in specific areas – such as Bordeaux, Port, Madeira, Sherry, Marsala and Champagne – gain great popularity.
Also, from the 16th century onwards, there was a further expansion of wine production on the various continents; in subsequent periods, European colonization spread gradually to Chile and Argentina (16th century), North America (16th-18th century), South Africa (17th century), Australia (end of the 18th century) and even to New Zealand (20th century).
In the 17th century, other drinks that were alternatives to wine appeared on the market: coffee from Arabia and the Middle East, chocolate from the Americas, tea from China, as well as beer, gin, brandy and other spirits. The advent in many areas of “quality” production and the use of glass bottles and corks were of great impotance in helping wine overcome a potential crisis.
In the meantime, viticulture and enology developed, with techniques of grape-growing and winemaking becoming ever more sophisticated; wine lost some of its secrets and became ever more reliable. At the beginning of the 19th century, Chaptal introduced the concept of enriching wine with sugar in order to obtain a higher level of alcohol, but the real leap forward was made by Louis Pasteur, who discovered the role of yeasts and the danger of oxygen. Still largely unknown, however, were those enemies of the vine that ravaged the vineyards at the end of the 19th century. First to appear, around 1850, was powdery mildew (oidium) - a fungus that attacks the vines - which vinegrowers managed to defeat with sulphur, although this took around ten years. Similar problems were had with peronospora (downy mildew), a fungus that had come over from America and which was combatted by the use of “Bordeaux mixture” (copper sulphate and slaked lime). But the most devastating disease was phylloxera, a deadly parasite which was eventually defeated by grafting the desired grape varieties onto American rootstocks, which were immune.
Phylloxera revolutionized European winemaking by changing the geography of vineyards. At the beginning of the 20th century there was a rush to plant large numbers of vines to meet market needs, making wine with grapes from any part of Italy. This meant that the wine arriving on Italian tables was often of poor quality.
The end of the '60s saw the introduction of regulations in the form of the application of Controlled Appellations (Denominazioni di Origine Controllata). To be historically accurate, the first Italian “denomination of origin” may be dated back to 1716, when Grand Duke Cosimo III of Tuscany regulated the production areas and methods of some of the wines of the area (Carmignano in particular). Another example that pre-dated the indications to be found in the D.O.C. regulations was that of the formula for Chianti (Sangiovese, Canaiolo Nero and Malvasia Toscana), proposed by Baron Bettino Ricasoli in the middle of the 19th century, which remained unaltered for a century and a half.
What has undergone a substantial change, though, are consumers' tastes; today they demand a more sophisticated product. In years to come there will probably be more labelling of wines by grape variety - so-called “international wines”, produced all over the world – whose challenge Italy could face up to by focusing on its great heritage of indigenous grape varieties.
1.2.1 Some details about the origins of fine wines
We have already mentioned - just above – how Carmignano and Chianti came into being, anticipating to some extent the current denominations of origin. It is similarly interesting to give a brief outline of the “modern” origins of some other famous wines , both from Italy and elsewhere, some of which were very different in the past to how we know them today.
Barolo has been known and appreciated since medieval times, but it is only since the mid-19th century, thanks to the involvement of the French enologist Oudart and the impassioned efforts of Count Cavour, that this wine, once sweet and potentially unstable, has begun to be produced as a dry, stable wine that is suitable for aging.
Brunello di Montalcino
Brunello as we know it today was created around 1870 by Ferruccio Biondi Santi, who began to grow a clone of Sangiovese, called Sangiovese Grosso or Brunello, that was particularly resistant to phylloxera, thus producing a 100% varietal wine that was suitable for aging. Production of the Italian appellation that is best known around the world has grown only very recently, though, considering that until the 1950s there was just one producer selling wine under this name. When the first production regulations were drawn up at the end of the ‘60s there were only 13 companies producing it – from a little over 70 ha of vineyards – whereas today there are over two hundred producers and 1,800 hectares.
The origins of Chianti can be traced back to the important influence of Grand Duke Cosimo III of Tuscany who, in the early decades of the 18th century – two hundred and fifty years before the creation of the D.O.C.s, set down rules regarding the production areas, cultivation methods and vinification of certain Tuscan wines, such as Carmignano and, indeed, Chianti. The real turning-point came, though, in the mid-19th century, when Baron Bettino Ricasoli proposed his famous “Chianti formula” (Sangiovese, Canaiolo Nero and Malvasia Toscana). This remained unchanged for a century and a half and was only modified – with the possibility of not using any white grapes – just a few years ago.
Amarone della Valpolicella
One of the Italian wines that is enjoying the most success around the world did not even exist until a few decades ago. Or rather it did exist, but was not sold under this name and, especially, it often represented a case of ill luck for the careless producer who had not succeeded in keeping the wine sweet, for this was the traditional style of Recioto della Valpolicella, which was much more sought-after and commanded a higher price. The dry version, initially referred to as “Recioto scapa” (“the Recioto that got away”) and held in low esteem, started to be produced and sold as Amarone della Valpolicella only in the second half of the 20th century, growing in volume from just a few thousand bottles to the 10-12 million forecast for the 2006 and subsequent vintages.
As with Port, Sherry and Madeira, Marsala owes its international dissemination to the English. It was in fact John Woodhouse who, towards the end of the 18th century, began producing - in Marsala - a wine in the style of those from Madeira, Oporto and Jerez through fortification with alcohol and the adding of cooked wine (or wine/must), in line with the tastes of English consumers at the time. His example was then imitated and perfected by Ingham and his nephew Whitaker, followed by the Italian Florio and, in due course, by many other producers.
While we are on the subject of the English, the wines of Aquitaine also owe their success to British merchants (and drinkers). Even if they already existed during Roman times, the wines produced in the area around Bordeaux became very popular between the 12th and 15th centuries, as a result of their being exported to England, where they were known by the name of claret. Following French trading disputes with the Dutch (1672) and the English (1678), wines began to be sold under estate and vineyard names, a factor that would be fundamental for the famous classification of the châteaux in 1855, which is still used,with only tiny variations compared to the original.
According to legend, it was Dom Pérignon, abbot of Hautvillers near Épernay, who, almost by chance, “discovered” in 1668 how to make wines sparkling through a second fermentation in the bottle. It was also he who established the rules for obtaining a good base wine, such as the choice of the most appropriate variety (Pinot Noir), the application of the technique of blending and the use of cork closures, fixed to the neck of the bottle thanks to a small metal “cage”. It would be with the advent of more resistant bottles and with the technical innovations of Widow Clicquot and her winemakers (above all that of remuage in pupitres, which allows one to obtain a brighter, cleaner wine) that Champagne would obtain great success, first as a sweet and then as a dry sparkling wine.
Port and Sherry
What these two great wines have in common are not only the English, but especially ... wars. Because it was the war against the French at the end of the 17th century that transferred England’s commercial interests towards Portugal, with the beginning of production, in the Douro Valley, of wines to which alcohol (brandy) was added during fermentation with the aim of obtaining a full-bodied and alcoholic product with a certain amount of residual sugar (greater in the reds than in the whites). And it was again a war – but this time the end of one – that prompted the renaissance in the mid-18th century of a wine from southern Spain (in the area of Jerez de la Frontera): this too was fortified with alcohol, then aged using the solera system, with the special element of the intervention of flor, a layer of yeasts that “control” the wine’s oxydation.
The first of the “great fortified wines” to be made, its production developed on the island of Madeira following the substitution of the cultivation of sugar cane ( more profitable to grow in the recently-discovered Americas) with that of grape varieties of Greek origin. The wines’ low level of alcohol and high acidity led to the addition of alcohol and grape must to make transport by ship feasible. The oxidation to which they were subject made the wines more interesting, so they began to be made by subjecting them to enforced “madeirization“, due to storage at high temperatures in partly-filled barrels and, often, the famous “double crossing of the equator”. Today the heating process – and therefore that of accelerating the wines’ maturation – is carried out in special containers called estufas.
1.3 The geography of wine: countries to visit and the wines they offer
Although the origins of viticulture have been pinpointed in Asia, more or less in the area of Georgia in the Caucasus, over the centuries Europe has been the region that can boast the strongest vine-growing and winemaking traditions. First in Greece and, from there, in Italy and France, but also in Spain and Portugal, the vine has found its home and contributed over the centuries to the history, culture and traditions of these countries.
Colonization then took this tradition overseas and major new wine producing areas are now being developed in North America and Central and South America, while Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are also all emerging as major wine producers. One should not, of course, overlook the potential of China nor, to a much lesser extent, that of India.
Here, then, is a quick trip around the wine regions of the world. Statistics up to 1995 are from the Office International de la Vigne et du Vin, whereas more recent data is based on ISTAT statistics or those from other sources.
France (47 million hectoliters in 2007 – 52.9 million hectoliters on average in 2000-2005)
Italy’s chief competitor in terms of wine production, France boasts the largest number of wines with controlled denomination of origin in the world (for a complete list, please consult http://www.tigulliovino.it/francia/lista_aoc_francia.htm).
Vines are grown throughout the country, with"historic" areas such as:
- Champagne, home of the famous sparkling wine obtained by re-fermentation in bottleof base wines made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes;
- Burgundy, a region of great reds based on Pinot Noir and of splend, long-lived whites made from Chardonnay;
- Bordeaux, famous for reds produced from blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes, with a majority of the former at the châteaux of the Left Bank of the Garonne (Médoc) and of the latter at those of the Right Bank (Saint Émilion and Pomerol);
- Alsace, renowned for perfumed white wines from Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat and Gewürztraminer grapes;
- the Loire Valley, producer of fine whites – aromatic from Sauvignon Blanc, very long-lived from Chenin Blanc and fragrantly yeasty from Muscadet sur lie – as well as fruity reds based on Cabernet Franc;
- the northern Rhône Valley, with its powerful reds made from Syrah,
- the southern Rhône with its wines made from blends of several grapes (Grenache, Cinsaut, Mourvèdre, Syrah, etc.);
- Provence with its fragrant and refreshing rosés, but also the red from Bandol;
- The deep south of Languedoc-Roussillon, the new frontier of winemaking, where producers are carrying out bold experiments with single-varietal wines or unusual blends.
Spain (40 million hectoliters in 2007 – 37.8 million hectoliters on average in 2000-2005)
Spain is the nation with the greatest area under vine in the world (around 1,100,000 hectares) though lying in third place in terms of volumes produced, behind France and Italy.
Spain has an extremely varied wine production scene and quality is constantly improving. Alongside winemaking milestones such as Jerez (whose wine is called Sherry in English), the Iberian peninsula is developing a deep-seated culture of wine. The leading regions are Rioja (an area that makes full-bodied reds from Tempranillo grapes); Catalonia (which, among other wines, produces Cava, the Spanish sparkling wine made with a second fermentation in bottle) with its famous Priorato zone (making wines of great power and intensity). However, there are also lesser-known areas such as “cold” Galicia, a land of pleasantly saline whites, and the more temperate zone around Valencia.
Germany (9.3 million hectoliters in 2005 – 9.3 million hectoliters on average in 2000-2005)
White wines are predominant in Germany, chiefly from Rhine Riesling and Müller-Thurgau (this variety is rapidly losing favor), but also Sylvaner and Kerner grapes. Wine production is concentrated in the south-west of the country, with areas of very high quality along the Moselle and Rhine rivers. There are many wines produced from overripe, late-harvested grapes, yielding very sweet wines such as the Beerenausleses, Trockenbeerenausleses and Eisweins.
Portugal (7.3 million hectoliters in 2005 – 7.2 million hectoliters on average in 2000-2005)
Tradition is the key word here: Portugal has in fact always concentrated on its indigenous grape varieties, of which there are over 500. The main wines are the famous dessert wines (especially Port and Madeira), but also Vinho Verde, a light, slightly acidulous wine. There are many important reds, especially those from the Alentejo region.
Greece (4.0 million hectoliters in 2005 – 3.7 million hectoliters on average in 2000-2005)
Greece was among the countries that first began to cultivate vines and make wine, and it has an extraordinary patrimony of indigenous varieties. For years, however, winemaking techniques remained tethered to a rather too-distant past (such as the ancient habit of adding resin to the must during fermentation) and the country has only recently made decisive steps towards quality, especially in the north, one of the emerging areas.
Austria (2.3 million hectoliters in 2005 – 2.5 million hectoliters on average in 2000-2005)
Austria’s wine-producing regions lie along the country’s borders to the east. The climate and terrain are ideal for white wines with a particularly pronounced bouquet, made especially from Rhine Riesling and Müller-Thurgau. Mittelburgenland produces some important red wines.
Switzerland (1.2 million hectoliters in 2005)
Swiss wines are increasingly appreciated abroad. The most important variety for whites is Chasselas, which is mainly grown in western Switzerland. Pinot Noir dominates among the reds and is grown just about everywhere, along with Merlot, which has been brought into the spotlight by a number of producers in Canton Ticino.
Wine production in Eastern Europe is of major importance from the point of view of quantity . Russia leads with 5.0 million hectoliters (and has grown fast over the last few years, considering its average of 4.2 million between 2000 and 2005), followed by Hungary (one of the higher-quality countries, including as it does the internationally famous Tokay region) with 3.6 million hectoliters in 2005 but an average of 4.2 million between 2000 and 2005. Romania is a nation with enormous potential, but a backward-looking attitude to vine-growing and winemaking: it produced 2.6 million hectoliters of wine in 2005, halving its average over the last few years of around 5 million hectoliters. Hard on its heels comes Moldavia with 2.3 million hectoliters, followed by the Ukraine with 2.3 million hl (2 million on average in 2000-2005), by Bulgaria with 1.7 million hl (2.3 million its average between 2000 and 2005hectolitres), mostly of “decent”, easy-drinking reds), by Croatia also with 1.7 million hl (1.8 on average in 2000-2005) and by Serbia-Montenegro with 1.3 million hectoliters (2.0 on average between 2000 and 2005).
One should also bear in mind the emerging wine industries of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia.
South Africa (8.4 million hectoliters in 2005 – 7.9 million hectoliters on average in 2000-2005)
Viticulture in Africa has developed on that continent’s southern tip. Production is constantly increasing and is based largely on white wines (around 80% of production), headed by Chenin Blanc, Colombard and Sauvignon Blanc. Among the reds Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir are growing strongly, but there is also strong interest in Pinotage, a Pinot Noir-Cinsaut crossing.
United States of America (22.9 million hectoliters in 2005 – 20.6 million hectoliters on average in 2000-2005)
Vine-growing and winemaking in the U.S.A. are relatively recent and are practically synonymous with California, where 95% of the entire country's wine is in fact produced. Other wine producing areas are in Oregon and Washington State (especially for “cold-climate” varieties such as aromatic white grapes and Pinot Noir), as well as in New York State. The so-called 'international' varieties dominate: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Sangiovese, Syrah and Zinfandel among the reds and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon,Riesling, Pinot Grigio and Gewürztraminer for the white wines.
Mexico (1.5 million hectoliters)
Viticulture in Mexico is now picking up strongly after some difficult periods due to the country's political instability. There has been quite heavy investment recently and nowadays Mexico offers some distinguished wines (from Barbera, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon for the reds, with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Colombard and Chenin Blanc for the whites) which are selling worldwide, accompanying the spread of Mexican food.
Argentina (15.2 million hectoliters in 2005 – 14.2 million hectoliters on average in 2000-2005)
One of the world's major wine producers, Argentina has not yet fully exploited its vast potential for making high-quality wines. Much of the wine produced is of poor quality and consumed within the country. The main grape variety (covering around 70% of the area under vine) is Malbec, which can even give substantial, well-structured red wines if they are produced in accordance with quality principles.
Chile (7.9 million hectoliters in 2005 – 6.4 million hectoliters on average in 2000-2005)
Internationally recognized as Latin America's best producer, Chile went through a real (but peaceful) revolution in wine production during the early 1980s. The results have not been long in coming: nowadays Chilean bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Malbec, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Sauvignon win top prizes at international wine competitions. A peculiarity of Chile’s vineyards is that many of the vines are ungrafted, without any need for non-vitis vinifera rootstocks.
Brazil (3.2 million hectoliters in 2005 – 3.3 million hectoliters on average in 2000-2005)
Brazil is a country that could really emerge over the next few years. Production is currently of average quality and concentrated largely in the Aurora Valley in the south of the country, where Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Welschriesling are grown.
Australia (14.3 million hectoliters in 2005 – 11.8 million hectoliters on average in 2000-2005)
One of the toughest competitors in the wine market, Australia has really come to the forefront in recent years. Production is based on well-known varieties (Shiraz (Syrah), Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat Gordo Blanco) and is concentrated in the south of the country, mostly towards the east (South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania).
The 2007 harvest was disastrous in terms of quantity (10.3 million hectoliters, down 4 million hectoliters compared to 2005 and 2006), because of drought,fires and frosts.
New Zealand (1.2 million hectares on average)
Another emerging country that bases its production on “international” grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Traminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Müller-Thurgau. The grape-growing areas are in both the North Island and the South Island.
1.3.1 France: the difference in approach between Burgundy and Bordeaux
The two great French wine regions of Burgundy and Bordeaux, though they are both leading production areas from the point of view of quality, are substantially different, especially in the way in which they consider and interpret the concept of terroir.
In Burgundy, the system is based on the vineyard and on the individual parcel of land, and the best are themselves appellations (grand cru or premier cru), just as are – at a less exalted level and in more generic terms – village or commune denominations and then the sub-regional and regional ones.
Such distinctions are impossible in Bordeaux, where the AOC system follows administrative boundaries rather than actual differences in the terrains: it does not, therefore, go into any greater detail than the commune in question. Differences in soil may well be found within the same commune or property. At Château Latour, for instance, 80 different soil profiles have been identified! (And in St. Émilion, there are limestone soils in the plateau around the town itself, an alluvial sandy plain on the banks of the Dordogne, stony soils around Libourne, cooler muddy and clayey soils in the northern part of the appellation, but this too is a considerable simplification).
The difference is even more marked if one considers the properties and the way they are run. In Burgundy everyone bottles his wine according to the individual vineyard it comes from. In Bordeaux (especially on the Left Bank) the châteaux bottle under their own names (and that of a large appellation) wine from the various sites that they own, however scattered they may be and even though they may lie in different communes.
One should also bear in mind that while in Burgundy producers work with a single variety (Pinot Noir for the reds, Chardonnay for the whites), in the Bordeaux area there is also a certain variability linked to the grape mix (Cabernet Sauvignon / Merlot in the Médoc , Merlot / Cabernet Sauvignon / Cabernet Franc on the Right Bank for the reds, Sauvignon Blanc /Sémillon for the whites), not to mention the different vinification methods that can result in wines with extreme styles, as in the case of the so-called vins de garage of Saint Émilion and Pomerol, wines with incredible concentration as a result of severe selection in both the vineyard and winery, extraction using modern techniques and maturation in new barriques.
1.4 The wine regions of Italy
Italy (42.6 million hectoliters in 2007 – 50.1 million hectoliters on average in 2000-2005)
In 2006 the area under vine was 713,.819 hectares, of which 679,000 ha were actually in production.
All of the Regions of Italy have thousands of hectares of vineyards planted with typical local grape varieties.
In 2007, the Region with the highest production was the Veneto with 7.8 million hectoliters, followed by Emilia Romagna with over 6.2 million hl, and then by Puglia and Sicily, with 5.7 million and 4.6 million hectoliters respectively (these two Regions, however, had abnormally small harvests).
Italy and its wine Regions
Viticulture in the Valle d'Aosta is truly "heroic", yet in this Region producers succeed in making fine wines in spite of the difficulties (the climate, mountainous terrain and stony soils) that Nature puts in their way. The cold night temperatures at high altitude, though, favor the extraction of extraordinary perfumes, and the rugged indigenous varieties Fumin, Blanc de Morgex and Petite Arvine - cultivated using Guyot training in order to take advantage of every possible ray of sunshine - are grown alongside Chardonnay and Gamay to yield enological gems of extremely high quality.
The Alps and the plain, connected by mighty rivers: that, in brief, is a summary of the vine-growing situation in Piedmont, in which the contours of the Monferrato and Langhe hills, with their particular microclimates, represent the variables that gives distinctive characteristics to each wine. This is the land of Nebbiolo, the noble begetter of Barolo and Barbaresco, which produces wines of outstandingly high quality; but it is also that of Barbera and Dolcetto, grapes that have now been revalued by a new wave of young and innovative producers. Look out, too, for the emerging indigenous varieties, Favorita and Timorasso (a rare grape cultivated mainly in the area around Tortona) which, along with Cortese, Erbaluce and Arneis, lie behind this important wine Region’s whites.
This Region produces a broad range of wine styles, including as it does high mountains and wide valleys but also gentle hillsides that slope down towards the lakes. Each of these natural features has its own particular climate and soils, leading to a number of very diverse and distinctive terroirs. From the Valtellina to Franciacorta and from Lake Garda to the Oltrepò Pavese, Nebbiolo (here known as Chiavennasca), Chardonnay, Croatina and Groppello contribute towards creating wines that are sometimes inconsistent, but often unforgettable. The producers' decision to follow the quality path is clearly bearing its fruits.
The vineyards of Trentino, clinging to the sloping sides of the narrow valleys, benefit from a temperate climate; this is assisted by the rocky subsoil, which prevents damage during the bitter winters, and by cool nighttime temperatures, which guarantee excellent bouquets. In certain cases (we are thinking of Teroldego from the Rotaliano Plain or of the Marzemino from Isera) high levels of quality and typicity are being obtained, which in the past were forsaken in favor of quantity. Also worthy of interest are the Val di Cembra (an ideal habitat for Müller-Thurgau) and the splendid Chardonnay and Pinot Nero-based sparkling wines of the Trento D.O.C..
The rural landscape of the Alto Adige is as carefully tended as a garden. Here the vine finds room for itself in a masterly, well-ordered manner: the result gives joy to our senses. On the slopes of majestic mountains lie vineyards that are as elegant as the wines they yield, and which benefit from a mild climate and from temperature ranges that encourage the development of attractive scent components. This is the ideal area for the seductive Pinot Nero and its siblings, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Bianco, but also for Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Gewürztraminer, Müller-Thurgau and for highly-prized indigenous varieties like Lagrein (which stars in the porphyritic soils around Bolzano) or the straightforward, quaffable Schiava and the excitingly aromatic Moscato Rosa.
Friuli Venezia Giulia
What a variety of terroirs in a Region that is - all things considered - not all that large in geographical terms! There are plains that are ventilated by perfumed sea breezes, rugged mountains and gentle hillsides: all of which also benefit from a sense of quality that the vignerons of Friuli seem to have in their blood and that represents a real philosophy of life for them. This is a land of outstanding white wines, in which the grape variety (whether it be "international" or indigenous) invariably expresses its full potential. But alongside the great Tocais, Chardonnays, Sauvignons and Ribollas, some big, concentrated reds are making their mark, too, such as Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso and the local versions of Merlot and Cabernet. One should also look out for Malvasia Istriana, Pignolo and the rare Picolit.
As in many other Regions, producers here too are finally seeking to pay more heed to quality than quantity. They are devoting admirable care to their vineyards and renewed attention to winemaking practices. The Veneto's grapes benefit from very varied climatic and soil conditions, with micro-zones that are ideal for growing grapes and are staking all on preserving their typical wine styles. This is the case of Valdobbiadene with its Prosecco, of Valpolicella (with Amarone and its kin), but also of Gambellara with its Garganega, or Breganze with its perfumed Vespaiolo. The Eastern Veneto is also making great progress, particularly with regard to Malbec and Refosco.
In a Region where the mountains seem to throw themselves into the sea without any coastal plain to act as a springboard, looking after vineyards is more than just a challenge: it is almost madness. The terraced vineyards of the Cinque Terre or of the Riviera di Ponente are symbols of tenacity and resourcefulness. This is a land of indigenous grapes with strong personalities, where Rossese di Dolceacqua, Bosco, Vermentino and Pigato stand out with their inimitable perfumes and their outstanding ability to be matched with a cuisine that is straightforward but which insists on the excellence of its ingredients. Also worthy of mention is the local version of Dolcetto, the versatile Ormeasco. Bianchetta Genovese, Lumassina and Rollo, too, lend authentic territorial characteristics to the wines of this Region.
This Region has two quite distinct souls: that of the mountains and that of the plain, divided by the path of the Emilian Way. They face each other and respect one another, each with its own irreplaceable personality. The hilly landscape which is a corollary of this situation renders the area more interesting and gives the vineyards a very strong territorial identity. Sangiovese is certainly the key grape variety, but also notable are Pignoletto, Malvasia di Candia and some fine interpretations of international cultivars, Sauvignon and Cabernet in particular. One should also not forget the youthful exuberance and variety of styles of the various Lambruscos.
The picturesque and striking contours of the Tuscan hills are a real joy for the eyes and for the mind. Here, contained but not compressed between the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Apennines, there is a scenic and agricultural variety that one finds nowhere else on earth. This is where Italian wines have made their reputation, and the protagonist is undoubtedly His Highness Sangiovese, along with his local clone siblings. Here, of course, one finds Montalcino, Chianti Classico, Montepulciano and Carmignano, but that is not all: the Maremma is constantly taking center stage, not only with its fine reds made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah, but also with Alicante and Vermentino.
Here the sea is a fundamental point of reference: its beneficial influence can be felt even on the hillsides furthest inland. The soils and climate are ideal for grape cultivation and those who make wine have always gone all out for quality. Verdicchio (from Jesi and also Matelica) is the Region's passport around the world, but it is not the only one. There are also Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno, which do great things with Montepulciano and Sangiovese; the fragrantly aromatic Lacrima di Morro d'Alba (that has absolutely nothing to do with the little town of that name in the Langhe); or Italy’s original red sparkling wine, Vernaccia di Serrapetrona, made from the Vernaccia Nera variety. Also of interest – and not just because of their names - are the white wines from Pecorino and Passerina grapes.
Italy's heart beats here among high hills with soils that are rich in limestone, with an often changeable climate that makes the vines' job that much harder (and for that very reason usually more successful, especially as far as the wines' bouquets are concerned). Umbria means Sagrantino, a variety that gives wines that are as harsh and difficult as any when young, but which then yield countless sensations, even when it is blended with the ever-present Sangiovese. We should not forget, though, the simple pleasures of Grechetto, a luminous and classy white, or the rediscovered quality of Orvieto.
The soils here are as varied as the landscapes, lying between the green of the Sabine zone and the brown of the nearby Maremma. The entire countryside is dominated by the mountains of Abruzzo, whereas to the south the plain stretches down towards Campania. We are in the Region in which perhaps most experimentation has been done with international varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot), although hopes for high quality have also been invested in the indigenous Cesanese, in Moscato di Terracina and in Montonico Bianco.
Imposing mountains, almost interminable white sandy beaches and the quiet hills of Teramo and Chieti as well: that is Abruzzo, where cold nights alternate with sunny days, yielding extraordinary results as far as the grapes' and wines' perfumes are concerned. Montepulciano is (by definition) from Abruzzo, and it cannot be denied that here it really shows at its best, in wines that display softness and power in equal measure. But also Trebbiano, which here is less blatant than elsewhere, is able to offer high-quality products that have a close rapport with their terroir. Cococciola and Montonico Bianco are just two of the typical grape varieties of this Region.
This is a small but nevertheless significant wine-producing Region. Thanks to the presence within its boundaries of coastal zones, hills and mountain slopes, it also has a number of very varied microclimates, and the resulting wines are demonstrating constant signs of improvement. The most common varieties are those of the neighboring Regions, with Aglianico, Montepulciano and Trebbiano being the most widespread. The up-and-coming indigenous grape type is Tintilia.
In this Region viticulture represents history and tradition, linked as it is to excellent soils and to a really exceptional climate. The influence of the sea lessens as one approaches the mountains of Irpinia, where the limestone soil has a marked effect on the character of the wines, which display enormous richness and concentration of polyphenols. Aglianico here is less edgy and more elegant than elsewhere, and this very aristocratic indigenous variety is joined in the vineyards by the less well-known Casavecchia, Barbetta and Piedirosso. The magnificent whites made from Fiano, Falanghina and Greco di Tufo are quite rightly enjoying great favor.
If anyone still has the idea that this is a Region which is merely tied to producing large volumes, then they really do have to think again. The Puglian producers have taken a very definite stance, and there has been an increase in quality of exceptional proportions. It would have been a pity to continue seeing the extraordinary concentration that this sunny but well-ventilated Region has to offer simply vanish into blending wines. Negroamaro, Uva di Troia and Primitivo – this last grape is very popular and also grown widely in California, where it is known under the name of Zinfandel - battle it out to see which is the winner in a putative contest that also involves fine whites made from Verdeca, Bianco d'Alessano and Chardonnay grapes.
Rugged mountains (that once were volcanoes), which look down over two opposing seas and thus form an imaginary bridge between the two shores of Italy: that is Lucania, the land of forests par excellence. Altitude and climate go to make up a picture of powerful characteristics. Again it is Aglianico that is the protagonist, but here it is more austere and mineral, giving rise to an ancient and noble wine that nowadays fascinates even the most refined of tasters. The experiments with Moscato are very interesting: it too is well suited to this area.
Calabria has just a few plains left looking out towards the sea, which is dominated by brooding mountains that only occasionally gradate into steep hills. This is definitely an up-and-coming Region, but whose wine production has until now unfortunately been principally limited to local consumption or to making wines for blending. Nowadays, though, work in the vineyards is carried out with greater care, and innovative techniques are applied in the winery. Notable progress is being made with Gaglioppo, a variety with great character and personality, which incorporates the scents and warmth of the land from which it comes; following in its footsteps are Magliocco and, for dry whites, Mantonico. Offering great (but still partly unexpressed) potential are the sweet whites from Moscato grapes and, especially, from Greco.
This is the vine-covered Garden of the South, the land of sunshine par excellence: these are not mere clichés but the simple facts of a fascinating environment, full of strong perfumes and luminous, brightly-colored images. The new Eden of quality wines for the past several years, Sicily is now producing absolutely top-flight wines, even in an international context. Nero d'Avola, the Crown Prince of the island's terroirs, is no longer alone as a standard-bearer of the island’s winemaking renaissance: it is accompanied by the rediscovered Grillo, the aromatic Inzolia, the (now “tamed”) Catarratto, the perfumed Viognier and the reliable Grecanico. Watch out for the new wines from the Etna zone, with the white Carricante and the reds from Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes, or those from the Vittoria area with its fragrant Frappato.
Two mountain chains divide up the island, with the wide plain of the Campidano in between. The wind sculpts and conditions the soils of Sardinia, at the same time preventing the winters from being too rigid and tempering the heat of summer. There is little rainfall, but that is not a problem, because the vines know how to suffer in this Region. The limestone terrain is of medium structure and sometimes pebbly: it allows the roots to spread deeper than just the upper strata of soil. Nasco and Cannonau (which is closely related to the noble Grenache of France) are at home here: the latter is a grape variety that is particularly good at extracting the maximum from the microclimate in which it is grown. Great wines are to be found, too, from Carignano, Monica, Bovale and, among the whites, from Vermentino and in the amber gold sweetness of Malvasia di Bosa and Vernaccia di Oristano: the overall picture is a thoroughly rosy one.
1.4.1 The quality pyramid
As described in Italian law no. 164/92, the quality pyramid included – starting from the base and working up to the very peak of quality – the following classifications:
l vino da tavola (“table wine”)
l vino a Indicazione Geografica Tipica (I.G.T.)
l vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata (D.O.C.)
l vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (D.O.C.G.)
l vino con indicazione di “sottozona” o di “vigna” (wine indicating a sub-zone or individual vineyard)
Whereas a vino da tavola is a generic wine, which has to conform to the general rules with regard to wine without, however, having to indicate its provenance, vintage or grape variety (at least up until 2009), and may therefore come from any type of grape and place of origin, in those with a geographical indication (I.G.T., D.O.C. and D.O.C.G.) the provenance of the grapes and perhaps also the type of grape used are clearly shown. (The wine must be made at least 85% from that variety). Even for I.G.T. wines there are production regulations that specify the production zone, the varieties to be used, the maximum grape yield per hectare, the percentage of the grapes that may actually be transformed into wine, the minimum natural alcohol level and that at the time of consumption. Moving on to D.O.C.wines, these parameters, normally more restrictive than for I.G.T.s, are supplemented by others that are designed to guarantee certainty of origin and of chemical and organoleptic quality, by means of much more stringent checks and controls. For D.O.C. wines, the production areas are very precisely defined and agricultural practices are specified (planting and training systems, vines/ha, yield per vine, percentages of individual varieties, etc..), as are vinification techniques (yield in wine, length of maturation, etc.), chemical characteristics (minimum net dry extract, total acidity, residual sugars) and taste characteristics (color, scent, flavor), as well as the various controls and analyses that the wines must undergo in order to obtain the D.O.C.
For D.O.C.G.s, the parameters indicated above are even more restrictive than for D.O.C.s. There are two compulsory taste tests (one during production and another at the time of bottling). Producers must also attach Italian State strips to their bottles: the number of these issued corresponds to the amount of hectoliters produced.
In Italy there are at present (August 2008):
- 40 D.O.C.G.s;
- 317 D.O.C.s;
- 118 I.G.T.s.
In particular, the D.O.C.G.s – which represent the summit of the pyramid – are currently (July 2008) the following:
Piedmont (11): Asti / Moscato d'Asti, Barbera d'Asti, Barbera del Monferrato Superiore, Barbaresco, Barolo, (Brachetto d') Acqui, (Cortese di) Gavi, (Dolcetto di) Dogliani Superiore, Gattinara, Ghemme, Roero / Roero Arneis
Lombardy (4): Franciacorta, Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico, Sforzato (or Sfursat) della Valtellina, Valtellina Superiore
The Veneto (4): Bardolino Superiore, Recioto di Gambellara, Recioto di Soave, Soave Classico Superiore,
Friuli Venezia Giulia (2): Picolit Colli Orientali del Friuli, Ramandolo
Emilia Romagna (1): Albana di Romagna
Tuscany (8): Brunello di Montalcino, Carmignano, Chianti, Chianti Classico, Elba Aleatico, Morellino di Scansano, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
The Marche (2): Rosso Conero, Vernaccia di Serrapetrona
Umbria (2): Montefalco Sagrantino, Torgiano Rosso Riserva
Abruzzo (1): Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Colline Teramane
Campania (3): Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo, Taurasi
Sicily (1): Cerasuolo di Vittoria
Sardinia (1): Vermentino di Gallura
As a result of the recent reforms regarding wine in the Common Market, from 1st August 2009 onwards this pyramid system will be altered radically, allowing for just two types of wines: wines with a geographical indication (Denominazione di Origine Protetta [“Protected Denomination of Origin”] and Indicazione Geografica Protetta [“Protected Geographical Indication”]) and wines without any geographical indication (with or without indication of the variety).
Essentially, our I.G.T, D.O.C. and D.O.C.G. indications will become D.O.P. or I.G.P. and will be assigned no longer by the individual countries, but directly from Brussels.
The major revolution particularly concerns vini da tavola (without specific origin) , for which it will be possible – unlike now – to indicate on the label both the year of the harvest and the grape variety/varieties used; in this latter regard there are certain exceptions as far as Italy is concerned, limiting the use of the name of the variety to grapes that consumers recognize as being of special worth.