Demystifying Italian Wine
(a work in progress)
Italian wine can be confusing. Why is the grape Montepulciano not grown in the city of Montepulciano? How many names does Vermentino really have? Do we need to know all 700 Italian grapes? Is there an Italian style?
Is there an “Italian Style” of wine
First, yes there used to be a pretty clear Italian wine style, although it is more international now. In clear contrast to what people like Eric Asimov claimed, Italian wine was generally more earthy and had more tannin than French wines. France had more grace and refinement, Italy had more drama and corporeal emotion. The lows were low but the highs in Italian wine are very, very high with a truly passionate vitality compared to the cool distance of many French wines. Today there are more young winemakers trying their hand at French-inflected graceful wines, which is great. Techniques like whole cluster fermentations (where one uses stems or unbroken berries) are more widespread, despite being derided as “French techniques” fifteen years ago, along with orange wines, and carbonic macerations becoming increasingly common. As with anywhere, there is a battle between tradition and change raging, technological globalism and local history. Try both sides of the fence, your brain will thank you.
Is Italian sparkling wine good?
Oh yes! Glera, the grape that Prosecco is made from is amazing, and Prosecco itself has added quality tiers, so give them a glance and try the newer, dryer wines. Sparkling Lambrusco can be brilliant and elegant, and the area of Franciacorta in Emilia Romagna makes brilliant champagne-method wines from the same Champagne grapes with beautiful terroir nuances.
Should I try cheap Italian wine?
Generally, it depends. Avoid huge industrial producers, and anything in big chain stores if you want to seriously explore. $8 Prosecco will be bad, as will cheap Chianti. Generally about $18 retail is where to begin – think Lambrusco from Chiarlo, Chianti from Istine, Aglianico from…. That is great are a few examples around the $20 mark. There are a few great Spanish and Portuguese wines at $15, but start at $20 with Italy and be rewarded.
A note on oak aging
Many Italian wines will have aging guidelines that specify time aged in oak, but that oak is decades old and imparts no oak flavor. Italian wines are almost all low oak, with a couple fancy exceptions that are crafted for the American market. In fact, many Italian grapes, like Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, clash violently with oak flavors. Please keep in mind that the oaky cheap swill sold as commodity wine in America is the exception. Other countries, and most Italians hate that garbage. The Bordeaux-ization of cheap California wine needs to stop!
I like blends, are there regional Italian blends?
Oh yes, many Italian wines are blended. Try...
I like unblended wines, are there regional unblended Italian wines?
Oh yes, many of Italy’s most famous wines are unblended. try...
What Italian grapes are unlike French grapes?
Where to start? Nebbiolo is unlike any other grape, period. Nothing is like it. For pure drinkability Negro Amaro is pretty unique, maybe French … is a little similar. Italian aromatic reds like Ruchè and Nerello Mascalese are pretty unique. Fierce whites like Timorosso exist too. Fiano can echo great white Burgundy while Sicilian terroir can be unlike anything else in the world.
Is it like France with crisp acidity in the North and rounder, fuller wines in the South?
Yes, when in doubt, take the compass approach. Cooler climate equals more acid and less weight, tannin can vary depending on the grapes. Some areas like Alto Adige make some of the world’s best white wines, cool climate but getting lots of sun. Central Italy starts to gain a little more heft, especially when getting into Montepulciano (the grape) in Abruzzo and Marche. Going further south gets you into bigger reds. If you want softer ones, go to Puglia for Primitivo and Negro Amaro. For more structure or tannin go to Campania, Basilicata and Calabria. Sicily is a world unto itself with huge soil and microclimate variations, plus a who’s who or old school and new school winemaking. Volcanic Islands are special.
Oh gawd yes, that tired red herring. So you love French limestone minerality? Good, Italy is covered in limestone too1, and the older the vines, the more minerality will be present, depending on the grape. You say that there is no such thing as minerality because the vines don’t “take up” minerals through their roots? That’s like saying children are stupid because they aren’t born knowing how to read. It is a thing, and it is real. It is an electrical sensation on the tongue that prolongs and energizes a wine’s finish (the smell of petrichor is obviously completely different) and the science will catch up. But, we know that it is largely due to the mycorrhizal fungi living in the roots and exchanging substances symbiotically with the vines. Minerality is a holy grail for Prima Materia, but we also realize that hedonistic folk or new wine drinkers may find the sensation abrasive or unpleasant.
How do I tell the difference between a region and a grape on a label?
Ok, this is where Italian wine really blew it. You can’t, not without years of studying. A few regions, like Piemonte and Alto Adige make it easier and often employ a grape name on the label. Others can be a total mixed bag, but it is getting better. I recommend the Wine Folly book as a quick guide, and Ian D’Agata’s books on Italian wine as a deeper guide. I am still learning new things everyday about regions and their grapes, and it puts the phrase “lifelong student” to the test.