Italian Wine Regions 101
This is the first in a series of wine region and terroir guides that we’ll be releasing over the upcoming months.
You know your pasta names well, and might even be able to tell a Margherita pizza from a Quattro Formaggio, but how familiar are you with Italian wines? After all, Italy is currently the world’s largest exporter of wine, exporting more than 200 million cases of fermented grape juice around the world each year.
Researchers believe that Italians have been producing wine for some 4,000 years now. The boot-shaped peninsula is very suitable for growing grapes — the climate is generally mild, and the Alps at the northern border shield Italy from the wintery frosts. Then, there’s the Apennine mountains that run all along the country, offering a wide range of topographies and soil types. Fun fact: more than 350 wine grape varietals have been documented and granted “authorized” status so far.
Not to be confused with the AOC or AOP classifications for French wines, Italian bottles that meet the most rigorous guidelines for recognised production zones and superior quality are classified Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, or DOCG. The next level down is Denominazione di Origine Controllata, or DOC, for wines from registered destinations that only use indigenous Italian grapes.
As an introduction to Italian wines, we’ll be briefly talking about six wine-producing regions across the country. Do note that this is far from a comprehensive list, and is not completely representative of the vast world of Italian wines. Here goes!
The Veneto region stretches across the northeastern corner of Italy from the Alpine border with Austria over to the canals of Venice. It’s also increasingly becoming Italy’s most important wine region. The northern locale is best known for grapes that produce crisp white wines like Pinot Grigio, and bubbly Prosecco — which make up more than two-thirds of Veneto’s total production. The native Corvina grape is also used to make noteworthy reds like the full smoky Amarone, and brighter Bardolino and Valpolicella.
Veneto wines to check out:
We head over to the base of the Alps in northwestern Italy. Piedmont, which means “foot of the mountains” boasts 58 individual wine appellations, more than any other Italian region. The abundant hillsides are fertile terrain for vines, producing dark Nebbiolo grapes for powerful acidic reds such as the full-bodied Barolo and brighter Barbaresco. These respond beautifully to ageing, making them popular among collectors. Let’s not forget the world-famous Moscato — the white grape of the same name is made into sweet and fizzy Moscato d’Asti as well as the fully sparkling Asti.
Piedmont wines to check out:
Tuscany is well known for its history, vibrant culture, and stunning landscapes. But what ties all these elements together is Tuscan wine, with references to the region’s wine merchants going back 1,000 years. The native Sangiovese, regarded by critics to be among the best grapes in all of Italy, is the predominant varietal here, and is the chief or sole grape in nearly all Tuscan reds. Think the familiar dry Chianti Classico and expensive, fleshy Brunello di Montalcino, and the easy-drinking but somewhat complex Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
Tuscany wines to check out:
Coined “the New Tuscany”, Marche on the eastern side of Italy is most readily associated with whites from the crisp and fresh Verdicchio grape varietal. The average quality of the wines here has increased enormously in recent years thanks to a vigorous stage of evolution and improvement. One of the largest producers here is Umani Ronchi, whose Casal di Serra bottling remains one of Italy’s most interesting and popular whites lately. Their deep ruby Cumaro, with intense notes of oak, ripe plum, and blackcurrant, is just as reliable.
Marche wines to check out:
White sandy beaches and turquoise clear waters aside, the island of Sicily has much to offer when it comes to wine. It experiences an arid Mediterranean climate and features high-altitude vineyards that produce fresh grapes with good acid retention. For many years, Sicily’s reputation was built on the fortified wine Marsala, but it’s since been quite successful with the hearty Nero d’Avola and balanced, elegant Cerasuolo di Vittoria — a blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato grapes.
Sicily wines to check out:
Like Sicily, Sardinia has a unique climate for growing wines, with strong Spanish roots to boot. The granite soils give birth to the white Vermentino di Gallura, a beautiful straw-coloured wine that’s typically oak-free with citrus aromas and underlying richness. For reds, there’s Cannonau, arguably Sardinia’s most famous varietal with lovely earthy and herbal characteristics. Genetically the same as French Grenache or Spanish Garnacha, Cannonau has been planted on the island for over six centuries!
Sardinia wines to check out: