Few countries have the length of viticulture history that Italy possesses although, for many years, particularly in the post-war era, this legacy was squandered. The last 20 years have seen a real renaissance for Italian wine and there has never been a more exciting time to acquaint oneself with the country and its vines.
The land stretches from the mountains of the Alps and the Austrian border through to Sicily and islands which are nearer to Africa than the Italian mainland. In the north, the Valle D’Aosta and Alto Adige are situated. The former is extremely small and the wines are rarely seen outside the country. Alto Adige borders on Austria and is home to elegant, cold-climate wines from grapes such as Kerner, Chardonnay and Riesling. Jermann is a particularly good exponent of the art.
Heading east towards Italy’s Adriatic coast, the regions of Piemonte, Lombardia and the Veneto lie next to one another. Many consider Piemonte to be the most exciting and quality driven of all Italian regions. Certainly it is the home of the iconic Barolo and Barbaresco wines, made exclusively from the Nebbiolo grape, whose character has been compared to Pinot Noir, albeit with a persistent acidity and haunting aromas of roses and tar.
These are wines that will not be released until 5 years following the vintage and the truly great Baroli from estates such as Giuseppe Mascarello will age for decades. Excellent white wines come from Piemonte including Roero Arneis and the steely Gavi, considered by many to be the finest white from the region. As one heads east, the soil changes from chalk, on which Nebbiolo thrives, to clay, which is home to another red wine grape Barbera.
The east of the region features a very individual white wine called Derthona, made from Timorasso. This is a grape that almost went into extinction, having been uprooted by all but one family who upheld the production. Walter Massa’s work has now seen a revival of this wine.
The region of Lombardia is home to Italy’s sparkling wine Franciacorta, which closely resembles Champagne. In a country that has so many of its own wines and grapes, this product divides opinion but some of the best versions approach Champagne for quality. A more indigenous product is Lugana, grown on the clay soils around Lake Garda, a favourite tourist destination.
Made from the Trebbiano di Lugana, recently discovered to be the same as the Verdicchio, which grows so well in the Marche region of central Italy, this crisp white wine has many followers who first met the wine on holiday and wished to continue enjoying it afterwards. Nunzio Ghiraldi is a fine estate although more difficult to find than the giants of Zenato and Ca de Frati.
To the east of the lake lies Bardolino and the start of the Veneto region. Where Piemonte produces most wine of DOCG standard (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) – think of a premium Appellation Controlée – the Veneto produces more DOC wine than anywhere else. Bardolino uses the same grapes as Valpolicella, situated north east of Verona, namely Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara, but rarely enjoys the limelight.
Valpolicella is also the main cherry region of the north and many feel that the wines produced share the light character of that fruit. The iconic Amarone della Valpolicella is the most famous wine here with a variety of styles. Many border on massive, whereas the Amarone from Marinella Camerani at Corte Sant’Alda beguiles with elegance. Over three kilos of grapes are needed to make one bottle, so it’s a wine to treasure!
Further east, the region of Soave can be found. In the 70s, the wine was almost as ubiquitous as Pinot Grigio is today and was seen by many as another example of a poor regional wine. However, families such as Inama and Pieropan have worked tirelessly to raise standards and one should look for Soave Classico on the label. The late-ripening Garganega grape produces a wine that could rival some Burgundies, albeit for less money!
Words Phil Harris