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Italian wine remains as relevant today as ever.

 

Page-22Colonizing Greeks named Italy ‘Oenotria’ - the land of wine. Coming from the civilization that invented wine, it’s a potent reminder that there is little of Italy, geographically speaking, that is not at least marginally wine country. Today, her annual production is easily the biggest in the world, and Italy cannot fail to produce good wine in great variety. If hill slopes, sunshine and temperate climates are the essentials - then Italy has more than any other country in Europe. Her peculiar physique, that of a long spine of mountains, reaching south from the Alps almost to North Africa, means that there can hardly be a desirable combination of altitude with latitude and exposure that is absent. Many of her soils are volcanic, much is limestone and there is plenty of gravelly clay. And with the long history and traditions of winemaking prowess, which is now combined with modern technological advances, it’s Oenotria more than ever.

      In 2011, more Italian than French wine was exported and sold to the USA. Over one billion bottles, which accounts for roughly 10% of the world’s biggest market. And Italy is on course to be the number one wine exporter to the USA, and many of the other major wine consuming nations, for the

foreseeable future. Over the last decade, while most of the wine world has been pre-occupied with fads and innovations from the New World, Italy has flown-under-the-radar and mounted a serious challenge for the top spot. And they have done it “old school,” by making and branding their wines traditionally. One of the reasons for their recent success is the swing towards more traditional style wines by the increasingly savvy, younger generation of wine drinkers.

       To the non-Italian consumer however, Italian wine has one serious drawback, an impossible confusion of names. Because wine is omnipresent, so much a part of everyday Italian life, every conceivable sort of name is used, in an attempt to mark originality. Thus a bottle may carry on it, not only the official (DOC) name, but the name of the producer, the name of the property (or part of it), or anything else that takes the producers fancy. Often, matters are made much worse by omitting the name of the region. The name of an obscure town is the only geographical reference on the label. (Surely I’m not alone in finding it necessary to know both the region and grapes, to have any idea as to whether a bottle will meet my preferences?)

      To be fair, the Italian government has made some monumental efforts to tidy up its wine categories. And what they were brave enough to do in 1992, unlike the French with their AOC system, was revise the antiquated DOC & DOCG classifications. In moment of clarity, there was a realisation that what these regulations actually do is fossilize the practices of winemakers in each region, regardless of whether it leads to the best results or not. In fact, (France please note) it penalizes progressive winemakers. The result has been the proliferation of ‘vini da tavola’ wine that previously would have been of the lowest official standing, which frequently excels the DOC wines in both quality and price. A number are brilliant.

      For the wine lover, one very important aspect of Italian wine to keep in mind is that they are made for Italian food. The two go hand in hand, and like a good marriage, both are typically enhanced by each other. The table wines, which are generally less expensive, are made to be drunk in the easy-going atmosphere of an Italian-style family dinner. They are often sold in larger jug-like bottles, and are a mainstay of an Italian dining table. Table wines are often fruit-forward wines that can lean a touch on the sweeter side, some are sparkling, and most are light to medium bodied. And they are very compatible for first time wine drinkers. Lambrusco is likely a table wine that comes to mind (for better or for worse). It’s a dry red wine with a touch of 'frizzante' (an Italian term for slightly sparkling). And has a reputation for focusing on quantity with a lackadaisical eye placed on quality. However, many producers are upping their quality standards, making this an ideal time to give Lambrusco another try.

      Beyond table wines, the sky is the limit. High-end Italian wines range from the very good to downright superior. Most wine enthusiasts would agree that many of the finest Italian wines are from Tuscany. Comprised of mostly Sangiovese, blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot or Syrah grapes, these wines are usually on the upper end of the price spectrum. The other truly great Italian wines are, of course, Barolo and Barbaresco. Derived from the noble Nebbioli grape, these dynamic red wines are typically reserved for Sunday dinners or special celebrations, with prices that reflect that.

       Another wine worth mentioning is Amarone, which usually comes from the iconic Valpolicella area, in Italy's northeast corner. They are typically considered one of Italy's big, bold red wines. Amarone has powerful fruity flavours of cherry, raisins, plums and spice. They are made from grapes that have been partially dried, and historically have had higher alcohol contents.

         As for better quality Italian white wines, Pinot Grigio comes to mind. It has enjoyed much popularity in recent years. And for good reason, it’s a deeply aromatic, vivid white wine with flavour and presence. It’s the perfect wine accompaniment for oily fish and salads on a hot summer’s day. And although I’ve never actually done it, for me, a fragrant Pinot Grigio sums up images of an al fresco lunch, enjoyed together with beautifully slender women, their long hair gently blowing in the breeze, whilst sat round a large wooden table on classic Italian terrace, which overlooks speckled sunlit, grape vine covered hills rolling into the distance. Funny how wine can make a middle-aged man daydream!

         

Peter James


 


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