Wine and Italy have been entwined since Romulus and Remus,
albeit viewed a one of life's necessities rather than something to be
treasured. Yes, they were celebrated by Virgil, Pliny and Columella, toasted by
the Vatican and, in the case of Barolo, coveted in the
latter part of the 19th century by the then monarchy, the House of
Savoia, but only in the last 20 - 30 years have the great fine wines of
Italy come of age.
Forced by sliding domestic consumption (a 50% drop in 30 years), spurred on
by a new generation (often with professional backgrounds) and facilitated by
consultants and the latest gizmos, Italy's hillside terroirs are finally being
harnessed to great effect.
However, for example, while Barolo's stature as Italy's finest wine may be
global, its vineyards are 1% those of Bordeaux and 15% the size
of Burgundy. Where
top Chateau in the Medoc
might produce 40,000 cases per annum of a Grand Vin, a leading Barolo estate
makes 800 cases.
the Veneto come
close to representing Italy's fine wine engine, with their Chiantis and Valpolicellas,
but the bulk (both literally and metaphorically) of Italian production still
resides elsewhere. The massive cooperatives of Emilia-Romagna, Puglia and Sicily are still
responsible for churning out vast quantities, mostly as blending material for
wines based all round Europe....yet even here the worm is turning, with small
estates bubbling to the surface.
As in France, so in Italy the best vineyard sites have been planted for two
millennia, mostly on limestone based soils delivering low pH wines, often
perched among the Apennine or Alpine foothills, 300 - 600 metres above sea
level to enjoy the important diurnal shift that prolongs hang-time and builds
complexity in their ancient grape varieties.
While the Cabernets and Merlots so prized by the
'Super-Tuscans' (Tignanello, Solaia) are gradually wheedling
their way into formerly indigenous-only blends such as the Chiantis and Vino
Nobiles (and Brunello
given half-a-chance), it is the autochthonous pearls of Italy's rich wine
culture that are increasingly cited: the Nebbiolos of Piedmont, Corvinas of the Veneto, the Sangiovese of Tuscany, the
of the Marche, Pinot
Grigio in Friuli etc.
For with the next generation has come a realisation of what differentiates
Italy from the vinous crowd and why the quality of their Nebbiolo, Sangiovese,
and Corvina-based wines have yet to be replicated anywhere else in the world.
And with an unprecedented string of good to great vintages (1995-2001, 2004,
2006) encouraging and urging them on to new heights, there's never been a
better time to savour these increasingly modern classics.