On Italian Wine
By Daniel Zwicke
Italy has the a long illustrious history in wine dating back to the Roman Empire and the Ancient Greeks who planted some vineyards in Sicily and other parts of Southern Italy like; Calabria and Campania. The Romans with their far reaching Empire that stretched across Europe and into North Africa, planted vineyards in every corner of their domain, including; France, Germany, Spain, and Croatia.
Wine is as deeply rooted into the Italian lifestyle as pizza, pasta, Prosciutto, and Parmigiano.
When it comes to wine there is no country on Earth that can compare to Italy. If you look at wine maps of other major wine producing countries, you will see that vineyards are planted in just a few areas here and there as far as the entire land mass is concerned. Italy on the other hand has vines planted in the whole of the country, from Friuli in the North-East down to the toe of Calabria in the South-West and everywhere in-between, along with the large islands of Sardinia and Sicily.
No matter where you go in Italy you will find grape vines growing. There is no country in the world with such a multitude of grapes being cultivated, furthermore there is no country on the planet that has the diversity in wine styles and grape varieties grown. The number of grape varieties is staggering as compared to other countries. Take the United States, France, and Australia for example, three of the top wine producing countries in the world, in terms of both quality and quantity. In Australia and the U.S. the primary grapes produced are Chardonay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Pinot Noir. Add to this a fair amount of Reisling and Gamay, a bit of Cabernet Franc, Pinot Bianco, Petit Verdot, and Petit Syrah and a few other varieties and you have the major grapes grown in these countries.
France cultivates these varieties and more, including Muscadet, Grenache, Viognier, and Carrignan. No doubt they have a nice variety of great wine produced in France. Wines that I love, especially from the Rhone and Bordeaux but for all the wonderful wines from France they can’t come close to touching Italy in number of styles and grape varieties.
Italy, for my money, is thee Worlds Best!
There are a number of grape varieties that are grown in Italy and no where else or in such minuscule amounts that they are of no consequence. One example, Nebbiolo, the solitary grape that makes-up the famed Barolos and Barbarescos of Peidmonte. Nebbiolo thrives mainly in
Peidmonte and in Lombardia, but no place else in world, although it has been grown in teeny amounts in California and Virginia with mediocre results.
As well as being the single grape variety that makes up the famed Barolo’s and Barbaresco’s, Nebbiolo is the grape of Gattinara, Nebbiolo d’ Alba, and several other wines of Peidmonte. Wines made of Nebbiolo are wine world stars with producers like Angelo Gaja, Aldo Conterno, Giacomo Conterno, La Spinetta, and the great Bruno Giacosa, to name just a handful of famous producers who make the legendary Barolo’s and Barbaresco’s.
A few other excellent varieties that are grown in Italy and nowhere else are grapes like Ruche, Negromano, Nero d’ Avola, Ciliegielo, Monduese, and Picolit.
Along with the indigenous varieties, Italy has great examples of the Big Four of the Wine World; Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. With the tremendous amount of indigenous varieties along with the “Big Four” it makes for an infinite amount of styles that can be made of single varietal wines or an endless range of wines that are proprietary blends in which Italy makes by far the greatest number in the world.
For any wine drinker interested in exploring the endless variety of interesting wines, with a never-ending realm of possibilities of taste and styles, they need look no further than Italy. It’s the top of the ladder, but the sad fact is that for all of the hundreds of millions of people who drink wine regularly, there are just a small percentage who really delve into the great depths of all that is available. The large majority of wine drinkers keep drinking the same old things over and over, The Big Four, and if they do drink some Italian wines, most just drink Pinot Grigio, Chianti, Brunello, Amarone, Valpolicella, and little else. This great peninsula has so much to offer, it’s mind boggling, wines like; Barbera, Vermentino, Salice Salentino, Taurasi, Tocai, Aglianico d’Vulture, Greco d’ Tufo, Fiano d’ Avelino, Brachetto, Ripasso’s, Friesa, and Nero d’Avola, just to name a very few.
Some of the famous renowned wines are the great Barolo’s and Barbaresco’s, Vino Nobile, Brunello, Chianti, Amarone, and a multitude of wonderful Super Tuscans. What is a Super Tuscan? Many people will ask. It is mystifying to many, exactly what they are. It’s a question that is a little hard to explain, but I will do just that.
A Super Tuscan wine is generally a wine that is made in Tuscany, in specific DOC and DOCG zones where wines like Chianti, Brunello, Morellino de Scansano, and Vino Nobile are made. To be called Chianti, Brunello, or Vino Nobile, these wines must be made within the geographic boundaries of the specific DOC or DOCG zone, and they must be made according to the laws set by the Italian government, pertaining to the type of grapes that can go into the particular wine, the amount of grapes that can be harvested per acre, prescribed amounts of time the wine must be aged in wood, and when the wine may be released for sale.
Through the 1960’s and into the 70’s it is sad to say that Italy on a whole was producing a lot of really poor quality wine. They were going for quantity and not quality. This trend was spawned by the Italian government itself. In the case of Chianti for example, the laws to be followed for making this wine amounted to a recipe for making awful wine. The governmental laws allowed for high yields of grapes per acre (which is not good for making good quality wines) and allowed the addition of up to 30% of Trebbiano, or as low as 5% in the blend. Chianti being a red wine and Trebbiano being a white varietal, this was an insane concept. So it was up to each individual producer in the Chianti zone, whether they wanted to make smaller amounts of good quality wine or large amounts of bad wine. You understand that you didn’t have to put 30% white grapes in the blend if you didn’t want to, but if you did want to, by law, you could do it, and the wine qualified as being Chianti.
In the early 1970 there were a few pioneers in Tuscany that were appalled by what was going on and decided to make great quality wines in the regions of Morellino in Bolgheri on the Tuscan coastline and in the Chianti Clasico zone. These wines would be of great quality. Because they were made with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc (non-native grapes of Tuscany, although Carminagno has been made for more than 400 years with a percentage of Cabernet, in a small zone near Empoli) they would not qualify as any DOC or DOCG wines. So these new wines which where of the highest quality would by law have to be labeled as IGT or Vino d Tavolo wines, which is the lowest of the classifications. In the end didn’t really matter, because everybody who knew anything about wines knew that they were great.
So it was Nicolo Incissa Rochetta who on the Tuscan coast in Bolgheri made the first of the now very famous Super Tuscan wines with his Sassicia a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Sngiovese that was aged in small French Oak Barrels, rather than the large Slovenian Oak ones that were the norm for hundreds of years.
His cousin Piero Antinori soon followed suit in The Chianti Classico zone with the equally famous Tignanello, usually made with twenty to twenty-five percent Cabernet Sauvignon and about 75% Sangiovese aged in small barrique barrels as well, though the first vintage in 1971 was made solely of Sangiovese.
Wine critics recognized the quality of these wines immediately, and it was the British wine writers and critics who started calling these great non-traditional wines of Tuscany, “Super Tuscans.” The nickname caught on and it stuck to this day, although the name is unofficial and has never been recognized by the law makers in Italy.
So, are you still confused? To break it down in simpler terms, a Super Tuscan is generally but not always a wine that has 100% or a lesser percentage in a blend the grape varieties of Merlot, Cabernet Suavignon, Cabernet Franc, and sometimes Syrah. A Super Tuscan can also be made solely of Sangiovese or a combination of Sangiovese and one or more of the other internaltional grape varieties. These wines are always aged for a good amount of time in barriques, which are small (225 liter) French Oak barrels.
A Super Tuscan can be made of any of these varieties as a single mono varietal as is the case with Masseto which is 100% Merlot or 100% Sangiovese as is the case with Prunaio, I Sodi San Niccola, Sassolloro, and Il Carbiannone from the great winemaker Vitorio Fiore in Greve. A couple examples of Super Tuscan blended wines are Ornellia which is usually about 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Merlot, and the delicious Campaccio made with 75% Sangiovese and 25% Cabernet.
So, now that the laws governing the make-up of Chianti have changed for the betterment of this storied Italian wine, the quality has tremendously improved. I do not however agree with the new laws allowing small percentages of Merlot, Cabernet, or other French Vinifera in the blend or the fact that Chianti can be made solely with Sangivose.
In keeping with the great old tradition of Chianti, it should always be a blended wine dominated by mostly Sangiovese with a small amount of a local secondary grape or grapes like Cannaiolo or Colorino. This is a true Chianti! If you want to make a wine with some of international varietals, then label the wine as a Super Tuscan not Chianti.
I must admit that Chianti and some of the Sangiovese based Super Tuscans are my favorite wine in the world, especially those of my good friends who make the most wonderful wines you could ever wish to drink. Wines like Prunaio and the Chianti’s from Alessandro Landini, the proprietor of Fattoria Vitticio, Conti Sebastiano and Nicolo Cappone the aristocratic owners of the historical
Villa Calcinaia in Greve. The Cappone’s produce great Chianti, Grappa, luscious olive oil, and one of the nicest Vin Santo’s I have ever tasted.
My friends, the Fiore family, with father Vittorio and sons Jyuri and Roberto, make the famous Il Carbonaionne at their vineyard Podere Scallette, high up on a hill in Greve that overlooks the entire Chianti Classico zone with Firenze in the north and Siena to the south. It’s a spectacular view.
Also in Greve is friend Antonio at Vignamaggio, the estate where the worlds most famous painting, the Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo di Vinci. At Vignamaggio, perfection still follows Da Vinci with the most superb wines imaginable, with one of Italy’s greatest single varietal Cabernet Francs, the Super Tuscan “Obsession,” and the fabulous namesake wine “Mona Lisa,” the estates
Chianti Classico Riserva.
I am not saying that Chianti is the worlds best wine, no, it is my personal favorite, not as big as Brunello, Amarone, or some Super Tuscans, but for me, the perfect wine to drink with Italian food made by either myself, my aunts, uncles, cousins, or one of Italy’s many wonderful cooks. The Sangiovese grape that makes up most of the Chianti blend and is in whole or part of many Super Tuscans as well as Vino Nobile and Brunello is absolutely my favorite grape. It is not as powerful and rich as Cabernet or Merlot, but it does have a good amount of power and wonderful rustic qualities that give it perfect balance when made properly, making it an excellent choice with many different dishes the Italian cuisine.
There is wonderful lure and history behind Chianti and the wine zone that it is produced in, which many feel is the most beautiful wine region in the world, with its beautiful rolling hills, filled with wondrous rows of grape vines, olive groves, castles, stone farm houses, and cypress trees that seem to dot the crest of almost every hill.
Other important indigenous wines of Tuscany are Vernaccia, Vino Nobile, Morellino, Carmignano, and the highly exalted Brunello di Montalcino.
Most of the great native wines of Tuscany are red, it is red wine country, and the only important native white is Vernaccia from the beautiful medieval hilltop town of towers, San Gimignano.
There is a saying amongst many Italian men. If you ask them if they are white or red wine drinkers? They’ll reply, “White wine? What is the point?” In other word. Why would you even think of drinking white wine when you have red which is so much better? To some point, I do agree with them as I drink red about 90% of the time, but there are many great wines in the world, and they offer a different wine drinking experience and have some flavors and characteristics such as certain mineral and floral qualities that you don’t get in reds.
If your having a nice long serious meal, it’s great to start the meal with a glass of white to get your palate jump started before moving on to one or more reds. Variety is the spice of life.
The white wines of Italy! Here again in my opinion, Italy makes the best, although I know many would disagree. I’ll stick by my guns. Many would say that White Burgundies are the best whites in the world and that Burgundy is the greatest white wine producing region. Well I would agree number one that White Burgundies are the worlds best white wines, but although Burgundy produces the worlds greatest whites, it is not the greatest white wine region in the world, personally I’d give that honor to Friuli. Friuli produces some of the worlds most outstanding white wines. The reason I feel that Friuli has the upper hand over Burgundy is simple. Yes I would say that White Burgundies are the single greatest white wines, but they are of just one grape variety, Chardonnay. Friuli-Venezia Giulia on the other hand makes white wines of the highest quality as in Burgundy, but unlike Burgundy where the wines are only of one single grape variety, the great wines of Friuli are made with a number of wonderful grape varieties. Varities like Tocia, Sauvignon, Picolit, Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Verduzza, Traminer, Chardonnay, and Muller Thurgau which are all made in single varietals in different styles and in various micro-climates to create wines that express the varietal character of each grape in a host of ways. Then there are the numerous proprietary blends like the prestigious wines of Sylvio Jermann who produces the famed Vintage Tunnina, Vinnaia, and Dreams, as well as the great wines of Schiopetto, Livio Felluga, and a host of others. With all the different single varietal wines made in various styles and the endless possibilities of making proprietary blends, these are the factors why I feel that Friuli-Venezia-Giulia is the worlds preeminent quality white wine making region, even greater than Burgundy.
The wine making region of Friuli is to white wines, what Tuscany is to red wine, the greatest white wine producing region in the world, bar none! And these wines are now being coined “The Super Whites”, the name fits.
White Burgundy? The wine is made of what? One-hundred percent chardonnay, a grape variety that has gained some disdain amongst many wine drinkers around the world. This is what happens when any grape or wine becomes overly popular. This was the case with Soave in the 70’s, Chardonnay in the 90’s, and now Merlot. As some say, “ABC”. Anything-But-Chardonnay!
If you want to be adventurous and gain some unique wine knowledge that few others around you would have, delve into the marvelous array of the unique wines of Southern Italy and grape varieties like Piedrossa, Negramano, Primitivo and Aglianico.
Aglianco, which is considered the greatest red varietal of the south, comes mainly from the regions of Campania and Basilicata, and are made in both single varietal wines, as well as Aglianico being blended with Merlot, Cabernet, and or other grapes. In Campania they grow other grapes you will not find outside of Italy, like Piedirosso, Coda di Volpe, and Fiano, of which is made one of Italy’s premier white wines, Fiano di Avellino. There are wonderful wines from Apulia made from the primary grapes of Negramano and Primitivo which is the grape believed to be the Genesis of Zinfandel.
You will find a nice array of wines coming from the island of Sardegna, from the white Vermentino’s with their crisp clean make-up of fragrant floral aromas and ripe fruit in the palate, to the great reds made of Cannonau and Monica, the Big Bold wines made with the native Carrignan to Cabernet Sauvignon which grows exceedingly well on the island and comprises 100% of the great wine, Sella and Mosca “Marchese”, along with the Vernaccia that’s made in a sherry-like style, as well as some extraordinary desert wines made with Malvasia and Moscato.
Then last, but certainly not least in the south we have the wines from Sicily where the wines have made great strides in quality and worldwide popularity in the past few years. “Duca Enrico” and “Rosso del Conte” both made from 100% Nero d’Avola where for a long time, two of Sicily’s small roster of prestigious wines, with few others. In the past few years, Sicily has seen a great boom in terms of quality, notoriety, and sales. The Planeta family of Sicily has been one of the major forces in the recent trend of popularity and prestige of Sicilian wines. Planeta has sky-rocketed to a well deserved fame in a very short amount of time, first with their big bold Merlot and Cabernet. In the past four years their luscious chardonnay has been ranked among the top 50 wines in the world. The Planeta’s also produce a great wine made from Nero d’Avola and one from Syhrah as well as the nice inexpensive white and red table wines Segreta.
Another family who are very instrumental in the recent surge of Sicilian wines, is the Rallo family who have done a amazing job with their winery of Donnafugata. Most famous of the Donnafugata wines, would be the 100% Nero d’Avola based Mille un Notte.
So, there you have it. If you want to go on the most incredibly diverse wine journey on earth, dig into the wines of Italy….
Daniel Bellino Zwicke is a former Chef and now one of New York and the United States foremost authorities on Italian Wine and Venetian Wine Bars (Bacari). Daniel was the former Wine Director of Barbetta Restaurant in New York City as well as the Chef, Wine Director, and Managing Partner at Bar Cichetti which he created. Bar Cichetti was the first ever Venetian Wine Bar to exist in the United States.