One of the many things Italy is famous for is its wines. And rightly so – perhaps no other country in the world can boast the sheer quality and variety of styles of Italy’s wines. While certainly not an expert in any sense of the word, I’ve become quite a fan of Italian wine over the past few years. My wine journey started rather auspiciously. While stationed in Germany, I’d immediately noticed how important wine was to the locals. So I dabbled in some of the German wines which I liked right away. In Germany, white wine is king. I lived in the Franconia region of northern Bavaria, which has a storied wine culture. Eventually I discovered the wines from the Rhine River area, which are some of the best Germany has to offer.
When I got to Italy it actually took me a while to discover the wine. The first wine here that captured my interest was Moscato, which is a light, sweet, white ‘frizzante’ (sparkling) wine. Around the same time I was also introduced to Marzemino, which became my first favorite wine. Marzemino is a dessert wine. It’s red, fruity, and frizzante. It’s best served cold, and goes down as smooth as grape juice which means you could easily kill a bottle quickly if you’re not careful.
After a year or so I had become pretty friendly with my upstairs neighbor Giampietro, who I have since discovered to be quite a wine connoisseur. Occasionally he would stop by and bring me a bottle of win or two, always with instructions on how to serve it and what foods to eat with it. However, the one thing that put my interest in wine on the fast track was a place called Vo. Vo is a town in the Euganei Hills, about 45 minutes away from Vicenza. It’s in the heart of the local wine producing Euganei region and features several good wineries. It quickly became a tradition to go there for a couple hours, tasting different wines and ordering various table foods such as meats and cheeses, fresh vegetables, and bread and enjoy some of the wine with friends. And then on the way out, we would stock up on good wine at about 3 euro a bottle. I would always buy a few bottles of Marzemino, but I also starting discovering the more serious dry reds such as Cabernets. Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon became my new staples and remain so to this day.
The next wine that I discovered was Valpolicella. This is not considered a “fine wine”, but certainly is one of the better everyday drinking wines. In fact, if you’re in Venice and you order the house or table wine, you’re probably drinking Valpolicella. Eventually I graduated to the higher quality Valpolicella Classico Superiore (more about that later). There are two main people in Italy who are responsible for fanning the flames of my interest in good Italian wine and helping to expand my knowledge and appreciation of wine in general. The first was my neighbor Giampietro. The second is a gentleman named Will Nason. Will is a retired soldier who has been in Italy for many years. His wife is Italian, he speaks the language fluently and he even used to make his own wine. I’ve discovered many good wines thanks to Will’s recommendations and have learned a great deal about production and winemaking in general from him. The first great wines that Will introduced me to were Amarone and Recioto, both from the Valpolicella region just outside Verona. While Recioto is a sweet red wine, Amarone has an entirely different character. It’s rich and full bodied, usually clocking in at around 15% or higher. It’s a great sipping wine and is a perfect compliment to red meats and some cheeses. I mention these two wines because they are two that stand out in the Veneto region where I live.
The next – and logical - step in my wine journey were the dynamic reds produced in the Tuscany region. The ones worth mentioning are the big three – Chianti, Montalcino, and Montepulciano. Chianti is probably the most famous and is extremely varied. Montepulciano is similar to Chianti. There are two main types – Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Rosso di Montepulciano. While still high quality, the lesser grapes are used in the Rosso, which makes a more approachable, less expensive version that can be enjoyed in less time than the Vino Nobile. Montalcino is one of my two favorite Italian wines. As with the Montepulciano, there are tow versions – Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso do Montalcino. Brunello is the higher quality and is considered by many Italians to be Italy’s –if not the world’s – finest red wine. As such it is expensive, even when purchased locally.
Lastly but certainly not least, I discovered the great red wines of the Piedmont region, southwest of Milan. From this region comes Barolo, which is currently my favorite wine. Barolo is a serious full-bodied red wine which usually peaks after 5 years of aging. Like the Montalcino, it can be expensive. There is another wine similar to Barolo called Barbaresco. I’m told that at its peak, a Barbaresco can be just as full bodied and impressive as Barolo but I haven’t been able to discover this myself as I’ve only tried it once. Two other good reds from Piedmont are Barbera d’Alba and Barbera d’Asti.
There are of course many many other very good wines that I’ve discovered in Italy. The ones I’ve mentioned are just some of the highlights of my wine journey in Italy so far.
When buying Italian, there are few things that are helpful to know. The first is the rating on the bottle. Here are the main classifications:
Vino da Tavola – Literally, “table wine”. Considered the bottom of the chart quality wise, but don’t be put off. The table wine in Italy is very good. It’s what the average Italian drinks with their meals.
IGT – “Indicazione Geografica Tipica”. Wines considered a cut above the ordinary table wines.
DOC – “Denominazione di Origine Controllata”. The foundation of Italy’s quality wines. These wines have been produced with certain restrictions imposed by the Italian government such as maximum yields (smaller the yield, better the quality) and minimum alcohol content.
DOCG – “Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita”. The cream of the crop, literally. This is the highest classification of Italian wine. There are few wines in this category and those that are have had their quality verified by tasting commissions.
In addition to the above, there are also a few other words on the label you might see. Knowing what they refer to could mean the difference between buying a good wine and a great wine. Here are some important ones:
Classico – Wines with Classico on the title have been made with grapes from the very heart of the respective region, meaning slightly higher quality.
Riserva – Usually means that the wine has been aged longer.
Superiore – Alcohol content is a little higher. On a red wine, it could also mean that the wine has been aged a bit longer.
You don’t have to be an expert to enjoy a good wine. As I mentioned, I’m far from an expert. But when you’re so close to so many great wines, you can’t help but gain an appreciation for them. Just one more reason why I love living in Bella Italia…