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Italian Wine
by Jonathan Arthur of Italy with Relish

Italian WineIt is often said, both by experts and amateurs alike, "There is an awful lot of rubbish written about wine". This is another contribution.

There are various theories as to where wine was first made, ancient Persia 6,000 BC, give or take a century or so, being a favourite. One thing for certain, around 1,000 BC it was being produced and traded all around the Mediterranean. It was first brought to the Italian peninsular by the Greeks, who colonised much of the south and the Etruscans who moved in north of Rome. The ancient Romans liked a tipple but forbade its production outside of Italy. Gauls who liked it in quantity and shockingly drank the stuff neat, exchanged grain, gold and slaves to import it. Romans mixed it with water and honey.

By the middle ages vines had been planted all over Europe. By good fortune the Catholic church, though it frowned upon beer, was very supportive of the grape. After all wine has its own miracle and was a necessary part of Mass. Italian wine was especially prized. Many northern European aristocrats will have tasted some as they passed through on their way to Rome on a pilgrimage or off to the crusades. The pilgrim road would have bought them through the vineyards where Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano are now grown. Understandably they often sent a few barrels home giving the region international fame.

The internal turmoil of Nineteenth century and the wars of the early Twentieth left Italy weak in export markets and impoverished at home. Italian wine was seen as a low priced poor relation to French. It was known mostly for the straw clad bottles, kept as souvenirs or made into bedside lamps. The rebirth was to come from an unlikely source, prohibition. Much of the heroic struggle to keep the USA supplied with alcoholic beverages, in the time it was illegal, fell on the willing shoulders of Italian immigrants. When prohibition was repealed it was only logical that those same "Families" would continue in the wine trade, becoming largely legitimate and later free to import from their newly liberated homeland. Italy exports over a third of its wine production, mostly to North America where the total has increased both in volume and quality.

The accelerating interest in Italian wine has led to changes in the way it is made and marketed. Once producers were mostly interested in local sales, the purchaser would decide to buy or not after tasting. Now vintners must cater for international tastes and rely on various forms of labelling to inform the buyer. Here is a short guide to the terms used when discussing Italian wine.

The label. A new world winery label will normally show the producer and the grape. Something like "Leaping Frog Winery" Cabernet. For most Italian wine the label will have producer and the type of wine, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano for instance. This tells a whole story about where the wine is produced the grapes used and the production method. In the case of Vino Nobile the wine must:

  • Be produced within the commune of Montepulciano
  • At an altitude of 250 metres to 600 metres above sea level
  • Contain a minimum of 70% Sangiovese grapes (Prugnolo varietal)
  • The remaining percentage from a list of approved grapes
  • Maximum production of 8 tons per hectare
  • Spend two years aging in wooden barrels (there can be exceptions to this)
  • May not be sold until January 1st of the second year after its harvest
  • Must be bottled within the Commune boundaries
  • Must have an alcohol content of at least 12.5%

The list goes on and becomes very specialised concerning what bottles it can be sold in, irrigation (not allowed) additives (very few, no sugar) and so forth.

The Consorzio

This is the organisation responsible for deciding all the rules and allowing changes over time. It is elected by the wine growers. It also promotes the wine and checks that standards are maintained. Most wines have a single consorzio, some such as Chianti have more dividing up the large area of production.

DOCG - Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita

Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita is the top level of official approval, apart from having been seen to have obeyed all the rules it is subjected to a blind tasting to make sure it is up to scratch. In a good year it can be promoted to being a "Riserva" though it might have to be aged longer.

DOC - Denominazione di Origine Controllata

Denominazione di Origine Controllata is the next level down which shows the wine is made under the accepted rules but does not have to be tasted by experts.

ITG - Indicazione Geografica Tipica

Indicazione Geografica Tipica is a relatively new description denoting the area of production.

VTD - Vino da Tavola

Vino da Tavola can be pretty much anything and will normally have a lower alcohol content than the others

Super Tuscan Wine

Super Tuscan is a wine made in Tuscany but not by any of the consorzio rules. Most are inventions of the wine maker and of high quality. The majority are blends using grapes not historically present in Italy. Before the ITG label was introduced these had to be sold as table wine.

The Wine Seal

The Seal is a slip of paper around the neck of the bottle or over the top of it, often pink. These are given by the consorzio to the wine maker, only enough for the amount of land under vines. It helps to stop over production and the code number can be used to trace the bottles history, some times on-line at the consorzio site.

Wine Corks and Caps

Most wine is consumed within a couple of years of production, for these almost any kind of cap is fine, unfortunately a lot of good cork is used to bottle these leaving a shortage for the wine that really needs it. If young or poor quality cork is used it can ruin the bottle hence the move towards plastic "corks" and screw tops. It's probably too early to tell whether wine aged a long time will suffer from these. Recently, ways to sterilise cork have been developed making it less likely to go bad.

Aging wine in the barrel

Barrels were used as a robust way to store and transport wine. But barrels also alter the wine. First by leaching tannin, which helps to preserve it. Secondly by allowing a micro infiltration of oxygen, which stabilizes the wine molecules. A high alcohol content is also recommended if the wine is to keep and travel. This is probably why foreign consumers tend to be familiar with and like wine with a lot of alcohol and tannin. Large Slavonian oak barrels were traditional in Italy, but now the use of smaller Barrique made of French or American oak is common. They speed up the process, the greater ratio of surface to volume makes for rapid tannin transfer, the more open grain for a faster oxygen infiltration, these always leave a slight vanilla after taste.

Aging wine in the bottle

When wine has just been bottled, the sloshing around and exposure to the air make it unsettled for a while, its taste very different from what it will become after resting a few months. As time goes on, if it is left in peace, some of the constituents such as the tannins will combine together producing a smoother taste. Other chemicals form, creating different flavours that give a greater complexity and a flavour which seems to remain longer in the mouth. Few wines will gain much after their fifth year in the bottle though they may maintain their quality for years after.


Spumante is the fizzy wine of Italy. There are three ways of making fizzy wine. The simplest is to pump carbon dioxide into an existing wine. The result tends to make a fizz that is very energetic but not long lasting. Italian wines labelled "Methodo Classico" are made the same way as Champagne. The wine undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle, which is held at about 45° cork down. Once a day it is turned and thumped on the bottom to send the sediment down to the neck, after three years this is frozen and extracted. Prosecco is created with a similar process but rather than in a bottle the secondary fermentation happens in a stainless steel tank.

Ordering wine in Italy

Though it can be great fun to taste all sorts of different wines, if you are eating at a trattoria or inexpensive restaurant the best choice is often the house wine. It tends to be local, young and not too heavy, just the thing if you intend doing anything else but have a nap afterwards. It wouldn't travel or age well but is the sort of thing people will be drinking at home in the area.

This wine article was provided by Jonathan Arthur who runs Italy with Relish cooking and villa holidays in the Tuscany region of Italy.

For details of the cooking holidays <click here> or visit www.italywithrelish.it

Published 12 February 2009

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