Italy is the most prolific producer of wines in the world – millions of gallons are made each year. The industry is built upon ancient foundations, for wine-making was probably introduced by the Greeks when they settled in the southern parts of the country before the birth of Rome. The Etruscans, who inhabited what is now Tuscany, are known to have been enthusiastic wine producers and drinkers, and the literature of ancient Rome contains many references to the local beverages. One of them, then called Falernian, is still produced today under the name Falernum.
Despite this early start, however, Italy has tended to concentrate on quantity rather than quality, on individual production for local consumption rather than co-operative efforts for export. The result was that, until recently, it was very difficult to rely upon most Italian wines. Luckily, this state of affairs is now changing and a real attempt is being made to implement laws to provide at least minimal guarantees of quality and origin.
Every type of wine – red, white, forti-fied and sparkling – is made in Italy, although it is probably for red table wines that the country is most noted.
Northern Italy is generally considered to produce some of the finest red wines of the country. The province of Piedmont, stretching from the French border in the north to almost the Italian Riviera in the South, is perhaps the most important wine-producing area in Italy. The wine produced there is soft and rather heavy and, since the area early organised growers associations designed to protect and guarantee the quality of its wines, it is among the most consistently reliable in the country. The Nebbiolo grape reigns supreme in Piedmont and two of the great wines of the region are made exclusively from it: Barolo and Barbaresco, both named after their villages of origin. Barolo in particular, a heavy, full-bodied wine, is well worth respecting. The Barbera grape forms the base and gives its name to what is tantamount to Piedmont’s red vin ordinaire. It lacks the depth of the Nebbiolo wines but has a clear, smooth taste and is a wine well worth looking for, for everyday drinking.
The province of Veneto in the north-west, which includes Lake Garda, pro-duces both red and white wines – the reds as a rule being lighter than the Piedmontese reds and more akin to the French Beaujolais. Like Beaujolais, they are best drunk young and cool. The Corvina is the principal grape used in Veneto, although others are usually added, and it is the base for the two most popular wines of the region, Bardolino and Valpolicella. Both of these wines are light (although
Valpolicella is perhaps a shade heavier and fuller) and travel well; they are increasingly available outside Italy and, since they are generally moderately priced, are well worth trying.
Frecciarossa (literally, red arrow in English) is one of the most interesting red wines of Italy. It is produced by one
Lombardy grower, who cultivates his vines and bottles his wine on the French model – even to the extent of describing his wine as chateau-bottled on the label.
The area around Modena produces a sparkling red wine called Lambrusco, perhaps a cultivated taste, but it is never-theless a fresh wine, which is usually lightly chilled before serving.
Central Italy belongs to CHIANTI, per-haps one of the most popular and best-known wines in the world. An enormous amount of it is produced in and around Tuscany. Of the other wines of Central Italy, Brunello di Montalcino, made in the hills south of Siena, is perhaps the best. It is a stronger, fuller wine than Chianti and improves with age.
Most of the wines of Southern Italy are strictly for local consumption, although a few are now being exported. The most famous is probably LACRIMA CHRISTI. The true red Lacrima Christi is actually a sweet red dessert or even aperitif wine, but many local growers, cashing in on a notable reputation, now use the name to describe any red or white wine grown on or around the volcanic slopes of Mount Vesuvius.
Of the Italian white wines, perhaps the best-known is the wine of Rome, FRAS-CATI. Of the others, SOAVE, a gentle, slightly flowery wine from northern Italy is unusually reliable. Tuscany makes great quantities of white wine as well as red, most of which used to be described as Chianti Bianco – and still sometimes is, although officially it should now be designated Toscano Bianco.
The charming hillside town of ORVIETO, almost midway between Florence and Rome, produces one of the most popular of Italian wines. All Orvieto wine is white and a great deal of it is exported. It can vary from medium-dry to fairly sweet and is pale yellow in colour. Another hillside town near Rome, Montefiascone, gives us EST! EST!! EST!!! Falernum, the descendant of the ancient Roman wine, Falernian, is heavy and yellow and is produced along the coast between Rome and Naples.
Italy has one sparkling white wine of note, ASTI SPUMANTE. It is light and fresh and slightly sweet to taste – very different from Champagne with which it is often compared, but with a taste that is very refreshing.
A great deal of fortified wine is also produced in Italy, especially in the north around Turin. Vermouth is the most popular, either heavy, sweet and red, or dry, light and white. Bitter aperitif drinks, such as Campari, are also widely produced.
The adage that the wines of a country are best when wedded to its food is nowhere more obviously true than in Italy. The light fresh reds of the country go beautifully with the lighter pasta and risotto dishes (they are even light enough, some of them, to complement the local fish dishes); the heavier reds go well with beef stews and steaks and the heavier, spicier pasta dishes. The fresh dry white wines are excellent with chicken and veal, salads and picnics – as is Asti
Spumante. The vermouths are usually drunk as aperitifs, or mixed into cocktails.