This was originally published in Dan’s Papers in August 2007.
Some wine categories are more difficult than others, Bordeaux and Napa Valley to me are the more simple to understand, and I notice this in the sales of these wines in both the retail arena and restaurant sales, so it seems others feel that way too. How hard is it to know the grape and style of a Napa Cabernet or a Bordeaux Rouge? Now consider the same thoughts when determining the style of an Italian wine from Barolo, Brunello or Bolgheri. Two of these regions use entirely different grapes and the third can use almost any grape it likes! Though the Italians are proud to talk about all their indigenous grapes (somewhere around 2000 today, closer to 4000 in the past), the reality is that most of those 2000 were most likely brought over from Greece during the few centuries that Italy was part of that empire. Now you may be asking, what happened to the other 2000 grape varieties, these others have become extinct from lack of use, and today there are many more on the verge of becoming extinct. Luckily there are many great and innovative viticulturist and winemakers that are working with grapes such as Arneis, Sagrantino, Uva di Troia (guess the heritage on that grape), Gaglioppo, Piedirosso, Coda di Volpe, and Refosco to name a few. Confusing, right. For me to unravel Italian wine for our Dan’s readers will take far more space than I am allowed, so I will give a bit of an introduction to it and wrap it up with the l’impero list review to see if I can clear a few things up.
First up, the most planted grape is naturally Sangiovese (the grape of Chianti, Chianti Classico and other areas of Tuscany), the second most planted is Barbera. Sangiovese is the grape of Central Italy, while, Barbera is the grape of the north. We all know the shape of Italy (a peninsula) and remember from elementary school all the earthquakes, volcanos and wars of the boots history. All these factors make Italy perfect for viticulture, lots of coastal regions, plenty of mountains and slopes and plenty of interesting soils due to the geology of the country. As with most European wine regions, the focus is on place, so most Italian wine labels will not list the grape, but rather the region and we need to recognize the grape and style of the wine. Italy is split into 20 political states, and each state produces plenty of wine, for vinous purposes it is best to divide the country into three sections, North, Central and South/Islands as each region has vastly different climates, heritage and therefore wine styles. The north includes the states of Valle d’Aosta, Piedmont, Liguria (Italy’s Riviera), Lombardia, Alto-Adige/Trentino, Veneto and Friuli; Central Italy includes Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Maches, Umbria, Lazio and Abruzzo; the South includes Campania, Molise, Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria; the Islands are Sicilia and Sardegna. So for terrain and climates we go from the Dolimites and Alps in Valle d’Aosta and Alto-Adige to the heat and volcanos of Sicilia, Campania and Basilicata, and the differences in wines is vast! At the beginning of this article I mentioned three famed wine regions, Barolo is in the north in Piedmont (foot of the mount), while Brunello and Bolgheri are both in Tuscany of Central Italy. So the styles of these wines will be vastly different as are the grapes used. Barolo is considered to be the King of wine in Italy and has the capacity to age for decades, actually many of the wines can be exceedingly hard-edged when young. Barolo is produced (or legally should be) from the Nebbiolo grape, a tannic and floral charactered grape that is one of the last to ripen in the vinous world. The wines have a mix of dark aromas (cigar, tar) and floral aromas (violets, dark and red cherry) plus a dose of tannins, making them a good match to hearty game dishes and truffles, which are both prevalent in the area. Nebbiolo is planted in .06% of Italy, so the prestige of the grape far exceeds it’s acreage, the grape is also used in Barbaresco (the Queen), Gattinara and Ghemme.
Sangiovese is the most important grape of Italy and can be found in every one of the 20 states, but it does best in the temperate regions of Central Italy. And is most linked to Tuscany and especially Chianti/Chianti Classico. Brunello is a local synonym for the Sangiovese grape and must be 100% of the famed Brunello di Montalcino just to the south of Chianti Classico. Sangiovese is a grape that quickly mutates when moved to a new climate, exposure or soil…imagine if a friend moved to Florida and become a different person – so the particular version used in Montalcino is today called Sangiovese Grosso (actually smaller in size than Sangioveto – oh those crafty Italians). Today Brunello di Montalcino is more famed than other Sangiovese based wines, but that wasn’t the case prior to 1970 and the invasion of the region by Old Brookville, Long Island, that’s right, the Banfi family helped put Brunello on the international wine scene.
The last two introductory Italian wines of Tuscany must be Chianti Classico and a fakey category of ‘Super Tuscans’. The Bolgheri I mentioned earlier is home to some of the most famed ‘Super Tuscans’, names like Sassicaia, Ornellaia and a whole lot of other ‘aia’s. These wines are referred to as ‘Super Tuscans’ because they do not depend on Tuscany’s famed Sangiovese grape. These wines are blends of whatever works best in the climate and soils of the coastal region of Bolgheri, interlopers such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, sometimes blended with Sangiovese, sometimes not. The original group of ‘Super Tuscans’ are Cabernet based so they have a touch of a Bordeaux character mixed with an essence of Tuscany, and the best stand next to the Lafites of the world in quality. Besides Sassicaia and Ornellaia other great wines of the category include Grattamacco, Aia Vecchia, Antinori’s Guado al Tasso and Le Macchiole. Another ‘Super Tuscan’ originates from the Chianti Classico region and is a result of a producer (Antinori) having contempt for the laws governing the Chianti Classico up till the mid 1990’s. See prior to the law change Chianti Classico was required to have wine wine blended into the reds, Piero Antinori did not want to ‘water down’ his great wine so he labeled his best wine as Tignanello and used 80% Sangiovese blended with 20% Merlot. When he originally did this in the 1970’s it was illegal and he could not call his wine Chianti Classico or even the lesser appellation of Chianti, so he labeled his wine as a Vino di Tavola or table wine. Today the Chianti and Chianti Classico laws allow Tignanello to be labeled as such, but the wine is more important with it’s current name and labeling. Today the wines of Chianti Classico have climbed out of their 1970’s doldrums and are now making some really great wines. As for the rest of Italy, well that will have to wait for another lesson, or e-mail to arrange some private tutoring. But certainly don’t dismiss the other regions wines…especially those from Veneto, Friuli, Alto-Adige and Campania to name a couple of my favorites at the moment.