Beyond the familiar straw Chianti bottle, the bubbles of Prosecco, and the simple pleasures of Pinot Grigio, many Americans find Italian wines confusing. Unless you’ve traveled there, or invested time in learning, the many grapes and regions can make it hard to figure out what’s what and what’s where.
But some say Italy’s rich biodiversity is its single biggest asset because these native grapes offer unique aromas and flavors — when they are grown and made to express their terroir.
A fascination with the uniqueness of Italy’s wines is one of the main reasons why I spent last week at the Vinitaly Italian Wine Ambassador course: to understand Italian wines better. And while I may not have passed the course — on average the passing rate is only 37% — I learned so much starting with the history of Italian Viticulture over all, and in each region specifically, then moving on to Italian wines made in each are today.
Did you know:
- 28-35% of world’s grapes come from Italy?
- the top 75% of wines sold and enjoyed in Italy are comprised of 80 varieties while in America and France 90% of the wine consumed is from about 15 varieties?
- it is estimated that there are 2000 Italian varieties of grapes?
- Italy’s terrain is mostly mountainous and hilly?
- Italians have been breeding wine grapes for thousands of years?
To what does Italy owe this biodiversity?
Terrain and viticulture!
From lectures last week during the Italian Wine Ambassador Course with Vinitaly instructors Henry Davaar and Sarah Heller MW, I learned that there are several factors but for me what stands out are these two main ideas:
- Italy is a very hilly and mountainous.
- When Italy’s vines were hit with disease, they were not replanted with international grapes because the resources required weren’t available.
Why does the terrain matter so much?
These mountains and hills has led to geographic isolation and regional differences and specificity based on what’s growing there — and not here.
The Appenine Mountains bisect much of Italy down its spine in a series of parallel ranges; some even say this should be extended into the island of Sicily. This range separated species creating biodiversity on each side. Hilly terrain further allowed for species to diversify.
It was hard for vines to travel — they were adapted for the place where they came from. Just like people, as soon as a vine experiences sunlight it begins to individualize. Mutations are the root of phenotypic plasticity – what a vine looks like but a single vine might look different depending on where it’s planted.
These factor have led to so many grape varieties. But people play an important role too. People have pride in their native grapes, and these wines have led to culinary traditions that pair well with the wines.
Farmers have had an important role, selecting out for specific characteristics that they find pleasing — or vines that produce well.
Challenges to native grapes include:
- co-planted in vineyards and often hard to identify and isolate
- virus infected
- small bunches = low production
- asynchronous maturation = difficult to farm
- little research into soils and factors leading toward success
- poor quality clones from nurseries
- antiquated winemaking
- modern winemaking
It’s only since World War II that viticulture has relied on chemicals and heavy equipment — and began to focus on non-native grapes as well as other factors of modern winemaking that have challenged the production of wines from native grapes that use farming techniques which bring out the greatness in these unique vines.
Where to start to understand more about Italian Viticulture?
The biggest challenge is to find them! Oringally, the prompt I gave the group was to write about biodynamic wines of Italy but so many of us, myself included, couldn’t find Italian wines that were certified by Demeter or another organization. Many wines are organic or using “green” or sustainable techniques but the cost for certification is prohibitive. It takes a lot of research to find these wines and learn about them.
But we are here to help you!
This Saturday, the Italian Food Wine Travel group of influential bloggers are investigating Italian Viticulture; we will post our blogs by 8am, and from 8-9am we’ll be discussing what we learned on twitter using the hashtag #ItalianFWT. Read the invitation post here.
- Jill Barth of L’Occasion: “Gravner: ‘Nature As A Source Of Thought'”
- Camilla M. Mann: “Dinner in Testosterone Land: Braised Short Ribs + 2016 Nuova Cappelletta Barbera del Monferrato” on Culinary Adventures with Camilla
- Wendy Klik: “Brasato al Vino Rosso with Montefalco” on A Day in the Life on the Farm
- Jeff Burrows: “Looking Beyond Biodynamic Certification at Cantina di Filippo” at Food Wine Click!
- Lauren Walsh, The Swirling Dervish: “The Wines of Alois Lageder: Cultivating Nature as a Habitat of Life.”
- Nicole Ruiz Hudson is Cooking to the Wine: “Arianna Occhipinti SP68 Sicilia Rosso with Creamy Eggplant and Tomato Zoodles”
- Jennifer Gentile Martin: “The Organic Wines of Abruzzo with La Valentina” on Vino Travels.
- Susannah Gold of Avvinare: “Chianti without sulfites- the wines of Fattoria Lavacchio”
- Katarina Andersson of Grapevine Adventures: “The World of Biodynamic Wine at #ItalianFWT”
- Lynne Gowdy of Savor the Harvest: The Important Thing You Don’t Know About Italian Wine Labels
- Host Gwendolyn Alley the Wine Predator: “Organic Orange Procanico paired with a Pasta Bar”
In addition to the two white Procanico from Toscana that I will post about on Saturday, I have two organic reds to contribute. Tomorrow I’ll post about a Brunello di Montalcino, which is a sangiovese, and today I’ve got a wine made from organic grapes and a blend of an international (cabernet sauvignon) and a indigenous Italian grape (sangiovese) making it a good starter wine for someone who wants something affordable, familiar, and organic but still Italian. Soon, I’ll be sharing three organic wines from d’Abuzzo — a Trebbiano, a Montepulciano, and a Cerasuelo which is a rose.
2016 – Volpaia Citto – Toscana – Indicazione Geografica Tipica – Compagnie Di Volpaia – 13% alcohol – $12
Estate vineyards in the Chianti Classico and Maremma regions of Tuscany
Mostly Sangiovese with some Cabernet Sauvignon planted on sandy well draining soils.
At 1,300 to 2,130 feet above sea level, Volpaia is one of the highest wineries in the Chianti region and located above spring and fall fogs and frosts.
- Hot days, cold nights, with gentle breezes combine to make this one of Chianti’s most distinctive microclimates.
Made with certified organic grapes, but this is not an organic wine. When we first opened up the wine, there was a plastic cork, so are they investing in a lesser value cork in order to make a higher value wine? Some of their vineyards are biodynamic, but what we know for sure is the grapes in this wine are certified organic and identified as such on the label.
For a $12 wine, this one delivers: it is appealing, it is not offensive, not overly fruity, not overly acidic, accessible and enjoyable for a typical American consumer, but it really doesn’t particularly express terroir or a sense of place or anything out of the ordinary like I often find in biodynamic wines.
Castello di Volpaia began practicing organic viticulture in the late 1990s, and the wines have been certified organic since the 2004 vintage.
Color: Translucent, bright red.
Nose: Some oak, baking spice and vanilla, cherry; Sheila felt that this is a wine made for the U.S. market
Palate: Nicely smooth, very accessible, fruit forward, but not too forward, cherry, the finish is unremarkable, yet will make a nice every day wine.
Pairing: This is a great wine for pizza or pasta with red sauce. It plays nicely with food, went well with the cheese plate from the La Tur to the parm and pecorino, and even the creamy gorgonzola.
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