Italy has a rich history with wine, dating back thousands of years. That all began to unravel in the first half of the 20th Century. Wars and political misadventures turned the advantages of culture into the burden of stagnation.
In the 1980s, Italy’s economic fortunes rose and brought the wine trade with it, Since then, quality levels have risen rapidly, and international fame was not far behind. First, Barolo then Amarone Della Valpolicella became the new luxury wine gods. Then followed the Super Tuscans. Finally, all was right in Italy.
In recent years, it has risen above France as the world’s largest wine producer. In America, Italian wine is beloved by large swaths of people. No place loves Italian more than the coastal stretch from Massachusetts to Delaware, where over ten million Italian-Americans live.
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Italian Wine Regions
Tuscany is a mesmerizing place, as well as Italy’s oldest wine-growing region. Before the rise of Rome, Tuscany was the home of the Etruscans, an ancient winemaking culture with connections to the Phoenicians.
At the center of wine production, the grape is Sangiovese; a quixotic grape once believed not to exist. Before DNA testing, it was believed that Tuscany was home to hundreds, if not thousands, of grape varieties. This was not unfounded, as the grapes grown in each tiny hamlet were as different from one another as any red wine could.
While there are grapes like Canaiolo, Colorino, and Mammolo grown in the region, DNA testing has shown a different story regarding all the others. Brunelletto, Brunello, Cacchiano, Chiantino, Montepulciano, Morellino, Morellone, Pignolo, Prugnolo, Sangineto, Tignolo, Vigna Maggio, and many more have all been shown to be one grape. For so many centuries, Sangiovese has grown in Tuscany that it has adapted to nearly every microclimate in the region.
As Sangiovese is to the classics, Super-Tuscan is to the modern. Tuscan winemakers discovered they could make amazing wines with Cabernet Sauvignon made great wines. The trouble was that the grape was not allowed in classic Tuscan wines like Chianti. So they started breaking the rules. The laws eventually changed, but the die was set. After that, super-Tuscans were the rock stars of the Italian coast.
Greatly appreciated today, it was not long ago that sommeliers turned up their noses at Sicilian wines. The wines of Marsala had become a caricature of its former self. And the rest of the wines never even made it into a bottle: they were sold in bulk.
The rich soils, high altitudes, and dry winds allow the island’s vineyards to produce a massive tonnage of grapes per acre. Historically, winemakers bent to market demands and opted for quantity over quality. As a result, the few wines deemed good enough to bottle mediocre quality, leaving Sicily with an even poorer reputation.
Sicily is a beautiful and ancient place. A reputation for weak wines was not a good fit. With the help of winemaking legends like Giusto Occhipinti, Sicily turned its reputation from lousy to luxury in a few short decades.
Today, they produce beautiful and magical wines from Frappato, Mascalese, and Nero d’Avola. They also are making beguiling white wines from Moscato Bianco and Grillo. Despite the hot African winds and a Meditteranean climate, the greatest wines are fresh and delicate.
In the Italian Northeast, you will find beauty in this unheard-of Italian wine region. Because of the bordering countries, you can expect to find wine labels printed in Italian, German, and Ladin (a local Romance language). The main varietals grown here are Pinot Grigio, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Schiava, Lagrein, and Pinot Blanc.
Although it rarely rains, the region’s cool climate. Abundant sunshine and alpine soils are ideal for grape growing. Wine styles include the zippy and mineral-driven Pinot Grigio, a popular choice for American wine drinkers.
The region is known for its growing movement toward natural wines for sommeliers, with winemakers eschewing modernism for ancient techniques. One of the greatest examples of that trend is the amphora-aged orange wines that are all the rage with Master Sommeliers.
Abruzzo has one of Italy’s most contested identities. This region is extremely mountainous and lush right along the coastline, with most of it being nature reserves and forests. Yet, many publications and wine critics dismiss the region as insignificant; it has produced fine wine at a small scale for decades.
Despite the snub, there are plenty of fine Abruzzo wines to be enjoyed. Of particular note is the classic Italian rosé Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo. We can expect more in the future. Scientists believe that Abruzzo is the birthplace of many grape varieties now flourishing in Northern Italy and France.
Driving through Umbria is like driving through Tuscany, if Tuscany didn’t have highways and supermarkets. This region produces a fraction of the wine of competing regions but is some of the most beloved by sommeliers.
Land-locked and situated east of Tuscany, the wines produced here tend to be fuller-bodied and age extremely well. Some of this area’s other signature grapes include Sangiovese, Grechetto, Merlot, and Trebbiano. Of particular note is the Sagrantino from Montefalco, a grape of massive tannic strength and complexity.
Sardinia might seem like a spitting image of Sicily – considering it’s an Italian island of a similar size – but this Italian wine region has quite a unique portfolio. For one, it’s the only region in Italy that produces –and consumes– more beer than wine. Despite that, this region has some exquisite and unique varieties, including Torbato, Nasco, Monica, Semidano, and Vermentino. The terroir here is just as vast and has, in turn, aided the development of quality grapes that are slowly being recognized internationally.
Located at the southern heel, this Italian wine region has a geographical variety like no other. In the south, vines are grown on sandy but nutrient-rich flat vineyards. In the north, vineyards are found in hillier terroirs. These differences in the soils create a massive difference in the wine produced here too. The varieties in the south are Primitivo and Negroamaro. In the north are the more classical central Italian grapes of Sangiovese and Montepulciano.
This is the hottest of the major Italian wine regions, and the wines are typically heavy and tannic. However, the grape Primitivo was not originally an Italian grape. Instead, it emigrated from across the Adriatic in Croatia, where it was named Crljenak Kaštelanski.
At the same time it arrived in Italy, it found its way to Boston, Massachusetts, where it was grown in a greenhouse. Eventually, the grapevine was planted in Northern California under the name Zinfandel.
This Italian wine region is located in the Northeast, just west of Friuli Venezia Giulia. Veneto famously grows grapes, not often not in any other part of Italy. Many of the varietals grown here are indigenous to Italy, predominantly Garganega, Glera, and Corvina Rondinella. A recent addition is the ever-popular Pinot Grigio.
The climate is a rare balance of Mediteran and Alpine influences, making it possible to grow grapes with minimal effort. The most famous wine of Veneto is Amarone Della Valpolicella, a decadently rich dry wine made from the partially dried grapes of the Corvina Rondinella grape.
In the south of Italy, we find Campania, the most visited southern Italian wine region. This should not be surprising: the region’s capital is Naples, the spiritual home of Pizza.
Margherita aside, this region produces unique indigenous wines, many of which are grown in the same volcanic soils that buried Pompeii. Grapes like Pallagrello, Biancolella, Coda di Volpe and Tintore make intriguing wines. Of particular note are wines made from Falanghina, Greco di Tufa, and Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio.
In Campagnia, the star of the show is Aglianico: a supernatural beast of a wine. This is not a wine to be trifled with: only the most ardent of (self-hating?) wine lovers seek it out: its unforgiving tannins. Ins insulting lack of fruit and a deep cut of minerality are enough to make most Master Sommeliers vow never to drink wine again.
It is also the grape that scientists believe was the core of Falernum, one of the most famous wines of the Roman Empire. It is my personal favorite wine, which says a little too much about my inner turmoil than I would want.
On the border of France and Switzerland is the Piedmonte. This is Italy’s western Alpine region, home to some of the best-known Italian varietals: Nebbiolo, Barbera, and –for better or worse– Moscato. The most famous region within Piedmonte is Barolo, which is often cited as the king of wines.
The majority of the great wines grown here are red. Although alpine in nature, grapes ripen well in the summertime warmth. The evenings are cold due to the diurnal nature of the high altitudes. Other varietals that are grown here include Dolcetto, Bonarda, Pelaverga, Malvasia, and Arneis.
Italian Wine Grapes
Nebbiolo is a light-red red wine that can cross that “rose” border. But don’t be fooled: Nebbiolo is a monster. It shows flavors of tar, tobacco, herbs, and cherries with massive tannins. When on the vine, the Nebbiolo grapes become quite foggy – and so they named this grape after the word nebbia, which means fog.
An Italian grape with soft tannins and intense flavors of dark and red berries, Barbera is the third most planted varietal in Italy. Although it is outstanding, Barbera is often a varietal used in blending to add some unique flavor and color.
Almost identical to Zinfandel when it comes to flavor, Teroldego often shows great intensity of spiciness, tar, and red fruits. The notable difference between Zinfandel and Teroldego is the softer tannins in Teroldego and intense acidity.
The Lagrein flavor profile includes grippy tannins, intense bitterness, and fruit-forwardness. It was not a flavor profile many winemakers found pleasant – but today, winemaking techniques have helped this rebellious varietal become palatable and well-rounded.
Sangiovese is Italy’s most grown varietal – and for a good reason. Although it provides little but leather and spice on the nose, the flavors in wine are intense and delicious. You can expect to find cherry, strawberry, plum, and jam flavors, often accompanied by tar and herbaceous notes. It is one of the most ancient grapes and a foundational grape for much of Italy’s viticulture.
Sagrantino wine is intensely dark – almost black – and is known to have the highest tannins in the world. The tannins require this wine to be aged well and a smart choice for a wine collector willing to store bottles for a decade or more. This varietal shows lovely flavors of red fruit and earthiness when aged properly and is a perfect match for any hearty, meaty dishes.
Gaglioppo is a sensitive red varietal that is often highly monitored during production– but when done successfully, produces fantastic wine. It has low tannins and high acidity, making it much preferred as a refreshing read in the summer. The most common flavors found in this varietal are spicy cherry and light berries.
With Italy’s strong wine regions, strict wine regulations, and unique cultivars, trying Italian wine should be a no-brainer. Italians are, after all, the masters of the wine industry – and it definitely shows in what they produce. In addition, the Italian wine regions all carry such unique terroir and stories – allowing the vines there to develop in an equally unique manner. Feel like a glass of Italian wine now? We do too.