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What is Italian Wine?
Recently, our Advanced Sommelier students finished a seven-week Viaggio through the often bewildering but fascinating demimonde of Italian wine. Along the way, they tasted, analyzed, and discussed dozens of wines representing eighteen of Italy’s twenty regions, from the obvious – Barolo – to the relatively obscure – Peleverga. The objective of this “by the glass” tour was to answer, if at all possible, the question “..what is Italian wine?” a task they revisited at the final session.
Understanding Italy with a Wine Glass
I had presented the wines for their aesthetic and organoleptic merits and in the context of regional history, economics, geography, culture, and society. To learn of Italian wine divorced from these interdependent factors is to ignore millennia of viticultural heritage and Italy’s current and future position in the international wine community.
Among the concepts examined was the influence of tradition in winemaking; the natural and human elements involved in creating balance in wine; the effects of maritime and continental climates; terrain, site selection, and variations in soil composition; the impact of politics and economics on development and production; and perhaps most important, the role of the people of each region in defining their indigenous wine culture.
What is Authentic?
Not surprisingly (and, to be honest, thankfully), there was no consensus reached, no definitive measure of whether there is such a thing as Italian Wine or merely wines from Italy. Although certain descriptors – authentic, rustic, genuine, unique – dominated the discussion, the one most frequently used was diversity, a word that captured the complexity of the original premise. Most agreed that the breadth and depth of the wines of Italy made it more difficult to frame a profile of them than, for example, California, Australia, or even France.
Maybe that is as it should be. A place where hundreds of native varietals can be found, where millions grow grapes and thousands produce wine should not be easily categorized. Someone once wrote that history is constant controversy, that there is no closure, an observation that can be applied to the study of wine in general. And fortunately for us, the most rewarding path to furthering one’s knowledge is to keep exploring – one glass at a time.