The Italian Obsession - Part One
People may find me a little bit odd (Quelle surprise right?), I don't have a favourite wine. It seems impossible, surely there's a country or style that I'd gravitate towards. OOOHHH Bordeaux blends, crisp white South African Chenin Blanc or dry Provence rosé.
The answer is all of the above.
As with a lot of things in life, interest waxes and wanes like the phases of the moon. It definitely keeps things interesting and I've found that my tastes have expanded as a result of this. There are certain times when obsession creeps in and it can start to get a little bit worrying. You're reading everything you can get your hands on and tasting ridiculous amounts of wine like Mr. Creosote eats 'wafer-thin mints'. It also doesn't hurt that the place that you work in is constantly getting new stuff in, bloody good stuff may I add. Private tastings become insidious exercises in avoidance, picking all the wine you're loving and droning away for a whole two hours while your guests go glassy-eyed and dribble on their tasting notes.
In case you haven't noticed hyperbole is cropping up here, although this has literally happened in the last month to yours truly. What could possibly have caused infatuation to this degree?
They are incredible. Even the images that they conjure make you think of romantic hill towns with medieval architecture, flowing landscapes of green lush hills, and olive and cypress trees lining gorgeous villas. During the winter months, I'm pretty sure these images will keep me feeling warm inside
The history of wine in Italy is deep and rich, intrinsic to the culture for centuries with a lineage going back to the Roman Empire. Having found its way from the Greek and Etruscan civilizations, the Romans increased production and popularity of the drink, ensuring that it was included in everyone's daily schedules. From the Emperors through to the lowliest slaves (who actually got a wine ration), they believed it was a daily necessity that could be enjoyed by all.
Merchants took advantage of the demand for wine, trading in neighbouring countries and spreading Roman culture further. They even had their own God for wine, Bacchus (also known as Dionysus), which shows its importance to them!
The history appeals to me of course, however the most attractive part of Italian wine is its incredible diversity. There are more than 500 native wine varieties, with about 175 being used commonly every day. Even thinking about this makes my stomach feel a little bit fizzy, mainly because learning about them all is both exciting and pretty daunting. If you're in the daunting camp, do not despair.
The trick to learning about Italian wine is learning about the larger regions and the grape variety main players in each one.
To help you lovely lot, I've prepared a handy dandy map drawn with my own two hands.
Now I won't be covering every region in this one post, that would be insane! It would be extremely long and I want to put some fun illustrations to show the diversity of grapes in Italy. Let's start with a region in the North-East.
Centred on Verona close to the Adriatic sea, this has long been the place that churns out a lot of watery Pinot Grigio, Soave, Valpolicella and Bardolino bottles by the millions. These are exported all over the world and the main challenge for both the retailer and the consumer is discerning what is an absolute bobby dazzler or a complete goat.
Let's not completely diss the region though, a number of ambitious and creative winemakers are making high-quality wines and these are the ones that I'll be talking about.
Just east of Lake Garda and north of Verona is Valpolicella, translating to the 'Valley of Many Cellars'. This producing a similar volume of fabulous fruity red wine to another well known DOC, Chianti. The important thing to remember is that the wine is a blend of indigenous grapes. The main component of these is Corvina, with differing amounts of Corvinone, Molinara and Rondinella.
The simpler wines are basic quality grapes producing entry-level wines (Classico). Using higher quality grapes makes more concentrated and complex wines, and these are generally labelled as Superiore (superior, makes sense).
As we up the quality level, wine makers employ an ancient and remarkably ingenious way of increasing depth of flavour and alcohol content. The use of dried grapes to concentrate their sugar content was used by the Greeks and Romans as they had no way to increase alcohol in wine (they didn't have any alcoholic spirits capable of fortifying wine yet, bless em').
The region's most famous wine Amarone della Valpolicella uses these partially dried grapes ( a process called appasimento) to produce a rich, dry wine that takes up to 50 days to ferment. These have flavours of black cherry, figs, and dark chocolate.
Last but not least, the winemakers of Valpolicella are nothing if not resourceful. Using the dried grape skins from the making of Amarone, they add these to the Valpolicella after the first fermentation and start a second fermentation. This boosts the complexity and alcohol of the wine and is indicated with the term 'ripasso'.
In case you can't tell.... I like Valpolicella.
'Garganega' is the grape, 'Soave' is the wine and also a medieval village in the Veneto region just east of Verona. Its a dry, light-bodied wine, sometimes with a slightly oily texture that adds richness. Cheaper Soave can have a slightly bitter green almond edge and are generally made in a lean style, whereas good quality wines are usually rich and show a nice nuttiness. This usually means they were aged in wooden barrels. These are generally labelled as 'Superiore' or 'Soave Classico'. There are also sparkling and recioto styles, it's a versatile grape for sure!
We all know about this sparkling wine right? At the moment its as ubiquitous as Boris Johnson updates on the news. Unlike this comparison, when Prosecco is good, it's REALLY good. When its bad, it's sweet fizzy stuff with basic flavours.
The variety before 2009 was actually named the Prosecco grape, but when the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene region was given the Prosecco DOCG designation (essentially protected name status like Champagne or Rioja) they wanted to distinguish between the two. It was renamed as the Glera grape and definitely shows some influence from terroir in terms of quality. The Conegliano-Valdobbiadene region is a beautiful part of the world, with lush green hills covered in vineyards. Rainfall is high here and the best quality grapes come from south-facing slopes with good drainage, and light winds dry the grapes to prevent rot from setting in.
As with most protected regions, there is an agreed upon quality system which can seem quite complicated. The things to look for are Conegliano-Valdobbiadene', 'Superiore', 'Rive' and 'Cartizze'. The hill of Cartizze, an extremely small area of 265 acres is agreed to have the most favourable terroir for the grape, these command the highest prices.
Prosecco is made using the Charmat (tank) method with the wine getting its fizz through a second fermentation in a large stainless steel vat. This also pressurizes the wine, to around three atmospheres. This means that the bubbles typically last longer than beer (1.5 atmospheres), but not as long as Champagne (5-6 atmospheres).
Prosecco is known for its sweetness, however most of the wines are made in the dry 'Brut' style with very little residual sugar. The fruity aspects of the wine are what gives the illusion of sweetness, and to make things more confusing the 'Extra Dry' style contains more sugar than the 'Brut'. Old world producers sometimes wonder why people don't understand their classifications, I think its painfully obvious why, to be honest!
So there we have it, the Veneto region. For the next part, we'll be staying in the North and covering the renowned Piedmont and Trentino- Alto Adige regions.
Remember to check out our online wine shop, www.bottleswineshop.co.uk for a fabulous array of Italian wines if these tickle your fancy!