We’re going to have a lot of fun over the next few months as we explore Italian wine. But before all the fun, I need to start out with a somewhat serious subject – the fact that many people are intimidated by Italian wine. Really? Really!
Over the next several blog articles, I will highlight Italy’s wine classification system, its regions, grape varietals and anything else related to Italy’s wine in between. It’s going to be a fun and enlightening journey!
Matt Kramer, author of Making Sense of Italian Wine, wrote an article in 2010 entitled “Are You Afraid of Italian Wines?” in which he talks about a fellow wine writer confessing that he’s afraid of Italian wines because “…they’re so damned complicated… [and] chaotic. I hate it when I get handed the wine list in an Italian restaurant. I’m supposed to know all this stuff about wine, but if it’s any kind of extensive Italian wine list, I’m lost. Oh, I’ll order something like a Barolo, and everybody thinks I’m a genius. But really, I’m clueless. That’s why I’m afraid of Italian wines.”
Kramer goes on in the article to talk about his own experience. He says that he’ll go to his favorite Italian restaurant in San Francisco and ask them to serve him a glass of whatever wine they like. He said that much of the time, he’s never heard of the wine, the producer or the grape variety. If an Italian wine expert like Kramer has this experience, it’s no wonder that we wine mortals can sometimes feel a little overwhelmed.
So what is the cause of the chaos? I will boil it down to two reasons.
1) Wine naming conventions
In France and much of the rest of Europe, wine is named after the region (e.g., Burgundy and Bordeaux). In America and most of the rest of the New World (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), wine is named after the grape (e.g., Pinot Noir and Cabernet). In Italy, it’s a combination. According to Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible, “Two of the most important wines in Piedmont… are barbera and Barolo. The wine barbera is named for barbera, the grape from which it’s made, while the wine Barolo is named after the village of Barolo, its home.”
Here’s a second example. There are two wines with the name Montepulciano in them. The fist is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, made from the Montepulciano grape in the Abruzzo region. The second is Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, made primarily from the Sangiovese grape in the Tuscany region in a town called Montepulciano. Confused? Join the crowd, and take comfort in knowing that it’s a big crowd ☺
2) Huge number of wine regions, wine makers and grape varieties
Italy has 20 wine regions that are subdivided into 37 sub-regions. Practically every area of the country produces wine. There are some 900,000 registered vineyards and 1,000 documented grape varieties. Wow!
Yes, Italian wine can be confusing but well worth getting to know! I hope you’ll come along with me for the ride. If you know a lot or a little about Italian wine, I would love for you to contribute to our learning.