By Phil Parker who runs the best goddam wine tours in Auckland NZ.
The World does have an endless fascination with the food, wine and culture of Italy. And most of us have been eager to embrace espresso, cappuccino, pasta, pizza, Chianti, Prada, Versace, and a whole bunch of other stuff ending in a, e, i and o.
Having said that, Italian wines tend to be a bit of a mixed bag. Even the quality control system is fairly random; with the DOC (Denominazione de Origine Controllata) appellation not much of an indication of how good the wine is it just says ‘the name of the area where these grapes were grown is controlled.’
DOCG is a bit better: (Denominazione de Origine Controllata e Garantita) - ‘the name of the area where these grapes were grown is controlled and we guarantee that’s where they came from.’
Italy has for many years been predominantly a bulk wine producer (second only in global output to France), pumping out gazillions of litres of fairly mediocre wines into Europe and beyond.
And as a general rule, any wine produced south of Rome is probably not going to be of high quality. Regions like Puglia and Sicily are hugely productive hot climate areas producing the bulk of Italy’s easy drinking lightweight wines – often simply called ‘Vino di Tavola’ – table wine, made from blended varieties. Generally pretty good value, but nothing remarkable.
Having said that, there are some interesting and also very good Italian wines worth seeking out.
Okay, starting with the cooler northern regions, Piedmont (Piemonte) is in the northwest and at the foot of the Alps, and produces some of Italy’s most famous wines. Asti – the low alcohol, sweet raisiny sparkler made from Moscato grapes is probably the most well known. This is a reliable brand – fruity, affordable fizz – ideal for that ‘Champagne breakfast’ or pre-dinner palate cleanser.
Barolo would probably be the next well known, a hugely tannic wine with a vaguely bitter aftertaste. I really don’t get the point, having been to a tasting of some top Barolos, but as I remember, the older they get, they do get better. Some of the 10 year-old Barolos were stunning and more like a vintage Port.
The other red variety from this region worth noting is Dolcetto. This is a bright purple coloured drink-young wine with slightly astringent blueberry flavours.
Veneto is a wine region of Italy in the northeast, extending from Venice up to the cooler climate Austrian border. It is a fairly prodigious region, not as highly regarded as the Tuscany or Piedmont regions. Just the same, some recognised names like Soave and Valpolicella come from the Veneto region. Soave is a very dry, largely tasteless white wine, blended from different grape varieties. Valpolicella is a bit of a gamble – anything from a Rosé style to a full-bodied red. Also in the past, I have indeed stumbled across (and, er stumbled after) some very drinkable bargain-priced Merlot de Veneto from the bulk-producing Pasqua label.
Tuscany. This is probably Italy’s most famous region, and currently the hot tourist destination. Chianti is what they do best, and some of the rarest and best reds come from this region, also renowned for its fine food and beautiful scenery.
Walled hilltop town, Montalcino is the most famous Chianti producer in the region, best known for its iconic Tuscan red - Brunello. Brunello is a 100% Sangiovese grape variety, produced and branded under very strict regulations. Grapes have to be grown within the Commune of Montalcino, and ageing for two years in oak casks, plus a further 4 months in the bottle is obligatory. 208 producers make around 290,000 cases in total, of Brunello per annum (c.f. Coopers Creeks output of around 100,000). The name Montalcino is a protected brand, like Champagne, and can only be applied to another red, Rosso di Montalcino and a white – Moscato di Montalcino. Brunello retails in Italy at anything from 40 Euros upwards, so they are pretty expensive wines.
Other good quality Chianti wines are blended from various grapes, predominantly Sangiovese. The best of these would be Chianti Classico DOCG and Chianti Ruffina DOCG. A label stating just ‘Chianti’ doesn’t tell you much other than it is grown in the region – and will give no hint as to quality or grape varieties.