Wine is one of Italy’s most iconic products. Italy has more than 4,000 years of winemaking experience and a near-perfect climate for producing winemaking grapes. It’s no secret why their wines are so highly sought-after.
Winemaking is embedded in Italian culture and is considered a valuable part of the nation’s history. Italians are as passionate about wines as they are about family, tradition and fine cuisine. Learn more about the long and meaningful history of wine in Italy.
Table of Contents
- The History of Italian Wine
- How Wine Is Produced in Italy
- Italian Wine Regions
- Facts About Italian Wine and Winemaking
- Experience Italy on a Windstar Cruise
The History of Italian Wine
Italy’s mild climate makes it ideal for producing wine. Throughout history, wine has played a vital role in Italy’s culture, economy and health. Today, the wine industry is an essential aspect of many Italians’ livelihood and lifestyle.
Origins of Winemaking in Italy
The history of Italian wine production extends beyond recorded history. The Italians were drinking wine before the Greeks arrived in Sicily in the eighth century B.C. The Greeks brought new winemaking techniques with them, allowing wine culture to flourish.
The Mycenaean Greeks are attributed with introducing Sicily and southern Italy to viticulture — the study of grape cultivation. The Greeks were so impressed with Italy’s idyllic climate that they called the land Oenotria, “the land of trained vines.”
At this time, wine was made using traditional foot-stomping methods and was fermented in terra cotta storage jars. It was a popular beverage and was often safer to drink than water, which could have been sourced from unreliable places.
Wine During the Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was crucial to the winemaking industry. During the Roman Empire’s reign, the wine market grew more advanced and expanded its reach. Romans drank wine with every meal and recognized its improvement with successful aging.
The Romans believed wine was a daily necessity, so it was available to peasants, slaves, women and aristocrats alike. Romans refined the winemaking process with innovative techniques, some of which we still use. The barrel-aging system often used today was developed in the Roman Empire to produce larger quantities of wine at a lower cost.
Pompeii was an epicenter for winemaking in ancient Rome. Pompeians worshipped Bacchus, the god of wine, and they were highly revered for their winemaking abilities. The Vesuvius eruption destroyed Pompeii’s vineyards and caused the price of wine to skyrocket.
Wine in Modern Italy
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the quality of Italian wine began to diminish slightly, so the government started regulating the industry to preserve its reputation. A series of labels were used to tell the public that winemakers met specific requirements regarding taste, quality and production standards. There are five basic categories:
- Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin (DOCG): This is the highest degree of quality. To receive this label, winemakers must adhere to strict guidelines on production, quantity, alcohol content, aging and taste.
- Denomination of Controlled Origin (DOC): Wines with a DOC label are the next highest quality level of Italian wines. This category includes sparkling wines such as prosecco.
- Typical Geographical Indication (IGT): This is the broadest category. These wines are guaranteed to use grapes from their region but do not need to adhere to strict guidelines otherwise. Some high-end wineries release IGT wines to avoid conforming to rigid DOC or DOCG restrictions.
- Quality wine produced in specified regions (VQPRD): These wines may be made with grapes from various specified areas in Italy.
- Table wine (VDT): Wines that use grapes from anywhere in Italy without a direct geographical indication are called table wines. These wines are rarely of high-enough quality to be exported to the United States or bottled for the European market.
Today, Italy is the leading wine producer in the world, manufacturing some of the most desirable wines in the market. In 2018, Italy produced 19% of the world’s wine, a 29% increase from the previous year. The Italian wine industry provides more than 1.3 million jobs, directly and indirectly.
How Wine Is Produced in Italy
With thousands of years of industry experience and numerous highly revered vintages in Italy’s wine portfolio, it’s natural to wonder if Italy has a special winemaking process that allows them to produce so many desirable wines. So, how is wine made in Italy?
Italian winemaking follows a simple, five-step process:
Good wine begins with an excellent grape harvest. In Italy, grapes are harvested in the winter. The grapes are picked and stored in bins or boxes, which are later delivered to wineries and kept in open containers called gondolas.
Grapes can be harvested with a machine or picked by hand. Most sophisticated wineries stick to traditional and delicate methods, including hand-picking their grapes. Many of the major wine manufacturers known for less-expensive wines use machines to harvest their grapes to cut down expenses and get more grapes each day.
In the next stage of winemaking, the grapes are destemmed and crushed. They are conveyed from storage to a machine called a stemmer, which removes the leaves and stems from the grapes. After that, the grapes move on to the crusher, which presses the grapes to extract juices.
Some wineries bypass the stemmer and send the grapes directly to the crusher in a process called whole berry pressing. These berries tend to be more bitter in flavor because of the added stems and leaves in the presser.
After the berries are crushed, they are put into fermentation vats anywhere between 50 and 5,000 gallons large. In these vats, the grapes undergo fermentation, which is when sugar converts into alcohol and CO2. Many red grapes go to the fermentation vats before being crushed for primary fermentation, while white grapes are generally pressed before fermentation.
Some white grapes are fermented in small oak barrels to add more complexity in flavor and aroma, and then yeast is added to the barrels to begin fermentation.
Before the wine can be bottled, it is transferred to another container to be aged in a process called racking. This process avoids using a pump, which could affect the wine’s flavor. Some wines can remain in the same fermentation barrel for aging until bottling.
Most wines are aged in traditional oak barrels for at least 18 to 24 months, although some white wines only need to be barrel-aged for six months. Aging the wine in traditional oak barrels allows it to absorb flavors to increase its complexity. Some producers use stainless steel tanks during aging for extra durability.
Bottling is the final step before the wine undergoes bottle aging. Some wines require filtering or fining before bottling to remove impurities. Winemakers bottle the wine in a sterile environment and seal the bottles with a natural cork, screw-cap or artificial cork.
Natural corks allow some oxygen to enter the bottle slowly and improve the wine’s flavor and aroma. Many high-class wineries choose natural corks for more effective long-term bottle aging. Screw-caps and artificial corks are often used for less expensive wines.
Italian Wine Regions
Region is an essential determining factor of Italian wines. While every region in Italy produces wine, some are more prolific and desirable than others.
Italian wines are specific to their regions and cannot be produced in any other place in the world. Each area has a distinct terroir that can not be reproduced to create a wine that exactly matches a specific region’s qualities. The terroir is the complete natural environment of a region. It includes rainfall, soil conditions, air quality, sunlight exposure and any other components that influence a wine’s flavor and quality.
Knowing an Italian wine’s region is a great way to understand and appreciate the wine more thoroughly.
How to Read an Italian Wine Label
While memorizing Italy’s regional map and knowing the wines that each region produces is helpful, you don’t have to spend hours studying to have a basic understanding of where an Italian wine came from and how it was made. Most of the information you need to know about a wine is listed on the label.
There are several key components of an Italian wine label that can help you discern its qualities:
- Wine type: The wine type is identified in one of three ways in Italy — the grape variety, name or region.
- Region: The wine’s region or subregion is always listed next to the wine’s classification level.
- Classification: The classification will tell you whether the wine is a DOC, DOCG or another rating.
- Wine name: The name of a wine often indicates it was made with a blend of grapes. It will never be next to its classification on the label.
- Producer name: The name of the producer can tell you more about where the grapes came from and how the specific wine was made.
- Additional descriptions: Words such as riserva, superiore or annata on a label can indicate further details about the wine.
Essential Italian Wine Regions
Covering all the information about each Italian wine region could fill a book. Each region is worthy of further study and has wines of value with unique character and strong qualities.
That said, here are a few of the essential Italian wine regions to recognize:
- Veneto: As the largest wine region in Italy, Veneto produces a variety of grapes and wines, including pinot grigio and prosecco.
- Piedmont: Situated in northwestern Italy at the foot of the western Alps, Piedmont is revered for producing some of Italy’s most refined wines, including Barolo DOCG and Gavi DOCG.
- Lazio: Lazio is home to Rome and has a reputation for producing easy-drinking, youthful white wines such as the Frascati DOC.
- Sicily: Sicily’s dry, sunny climate is ideal for producing fruity, medium-bodied red wines from nero d’avola, an important red wine grape.
- Umbria: This small, central region is best known for its tannic, age-worthy red wines such as Sargentino de Montefalco DOCG.
- Tuscany: Tuscany grows sangiovese grapes and is known for producing wines such as the famous Chianti red wine.
- Sardinia: This small Italian island is a popular vacation destination and produces wines such as Cannonau and Carignano.
Facts About Italian Wine and Winemaking
Wine is a crucial element of Italian culture, and viticulture is a significant component of Italy’s economy. Here are five facts about wine and winemaking in Italy:
1. Italy Is the World’s Leading Wine Producer
Italy makes more wine per year than any other nation. Italy produces around 45-50 million hectoliters (hundred cubic decimeters) of wine annually, which is about one-third of wines produced in the entire world. A portion of this wine remains in the country for local consumption, while most Italian wines are exported across the globe.
The United States is the largest consumer of Italian wine, followed by Germany and the United Kingdom.
2. Italian Wines Are of Exceptional Quality
Italians value quality when it comes to their wines. Regulations and strict guidelines enforce a code of wine classification that identifies varying degrees of quality. Two-thirds of Italian wines are classified as DOC (39%) or IGT (30%). These categories ensure that part or all of the grapes used in the wine were grown in the specified region, with DOC wines enforcing a stricter code of guidelines and quality assurance.
3. Prosecco Was Created in Italy
Prosecco has risen in popularity in recent years throughout the United States as a more affordable alternative to French Champagne. Italy was the birthplace of this light, sparkling wine and now produces about 150 million bottles annually. This drink is prevalent in the summer months as a refreshing beverage or exciting way to spike juices and cocktails.
Prosecco is cheaper than Champagne in part because it requires little to no aging. A bottle may be aged for a maximum of three to seven years for an especially complex vintage.
4. Italy Has Thousands of Grape Varieties
The sheer variety of Italian wines is one of Italy’s drawing points, and much of it can be attributed to their wide selection of grape varieties. Italy’s mild, sunny climate promotes exceptional wine grape growth, allowing many kinds of grapes to thrive. There are more than two thousand kinds of Italian wine grapes.
The most popular wine grapes include sangiovese, nero d’avola, trebbiano, montepulciano and catarratto.
5. Italians Love Drinking Wine
With culture, history and economy so steeped in wine and winemaking, it makes sense that Italy is among the top wine-consuming nations in the world, just behind the United States and France. The average Italian consumes 54 liters of wine each year, which is about one bottle per week.
Many Italians claim to enjoy health benefits from indulging in antioxidant-rich Italian wines regularly.
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