Italy has always competed with France for the title of the largest national wine production. France took the lead in 2014 but Italy topped the world chart four times in the previous five years with a production of 50.9 million hectolitres – or 20% of the total world output – enough to fill a lake so large that you wouldn’t be able to swim across!
Where the Italian and French meet is in the idea that both create wines that are naturally best enjoyed with food and carry a sense of place.
The French have the concept of 'Terroir' to explain why the wines taste the way they do. Terroir is the matrix of elements and surroundings that relate to a vineyard and ultimately the way the wine expresses itself. The Italians have a different word they sometime use: 'Ambiente', meaning environment or habitat but it also refers to ambience as in the feel of a place. When applied to wine, ambiente is not just the geology, topography and climate of a vineyard but the culture that surrounds it. The experience of drinking Italian wine is not complete without the food product that grows in the same soils and some sense of the culture that created it.
Italians think very carefully about what comes together on a table – which would make them all good sommeliers – the wine, the food, the people and the place all has to fit together.
So how do we recreate this sense of ambiente? Knowing where the wine comes from would be a start.
The wine label is probably a good place to start. The basic idea is that the label carries a place name above all else – for those that have been to France you would find much similarity – is Chianti Classico a place with specific boundaries like the Medoc is in Bordeaux, or Sancerre is in the Loire.
Unfortunately reading a label (like in France) feels a bit like a geography test! Just where exactly is Brunello di Montalcino? And what does it mean? The label doesn’t necessarily give you enough information to draw practical conclusions. However to make it easier for consumers, Italy has devised wine zones: the DOC system which was modelled on the French AOC system.
The Italians had the same goal to classify the production of wine from specific areas and develop commercial identities.
There are four official classifications of Italian wines ranking from the most generic group, VdT (table wine), to IGT (step up for regional expression– like the French Vin de Pay) DOC the bulk of the appellation numbering or 25% of classified wine and the premium DOCG – reserved for a handful of wines considered historical and of exceptional pedigree. So look out for the DOCG as the best expression of a place (well, most of the time).
One of the most exciting things about Italian wines is their diversity (also contributing greatly to my learning frustration! The only other possibly hardest thing to learn is German wine labelling).
However, there is definite vinous enjoyment to be had from ethereal Barolos and Barbarescos in Piedmont that could take on the best of Burgundy (yes, here I said it!), the ultimate cabernet blend in Bolgheri that would rival top Bordeaux and all the different permutation of Sangiovese in the hills of Tuscany that is without an equivalent. And if that is not enough, maybe you want to consider a Friulano from Friuli, Amarone from Veneto, Aglianico from Campania or Nero d’Avola from Sicily. These are only a handful among the hundreds of different appellations available. Phew! I need a drink!