Italian Wine: Land of Plenty

There are approximately 377 indigenous grape varieties in Italy. Diverse doesn’t cover half of it. Christian Davis reports

When it comes to diversity, Italian wine probably picks up the trophy. Jancis Robinson MW’s massive tome, Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, puts Italy at a staggering 377 varieties of vitis vinifera, the vine that produces grapes for winemaking.

Tim Atkin MW, conducting a tutoured tasting recently in London, put it succinctly: “Italy is incredible. Endlessly fascinating. You can throw your arms up and say this is chaotic. A country where 50% of the votes (in the recent general election) went to two clowns, one professional. Or you can embrace the chaos – or the diversity.

“General de Gaulle once quipped: ‘How can you govern a country that makes 324 cheeses?’ 

“Italy is one of the two great wine cultures, along with France. The diversity is everything. You never come to the end of Italian wines,” he told his audience.

“I only came to Italian wines about five years ago and have only taken them seriously in the last two,” Atkin concluded.

Atkin manages to encapsulate Italian wine in four short paragraphs. He was speaking at a tasting held by Grossi Wines, a leading specialist importer of Italian wine which sources wines from small artisanal producers.

Managing director Carlo Rossi tells Drinks International: “The Romans brought vines to Italy from the Middle East. Then the French turned winemaking into an art. But Italy is now taking it back and starting to produce good, high quality wine but more and more from indigenous grape varieties.”

Grossi has a mission. A mission to educate. For most people, Italian wine is primarily about Pinot Grigio, a bit of Valpolicella and Soave and, increasingly, sparkling Prosecco. For the more informed, it is about expensive wines such as Barbera, Barbaresco, Chianti, possibly Super-Tuscans and the famous regions such as Piemonte, Tuscany and maybe Veneto.

“Most people think of Piemonte, Tuscany and Veneto as Italy’s classic great wine producing regions,” says Grossi ruefully.

Grossi is about wines such as those made in the shadow of Mount Etna on Sicily and Puglia in Italy’s deep south. He lists ‘Es’, a 100% Primitivo di Manduria DOC from Gianfranco Fino in Puglia. Gianfranco is regarded as a pioneer of Italian wines and was voted winemaker of the year in 2010. The rich and complex ‘Es’ has been voted ‘Italy’s finest red wine’ for the past two years, beating the likes of famous, very expensive Italian Super-Tuscan, Italian icon wine, Sassicaia.

Liberty Wines’ David Gleave is one of the foremost experts on Italian wine. He says: “Italy continues to be a major presence in the global wine market. As a producer, it is second only to France in terms of volume, while in the export markets it has an image that rivals France. It is the only country that can take on France in terms of image and the ability to compete at every price level.”

Stefano Girelli is one of Italian wine’s commercial visionaries. He created and developed the widely available Canaletto brand. Now managing director of The Wine People, he tells DI: “Italy competes well on the world stage in terms of variety of styles, originality and price points. In Italy’s traditional export markets eg the UK and US the market share continues to grow. In new and emerging markets such as China and India, French wines have opened the door and now Italian wines - as well as wines from many other countries, of course, are starting to make good progress.”

Italy is of course very much one of the triumvirate of so-called ‘Old World’ countries, along with France and Spain. Is Old World a euphemism for old fashioned, dyed-in-the-wool?

Gleave says: “I don’t see any problems with Italy’s image as an ‘Old World’ producer. Italy, like all countries, has its fair share of old fashioned producers, but it has, thanks to the legacy of the ‘vini da tavola’ that started in the early 1970s, a wide array of innovative wines that have stepped outside of the restrictive DOC and DOCG regulations. Italy today uses IGT as a channel for these wines, and it ensures that Italy’s image is one of innovation allied to heritage and history.”

Guerrieri Rizzardi director Agostino Rizzardi, replies: “Being an ‘Old World’ producer we see as an advantage. This is due to the level of experience and knowledge we have gained through working with unique grapes and unique terroirs which has allowed us to develop special wine production techniques.

“Old World doesn’t have to mean ‘old fashioned’ as the laws in Italy are flexible enough to allow personal expression within legal parameters. The wines produced are therefore the result of our respect for the vines, careful execution of the grapes and corporate decisions. I don’t believe it is high volume wines of low quality that reflect global consumer demand.”

Dr. Giuseppe Liberatore general director of Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico says: “I don’t agree that Old World should be interpreted as “old fashioned”. Our products have been reworked over time and stayed in step with the market. The quality of Italian wine has increased over the years: in Italy, and as in other winemaking countries, wine “culture” is on the rise, linked to quality of life. The denominations of origin were, and are, growth opportunities: low quality and high production volumes are no longer in our DNA.”

Giovanni Manzo, who has a winery in Sicily with his brother Giacomo and consults for other wineries says: “The controlled production of Italian wines as IGT, DOC, DOCG are designed to ensure the high quality of the wine, which is closely linked to the territory of production, with serious controls by the bodies in charge. In other countries where wine drinkers disregard these regulations, they often have to settle for low quality.”

That puts any doubters in their place.

Massimo and Marco Barbero of Cascina Fonda, who make Moscato, Brachetto, Dolcetto and Barbaresco, make the point: “The Italian state doesn’t know how to promote products of high quality, plus it doesn’t know how to protect the mark ‘Made in Italy’.” But they conclude: “Italian Wine has a big future in the global wine industry as the flavour of the different wines are relative and typical to the different areas of Italy, differing to wines of France etc.” 

“For us the biggest challenge is communicating the production process so that the consumer understands why there is a higher price point for quality wines over those produced in quantity,” says Rizzardi. “The other challenge for producers in Italy is educating consumers on the large number of indigenous grapes used in wine production.”

Slightly fancifully but wonderfully idealistically, Pasquale Forte of Podere Forte in the Val d’Orcia, Tuscany, says: “We can surely have a great future. If producers succeed in properly matching wines with food, in such a way we will be able to improve the quality and the pleasure besides being able to showcase wine made with indigenous grape varieties.”

But he finished firmly by saying: “There is no country in the world with an oenological patrimony such as the Italian one, the challenge is being able to communicate it properly.”

More down to earth, Daniele Nardello of Soave Classico producers, Nardello Vini, says: “I believe that on the whole Italy has gained a fairly good position, given that it is also the land of indigenous diversity.”

In conclusion Agostino Rizzardi says: “Global consumption of wine is increasing, with new customers and markets developing all the time. As this continues to evolve there will be more interest in the product itself, which will enable the category to grow. As people set out to explore the world of wine they will become more interested in Italian wines, regions and unique styles.

Whereas Gleave says: “Over the next few years, I think production in Italy will continue to fall, while demand globally will continue to increase for quality wine. Global production will need to increase to keep pace with increased demand, but this increase in production won’t come from Italy.”