Around the World of Wine - Italy

Welcome to the first installment of our 'Around the World of Wine' blog. We highlight popular wine growing countries, regions and wine styles of the World, and provide you with a bit more information.

First up is Italy, and it's fair to say that we're jumping in at the deep end here. It 's up there with France in terms of the amount of wine produced, but it wins hands-down when it comes to the number of grape varieties grown and wine styles produced. From north to south, here's a very broad-brush summary of what you can expect.

The very north of Italy is dominated by mountain ranges, and, therefore, is home to some of Italy's coolest wine growing regions. Lombardy in the far north is best known for its sparkling wines, particularly from the Franciacorta zone. Here sparkling wines are made in the traditional method and are often serious challengers to the wines of Champagne. In general, they have a touch more sweetness and are often a little less aggressive on the fizz. You'll also find reds, whites and roses produced here from a mixture of French and Italian grape varieties, and when not barrel-aged they are often light, vibrant and fresh.

To the east there is more of a Germanic influence. In South Tyrol and Trentino, varieties such as Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Muller-Thurgau are commonplace. The wines from here are often aromatic and higher in acidity than some of the more southern Italian wines, and predominantly white. It is also the region responsible for some of Italy's best Pinot Bianco and Chardonnay. The wines from this area do come at a price, but the best examples are exceptional.

Just to the south are the heavyweight regions of Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Whether it be a Prosecco, Pinot Grigio or vibrant red from Valpolicella, you're bound to have tried wines from this part of Italy at some point. The natural style here is still for wines that are a little lighter and more delicate than those further south, but this certainly isn't always the case. Around the southern shores of Lake Garda you find the famous regions of Valpolicella, Bardolino and Soave, and in Valpolicella they beef up their wines by drying the grapes in the sun before pressing. This concentrates the sugars and flavours and produces one of Italy's most famous wine styles, Amarone. Other regions do this to the lesser extent, so if you see the word Appassimento or similar on an Italian wine label then you can expect a wine with a bit of extra richness. 

West of Veneto and Lombardy is Piedmont, a region best known for red wines made from the Nebbiolo grape, in particular the wines from Barolo and Barbaresco. Although not particularly deep in colour, the wines from these two regions offer vibrant sweet fruit, subtle treacley and smokey notes and pronounced tannins when young. For this reason many age well and are at their best after a few years when the tannins have softened. If you don't have the patience or wallet for a Barolo then look to the Nebbiolos from the surrounding village of Alba or the wider Langhe area, which are generally a bit more approachable when young. So too are the local reds made from the Barbera and Dolcetto grape varieties, although the cheapest can be a little austere. You'll also find whites made from the Cortese grape (Gavi), which can be a great alternative to something like a Chablis from France, and the Aneis grape that produces wines that are softer in texture.

Moving down to central Italy there are two red varieties that dominate, and these are Sangiovese and Montepulciano. Generally speaking Sangiovese is more common to the west, in particular in Tuscany where it is the main constituent of the wines of Chianti. Montepulciano is more common in the region of Abruzzo in the east. Both varieties are naturally high in acidity and light in body, so less expensive reds from central Italy can be light and fresh (perfect on a hot day). However, producers looking for something with a bit more intensity will often reduce yields in the vineyard, extend the maceration in the winery and barrel age the wines to add complexity (price is a good guide here, ther higher the price the greater the depth). You certainly wouldn't call a Brunello di Montalcino (100% Sangiovese) a lightweight. Producers are also experimenting with French varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and some of central Italy's most celebrated wines these days only have a very small proportion of indigenous grape in.

Except for the popular Tuscan wines made from Vernaccia and Vermentino, a lot of central Italy's white wine production takes place in the Umbria and Marche regions to the east. Here grape varieties such as Garganega, Greco, Pecorino and Verdicchio produce surprisingly vibrant whites given the relatively warm climate. These are all very much Italian varieties that have developed in these regions and are suited to the climate, and by suited we mean they retain acidity even in warm conditions. The whites of central Italy are very much the go-to wines when looking for something to accompany Mediterranean seafood or a creamy pasta sauce.

In southern Italy it is the wines from Puglia and Sicily that we see most often here in the UK. Puglia is very much a red wine producing region, and two grape varieties dominate; Primitivo and Negroamaro. Both varieties enjoy the heat and arid landscape of this part of Italy, and generally the wines are fruity, with a slightly baked characteristic in the background. In hot years it's not uncommon to find wines up at 14.5% abv or higher, but there is usually a wealth of flavour to match. What's often most appealing about the wines from Puglia, however, is the price. You get a lot of flavour for your money, even from higher yielding vineyards, and you don't need patience because these are generally wines to drink young rather than keep.

Sicily has also become a great source of good value wine, and in Sicily you'll find producers really willing to experiment. Not only will you find wines made from traditional local varieties such as Fiano (white), Catarratto (white) and Nero d'Avola (red) to name just three, but you'll also find increasing areas of Pinot Grigio, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. These are recognised commercially successful varieties that do well here and are easier for producers to sell on the export market. Producers are also not afraid to experiment a bit with their production methods, so appassimento style wines are not uncommon, neither too are barrel aged wines. The one wine, sadly, that is rapidly decreasing in volume is the fortified wine of Marsala. As delicious as good Marsala is, it is too often just seen as something to cook with these days, even if it is an absolute joy to drink before or after a meal. Fear not, however, as the Marsala vineyards are not disappearing, the grapes are just being treated differently, and here at Baythorne Wines we think that the dry white table wines being produced from the Grillo and Catarratto grapes that used to make Marsala are now some of the most interesting whites coming out of Italy.

This is really just scratching the surface. All regions of Italy have their local wines that rarely make it to our shelves in the UK. If we were to list all the grape varieties grown in Italy it would probably be in the 1000s, but what we hope to have done with this blog is just spark a bit more interest in Italian wine. It's a country we are starting to specialize in a bit, simply because we keep trying such good wines, and it's definitely worth exploring.