- Q & A
Italy's growing reputation with wine is due not only to the fact that it produces and exports more than any other country except occasionaly France, but it offers the greatest variety of types, ranging through nearly every color, flavor and style imaginable. Italy accounts for a mere 600,000,000 cases of wine per year, 20% of the world production.
Experts have increasingly proclaimed Italy's wines among the world's finest. Many of the noblest originate in the 250 zones officially classified as DOC or DOCG, but a number of individualistic wines go proudly under their own titles. Many consumers abroad, perhaps unaware of the wealth of types (or perhaps overwhelmed by the numbers) have not always taken advantage of the unmatchable variety of Italian wines.
Italy's modern prodigiousness with wine scarcely begins to tell the story of its people's perennial links to the vine. The nature of the place-the influence of Mediterranean sunshine and mountain currents on the hillsides of the elongated peninsula and islands-favors what seems to be an almost spontaneous culture of wine.
The heritage dates back some 4,000 years to when prehistoric peoples pressed wild grapes into juice that, as if by magic, fermented into wine. The ancient Greeks, expanding into Italy's southern reaches, dubbed the colonies Oenotria, the land of staked vines. Etruscans were subtle and serene practitioners of the art of winemaking in the hills of central Italy, as attested by the art and artifacts left in their spacious tombs.
The Romans propagated the cult of Bacchus to all corners of the empire, developing a flourishing trade in wine throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. So sophisticated was their knowledge of viticulture and enology that their techniques were not equalled again until the 17th or 18th centuries when Italians and other Europeans began to regard the making of wine as a science rather than mystique.
Winemaking in Italy advanced rapidly through the 19th century, as methods of vinification and aging were improved and the use of corks to seal reinforced bottles and flasks permitted orderly shipping of wine worldwide. Such names as Chianti, Barolo and Marsala became known in Europe and beyond.
A century ago several Italian wines were recognized as among the finest of their type: mainly Piedmontese and Tuscan reds from the Nebbiolo and Sangiovese varieties, but also white wines, still and sparkling, dry or sweet, merited international respect. Growers had complemented their local varieties with foreign vines, such as Cabernet, Merlot and the Pinots. There was evidence, then as now, that Italy's climate and terrain favored vines of many different types, and consumers elsewhere in Europe and in North America had come to appreciate these new examples of class.
Since Vernaccia di San Gimignano became the first DOC in 1966, the list has grown to include 250 zones delimited geographically within which a multitude of wines are controlled for authenticity. Yet the officially classified wines represent only 12 to 15 percent of the total. Beyond DOC and DOCG are thousands of others: local wines, opportunistic blends with imaginative names, and a growing number of admirable individual efforts that qualify as commercial rather than homemade.
Despite the reduction through this century, Italy still has more types of vines planted than any other country, both the native's and a complete range of international varieties. The number of officially approved vitis vinifera vines runs well into the thousands.
The number of wines may seem overwhelming and many consumers are bewildered by the assortment of names, places, varieties, proprietors and types. Hopefully, through education and exposure, it is hoped that the consumer will feel more comfortable with these wines.
Italians over the centuries have pioneered laws to control the origins and protect the names of their wines. The ancient Romans defined production areas for dozens of wines. In 1716, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany delimited the zones for important wines, setting a precedent for modern legislation.
Yet, only since the mid-1960s, have controls been applied nationwide to wines of "reputation and worth" under what is known as Denominazione di Origine Controllata or, by the initials DOC. At last count there were over 250 DOCs, all defined geographically with accomanying production guidelines such as yields and grape varieties. Wines from a few select zones have been further distinguished as DOCG (the G for garantita or guaranteed authenticity), like Barbaresco, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti (in seven subzones), Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Vermentino di Gallura, Albana di Romagna, Gattinara, Carmignano (red only) and Torgiano Rosso Riserva.
Within the DOC and DOCG zones more than 900 types of wine are produced. They may be defined by color or type (still, sparkling (frizzante), dry (secco), semisweet or sweet (dolce), natural or fortified (liquoroso). They may be referred to by grape variety (Merlot), age (young as novello, or aged, as vecchio, stravecchio or riserva). Or, by a special subzone (classico or superiore), though the latter may also apply to a higher degree of alcohol or a longer period of cask or bottle aging.
Sweeping changes in the wine laws in 1992 opened the way for DOC and DOCG wines to carry names of communities, areas of geographical or historical importance in the zones and names of individual vineyards of established reputation. Such wines may also carry the European Community designation of VQPRD or VSQPRD (for spumante), VFQPRD (for frizzante) or VLQPRD (for liquoroso or fortified).
Yet, DOC and DOCG account for only 12 to 15 percent of Italy's production. Some unclassified wines may be referred to as spumante or frizzante or as amabile or dolce (for sweet) or as liquoroso, but the majority of dry, still wines have to be labeled as vino da tavola. In its simplest versions such table wine can specify color, but no vintage, grape variety or place name. More specific were table wines with geographical indications, such as Rosso di Toscana or Barbera di Piemonte.
The aim is to increase the proportion of classified wines to a majority of national production, but it is important to remember that many good to excellent Italian wines are still not classified. The reason might be that the vineyards are in a non-DOC area or that the wine has been made under a new formula, using non-approved grapes, or that the producer chose to invnet an individual identity all his own. In the end, the most reliable guide to the quality of any wine from anywhere is the reputation of the individual producer or estate.
Labels must carry the wine's generic name and status (DOC, IGT, Vino da tavola, etc.), the producer's name and location, alcohol by percentage of volume, as well as the net contents in milliliters (with an e as an EEC approved measure). Most DOCG and DOC wines must carry a vintage date. Italian wines imported into the United States must carry the INE seal of approval for export on a red neck label, the term Product of Italy, a description such as "Red table wine" and the importer's name and location.
The criteria for D.O.C.(G.) are quite rigid. Most D.O.C.s, in addition, were created before the revolution in winemaking practices started to spread. The result is that there has been no official category that catered satisfactorily to forward-thinking winemakers who wanted to make high-quality wines using methods or grapes not prescribed in the D.O.C. or D.O.C.G. rules. They are reduced to labeling such wines as "table wine," ostensibly the category for the cheap and cheerful. They then avoided confusion with the lowlier sort of table wines by bottling their high-quality versions in expensive bottles, and charging prices that were among the highest in Italy.
Each producer gave his own version a made-up name displayed prominently on the label. This meant that there were hundreds of wine names in circulation but the important thing was that each was a representative of quality-conscious thinking or experimentation. Wines labeled D.O.C.(G.) may have benefited from modern developments in vine growing and winemaking, but their style was essentially traditional.
But now, thanks to the new laws of 1992, much of the better vino da tavola is expected to qualify under the category of Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT), designed to officially classify wines by color or grape varieties and typology from large areas. IGT will be the Italian equivalent to the French vin de pays and German Landwein. Given the complexities of the old system, the revision in the wine law will need time to take effect.