Getting to grips with a country that has over 2,000 grape varieties and 40,000+ wineries is a challenge, but it’s a very worthwhile one - great wines are made in each of Italy’s 20 provinces, and while some are household names, most are not. The ideal approach is of course to visit each of the provinces and sample the wines alongside the local cuisine - food and wine are intimately connected here as nowhere else on earth. Failing that, we have split the country into four sections that should help your exploration of Italy’s delicious wines.
The vineyards of Piedmont lie in the hills south of Turin and Milan. Here, Nebbiolo ripens on the often fog-shrouded slopes to produce the wonderfully fragrant, complex and long-lived Barolo and Barbaresco. Both are superb with rich savoury dishes, especially those infused with the local white truffles, but they’re rare and expensive, so look to other local grapes such as Dolcetto (fresh like Beaujolais, with earthy cherry notes) and Barbera (soft and plummy) for more everyday drinking. For whites, the best -known are Asti (the Spumante bit has been dropped) and its more ambitious partner Moscato d’Asti, both of which are great foils for Christmas pudding. For a drier sparkling wine, travel east to Lombardy, where the producers in Franciacorta are using Champagne grapes and Champagne winemaking to produce superb fizz.
The best known wines of the province of Veneto to the east of Lake Garda are those Italian stalwarts Soave and Valpolicella - the finest come from zones designated ‘Classico’. In Valpolicella, you’ll also find Amarone, made from grapes that have been dried to concentrate their flavours. Wonderfully ripe and rich, it’s excellent with game and hard cheeses, but is often sipped just by itself. Ripasso is a halfway house between the two styles. This is also the home of Prosecco, the sparkling wine success story of the past decade. Speaking of success, much of Italy’s Pinot Grigio originates in the north east, and while most falls into the cheap and cheerful category, the more ambitious wines can be excellent. And don’t ignore the alpine-fresh wines made north of Lake Garda in Alto Adige, nor the richer, headier whites of Friuli along the border with Slovenia.
Sangiovese grows in many parts of Italy, but it reaches its peak in Tuscany. Brunello di Montalcino is the king here, with the best of Chianti - those from the ‘Classico’ zone - in close attendance. The past forty years have seen French grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot being widely planted, and these are used in varying proportions, often with Sangiovese making its way into the blend. The province’s best-known white is the Vernaccia from San Gimignano, but don’t overlook the excellent Vermentino made along the Tuscan coast.
To the north is Emilia Romagna, birthplace of Lambrusco - the ‘proper’ stuff is a revelation, dry and packed with tangy fruit flavours, and excellent with salami. Heading down the east coast, the main grape in the Marche and Abruzzi is Montepulciano, which is used for everything from light pizza-friendly quaffers up to bold and sturdy red of considerable class. To the west, you’ll find Orvieto and Frascati, two once-famous names which are struggling to compete with the deluge of Pinot Grigio. For a better central Italy’s finest white, heady back east and seek out the nutty pear-tinged Verdicchio.
The once-sleepy south of Italy is today making some excellent wine. Surprisingly in the sunny conditions, the whites impress as much as the reds. Grapes to seek out include Fiano, Falanghina and Greco, each of which seems to produce fresh, pithy wines imbued with the herby character of the local hillsides. And now Marsala is no longer big business (a shame), the trio of grapes used in its production, Grillo, Inzolia, and Catarratto, are also being pressed into service. Among reds, the star is the firm but fleshy Aglianico of Basilicata and Campania (where it is behind the wine Taurasi). The best versions age superbly, and are ideal with roast meats. Meanwhile in Sicily on the slopes of Mount Etna, Nerello Mascalese is producing some excellent reds that offer something of the perfumed delicacy of Barolo. Other red varieties of note are Nero d’Avola, Negroamaro and Primitivo (California’s Zinfandel). With each, expect rich dark fruit, with a savoury overtone.