Italy is still our favorite wine import, outpacing second place France in both dollars and volume, according to Wine Business Monthly, April 2021. So, what makes Italian wine so good?
Like the lemon that’s garnished every seafood dish you’ve ever ordered in every restaurant ever, the acidity in Italian whites is the perfect foil for seafood and lighter dishes prepared with lemon; think fried calamari or chicken roasted with lemon and dill.
The acid of red wine is tannin, also rich in coffee. If astringent bitterness is your thing, you take your tannin straight - coffee black and a red wine cocktail. But pair tannin with fat – like coffee with cream and red wine with red meat – you’ve got yourself a chewy, smooth mouthful.
These qualities in Italian wine, and all wine, come from 4 simple variables: the grape, the soil and climate the grape was grown in and the culture (such as winemaking), that bring them all together.
In this case, the cold climate of the Alps – home to many Italian whites – encourages grapes to hold onto their acidity while ripening. For reds, it’s the soil. Italy’s mountainous soil is basically one 750-mile-long rock. Like the expression “to get blood from a stone,” vines have barely enough water to survive. Grapes undiluted with water are packed with flavor and texture, including tannin. So much tannin in fact, that wines with a history of repaying the investment are reserved for years in barrel, allowing tannin to relax; these wines are labelled Riserva.
Speaking of packed with flavor…
As delicious as sour, bitter and astringent sound, they wouldn’t make for popularity (go figure!) without fruit flavor and texture to round out hard edges. Good thing, then, that Italy boasts plenty of sunshine – especially at high elevations - to fully ripen fruit flavors.
They’ve Got a Lot of Laws
Italian wine laws cover just about any wine style anyone would want to make and if not, the Italians just come up with another law. In 1992, for instance, when producers rebelled against new laws for Chianti, the government came up with Indicazione geografica tipica (IGT), a loose translation being: something about the wine indicates that it’s typical of a certain geographic region. If it seems vague, it’s supposed to be. Compare IGT to Italy’s main wine law Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), the operating word being “control”. Unlike France, whose wine law was the template for the DOC, Italians are free to experiment with new grapes, new production techniques, new flavors, just about anything the producer (and paying customer) desire.
There’s a reason America’s most famous Italian shop is called Eataly, not Opera-tly or Talking-with-Your-Hands-aly. Eating – and eating well – is Italy’s pride, with dishes claimed by each region, often by individual cities. So, the Abruzzo region boasts of their meat skewers Arrosticini, served with regional wine, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, of course. In the city of Florence, Bistecca Fiorentina is heralded as the world’s finest steak, especially served with the local Chianti Classico or Brunello di Montalcino wine. With millenia of eating and drinking, winemakers and chefs have learned to work together and all well-made Italian wines are crafted to pair with food.
Considering Italian wine’s current popularity, you may be surprised that until the 1950’s, most Italian wine was plonk, more-or-less drinkable and cheaply-made, costing less than the straw-wrapped bottles they were sold in. To learn the trigger of Italy’s modern quality, please join us this Saturday April 17 at 5pm CST for a virtual Italian wine tasting of three prominent styles, with discussion of Italian wine terms and tips to pairing Italian wine with international cuisine.