Italian wine-making - and its international reputation - have undoubtedly suffered over the years from unhelpful wine laws, confusing labelling, inconsistent, often rough wine-making along with a reputation for cheap wine, supplied by volume rather quality.
Decades of operating within a strait-jacket of regulations has led to unhelpful anomalies within the Italian fine wine scene. A few of the best, most progressive, most expensive wines in Italy have already been forced to carry the humblest “Vino da Tavola” designation: exactly the same category as a sea of cheap plonk, merely since the men-in-suits had forbidden the use of certain grape varieties and treatments inside the rigid Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) classification.
All that changed - or ought to have changed - in 1992 when a whole new set of regulations came into force. Aimed at modernising the Italian wine industry, the reforms should iron out the ludicrous anomalies and re-position Italy on the globe stage. To get a start, a brand new classification method has been introduced having a brand new designation, Indicazione Geografica Tipica, or IGT (a comparable idea to France's Vin de Pays). More importantly, it allows flexibility inside the DOC and higher DOCG categories. In theory, any wine can qualify if it achieves particular quality standards over a period of time.
Up within the north-west lies Piedmont, house of some of Italy's greatest and most profound wines. Red wines made from the Nebbiolo grape, like Barolo and Barbaresco, are long-lived, complicated, extremely serious wines. Traditionally these wines require lengthy periods of cellaring prior to they reveal a core of intense fruit along with a tremendous array of evocative flavours. A group of dedicated and high quality conscious producers such as Gaja, Aldo Conterno and Giacosa lead the field right here, and even though age-old traditions persist, some visionaries are pushing the boundaries to make much less forbidding, more approachable styles. East of Piedmont, the Veneto is a vast area creating oceans of wine, a lot of it inexpensive and not particularly cheerful. Names are familiar to British wine lovers, like Valpolicella and Soave. There's excellent wine being produced in this region however. One of the keys is to appear for the term “Classico” on the label. Soave Classico and Valpolicella Classico come from the superior hillside vineyards and are generally far removed from the expressionless versions made from grapes grown on the valley floor. Over on the Austrian border, the areas of Trentino and Alto Adige are creating some flavourful, fresh white wines of top quality.
In the centre from the nation is Tuscany. This is the land of Chianti and of stunning, rolling countryside, olive groves and cypress trees. Though an enormous amount of plain, easy-drinking wine is produced within the region, the best quality wines generally come from the Chianti Classico zone, stretching between Florence and Siena. These wines, at normal and Riserva levels, are usually reliable and can be breathtaking. According to the Sangiovese grape, Chianti is usually a firm style of wine with a notable bitter edge, but lots of ripe, cherry fruit and spicy, tobacco and herbal notes. The best producers, such as Antinori, Castell'in Villa, San Felice and Isole e Olena, are creating expensive but fantastic wines. These often consist of single vineyard grands vins, which scale the heights of globe wine-making.
There are some very fascinating and affordable wines becoming created in the south-eastern part of the nation, from the Marches down to Apulia (Puglia) within the heel of Italy. Worth for cash favourites include Salice Salentino and Brindisi. Look for the wines of Taurino - amongst the best and most dependable names in the region. Some excellent whites are also becoming produced in the south, using New World techniques with cool, stainless steel fermentation. The local Greco grape makes lively and lemony-fresh wines of some distinction. Look for Campania on the label.
An interesting range of wines which are distinctive to Italy are made with grapes dried in the warm air by laying them out on mats following harvesting. These recioto grapes make two fundamental styles of wine: Amarone, that is vinified to be dry and very alcoholic, and Recioto, exactly where the fermentation is stopped earlier so that sweetness remains - though they are still deeply coloured, strong red wines. Something of an acquired taste, but look out for Amarones and Reciotos from producers like Alighieri, Masi and Allegrini.
Along with the much more classic Chianti and Barolo, the wines which maybe point the way for the Italian fine wine industry are the “super Vini de Tavola”.
These wines, mainly emanating from Tuscany, are produced from a high proportion of international grape varieties like cabernet sauvignon or merlot. They are aged in new oak, and subjected to very non-traditional methods. For just as long as these wines have been breaking the guidelines, they've also been snapped up at high costs by international wine-lovers. They have helped place Italy back on the fine wine map and are wines of world-class high quality. Names to look out for include Ornellaia, Tignanello and Sassicaia, but you will spend via the nose for them.
Although I really feel it could be a great shame for Italy to shed sight of its indigenous grape varieties and age-old techniques (so long as they are kept below evaluation to prevent stagnation), there is no doubt that such a prolific wine producing nation requirements pioneers and standard-bearing wines to, hopefully, trigger a rippling impact throughout the whole business.
Italy definitely has the raw materials to compete on the globe wine stage at all levels. It is surely one from the European wine countries to watch most closely.
In the top of the 1992 high quality pyramid, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) is awarded towards the most prestigious wines of a region. It enforces tight regulatory controls, such as restricted yields. Particularly outstanding proprietary wines (namely the “super Vini di Tavola”) can be awarded DOCG all of their very own. One rung beneath, at DOC level, are wines that maintain consistently high standards. These can move as much as DOCG based on their performance over a period of years. The new IGT classification is presently a little unloved and unused. Not too numerous have appeared on the shelves and we must wait to determine if it is embraced by the wine-makers. In the base of the pyramid, VdT wines are mostly pretty ordinary stuff, with high yields and lax regulations. Confusingly, numerous of the superstar wines nonetheless carry this classification for now.
Italy is in many methods the perfect grape growing factory. A tradition of wine-making stretches back a large number of years to the Etruscans. It is the country with the biggest wine output within the globe. From the awesome, Alpine climate of the north-east, to the baking heat from the far south, Italy features a number of climatic conditions and soil types that are capable of an enormous diversity of agriculture. All of this lies inside perfect vine-growing latitudes, with a backbone of mountains and hillside slopes operating the length of the nation.