Everything you need to know about the wines of Italy

November 20, 2019

We chat to Dr Pierguido Sarti  from the Italian Embassy, Roberto Bottega, a wine expert, Gianni Mariano (Mastrantonio), Marco Pintus from the Italian Trade Agency and Michelin-starred chef  Alfonso Caputo, to chat about all things vino ahead of Vino in Piazza – Wines of Italy taking place this weekend at Montecasino.

What are the main differences between the South African winemaking and Italian winemaking process?  

Dr PS: The grape varieties grown in Italy are much more diverse than those of South Africa. There are almost 370 officially registered different grapes and many more that are locally harvested and used for small scale territorial productions.

Different varieties often require customized winemaking processes, thus creating a multitude of winemaking processes that reflect the tradition of the territories and the skills of the people.

In South Africa the varietals grown are mostly international grapes, with Pinotage being the only proudly South African varietal.

Winemaking styles and practices on common grapes are very similar with the exception of the aging of wines in barrels which is not as commonly used in Italy as it is in South Africa. Italians go crazy about sparkling wine (ideal in the hot summer days, for celebrations and festivities) and proudly export it abroad.  1.5 billion bottles of bubbly are produced every year, half of which is Prosecco, a signature Italian sparkling whose 65% production is exported.

The most popular fermentation method adopted in Italy is Charmat (or Martinotti), based on fermentation in large pressurised stainless-steel tanks, which are used to produce Prosecco and Asti. This method considerably reduces the production time in comparison to the Method Cap Classique (or the Champenoise), where the fermentation is made in the bottle. In South Africa, where the production of bubbly only contributes 1% to the total national production, this method and carbonation are mainly used to produce sparkling wines. 

Another big difference is that Italy boasts many old vineyards where in South Africa the vineyards are younger. Italy is the largest wine producer in terms of volume, with 46.6 million hectolitres estimated for 2019. South Africa ranks 8th in terms of production, with 9.7 million hectolitres in 2019. Finally, Italians are stronger wine consumers (44 litres per person per year) and drink four times the amount of wine than South African.

What are the top 3 Italian wines everyone should have in their wine rack?

RB: For everyday drinking, a good bottle of Prosecco DOCG from either Conegliano Valdobbiaddene or Asolo  (try Bellenda, Giusti) or a bottle of Ripasso style wine (Zenato) from the Veneto are always versatile companions for Italian dishes while a refreshing Vermentino from Sardinia is a must-have for the summer months (from Sella & Mosca).

For collectors, the Triple B approach always works. From Piedmont there are the famous appellations of Barolo (Vietti, CaViola), Barbaresco (Enrico Serafino) or the Barbera d’Asti wines (Braida Bricco dell’Uccellone) to consider. If you prefer top Tuscan wines then try Brunello di Montalcino – another B – (Talenti, Barbi, Donatella Cinelli, La Gerla, Luce) although the latest Riserva wines from Chianti Classico are absolutely outstanding (from Badia a Coltibuono, Volpaia) and should also be on the list.

What makes Italian wines so favourable?

Dr PS: There is basically no part of Italy where grapes aren’t grown and harvested to produce wine, from small artisanal scale to large winemaking industries.

Each of the 20 Italian regions has its own local varieties proudly grown to maintain the sensorial traditions which are always strongly interlaced with the culinary traditions of the territories.

Those who are familiar with Italian cuisine know that every Italian region has its own traditional dishes and that there is always a local wine which literally creates “the match made in heaven”. The exceptional variety of the Italian territory, with climate conditions and landscapes that vary from North to South, reflect into its wines.

It is this exceptional variety that is the key to a never-ending sensorial experience with deep organoleptic differences found in Italian wine production.

The wine lover can find a whole range of sensorial experiences enclosed in a bottle of Italian wine, with reflections of the different terroirs, climate conditions, varieties, growing techniques, winemaking processes and traditions.

AC: Among many reasons, what probably makes Italian wines so special is their variety. It has been mentioned that Italy has more than 500 different wine appellations: every region, every province, town – and sometimes even village – have their own wine with its history, its physical and cultural elements. Also, what has made Italian wines special throughout the years is the attention to detail and the cure that Italian producers put into their products: unlike the different microclimates than span from South to North, that is not a given, but something that needs to be nurtured and developed.

Michelin-star chef Alfonso Caputo

It is said that Italy produces more wine than any other country in the world. How much wine is produced and how much of it is exported?

MP: Yes, Italy is the world’s number 1 producer of wine. Production stood at 5 400 million litres in 2018 (France 4 900, Spain 4 400 and SA 950). The value of production is about 11 billion Euros. Exports from Italy amounted to nearly 2,000 million litres – 6.2 billion Euros in value. 

What makes Italian wine so special?

MP: Italy has 526 wine appellations officially recognized by the European Union, 408 of them specific to small geographical areas considered to be unique in terms of climate and soil characteristics.

Italy is called the “Land of Wine” because there are more native Italian grapes in Italy than France, Greece, and Spain put together. Italy’s native grapes comprise roughly 25% of the world’s wine grapes.

No other wine nation in the world has such viticultural diversity. There are grape varieties specific to single provinces, even single towns.

From mountainous Alto Adige on the border with Austria to sun-drenched Pantelleria in Sicily, Italy offers an incredible variety, diversity and choice of wines with unequalled average quality. 

The diversity of styles coming from continental to Mediterranean climates, all the way from the Alps in the north, to not too far from the shores of Africa in the southern islands, make Italy a place where one can find a wine to pair with almost anything.

RB: Italian wine comes to life with food, and if you take the trouble to pair regional wines with regional food, then the experience gets elevated to a new level. Italian wines can sometimes be described as being bitter and acidic (especially if you are not used to them), but replace these words with dry and fresh and add the right food pairing and it all starts to make a lot more sense. Interestingly, Italian whites tend to be rounder, gentler and more nuanced than South African whites while Italian reds often have higher natural acidity than the local reds.

What are Italy’s top 3 grape varietals for winemaking? 

Dr PS: Cold statistics tell us that Sangiovese (used to produce Brunello and Chianti, for example), Montepulciano and Glera (used for Prosecco) are the most planted grapes in Italy.

Though, this is not an easy question at all, as Italians would most certainly offer an answer (and strongly defend it) according to a personal ranking influenced by their region of origin, family customs, and their grandfathers’ lessons.

Moving from North to South, posing such question, you would probably get to hear grape names such as Nebbiolo, Barbera, Pinot Gris, Trebbiano, Pignoletto, Merlot, Verdicchio, Malvasia, Aglianico, Primitivo, Catarratto, Nero d’Avola, the Muscats, Cannonau just to name a few.

Italy’s top ten most planted grape varieties only account for 38% with a remaining remarkable 62% of the surface dedicated to other varieties. This truly gives a sense of the extraordinary Italian wine sector biodiversity and partly explains why this question is indeed easy to answer in terms of facts and figures but prone to be vigorously disputed when given in absolute terms.    

What is the perfect wine match for home-made lasagne?

RB: San Giovese, because it’s a very versatile wine which is fruity, fresh, savoury and earthy.

AC: Lasagne is a course usually associated with the Emilia-Romagna region and the city of Bologna: in that case, I would definitely recommend a Lambrusco di Sorbara, a great and lightly sparkling red wine from that area of Italy. A different but also an excellent way of making lasagne descend from the Neapolitan tradition: in this case, I would rather recommend a Gragnano, also a great and lightly sparkling red wine, but from a different part of Italy. Should you not have any of those two immediately available, a South African young Syrah will also pair perfectly with a lasagne.

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