One of the things about being a wine writer is that when people learn what you do, they often pull their phones out to share visuals of their own wine experiences. Now, on the one hand, this is a great thing. It is a gesture that ties together mutual passions and experiences in wine and is meant to bring a smile.
But on the other hand, the process of looking at the great photos makes me want to be in the places that the images project. Wine travel envy is a regular event in my life as friends, neighbors, and sometimes even strangers, share their happiest wine moments.
This week, shortly before I sat to write this column, I had a pair of these experiences. The first came directly from Padua, a magical place in the Veneto region of Italy. An old friend who is in the wine business texted a photo of a seafood plate with the most beautiful langoustines and scallops. As I imagined what wine he and his wife would pair with the shellfish dish I thought about the epic green hillsides of the DOCG Conegliano Valdobbiadene wine region where Prosecco is produced 50 miles or so from Padua.
Then I remembered a past trip to an Island near Venice called Mazzorbo where Gianluca Bisol produces a white wine from the once thought-extinct Dorona di Venezia grape. The salty minerality and the acidity of the wine would make for a stunning pairing with the pictured treasures of the sea. I was in a culinary daydream.
My friend came up with a wild wine called “From Black to White Il Bianco 2019” made by a winery called Z´yme. The wine uses a blend of four grapes that are traditionally used in the production of red wines: Rodinella, Gold Traminer, Kerner, and Incrocio Manzoni (two of which I have never heard of) to make a wine with a golden yellowish hue. It was, according to said friend, sublime with the seafood.
Then there was a new friend who began a conversation with a question: “What are your favorite wines to drink?” I could tell by the way he asked that he wanted to also tell me his favorites, so I answered simply “I have been drinking a lot of Chianti lately. What do you like?”
With that, the bait had been taken and he opened the photo section of his iPhone and began to scroll through February photos he had taken on a trip with his wife to Piedmonte. He was a Barolo guy through and through. The pictures were stunning as he showed me shots from inside the More e Macine Osteria and Wine Bar, and a tour of the wine cellar at a dinner in La Morra, one of the great wine destinations on earth. The meats, the cheeses and, of course, the selection of outstanding Nebbiolo-based Barolo wines were mouth-watering. Again, I took a trip in my mind to the rustic hillsides of La Morra, a place I often long to return to.
Why is Italy so damned desirable for wine lovers? After all, for prestige, France would probably get the tip of the chapeau. Marketing? You know, American wineries are pretty good at goosing sales. And Spanish wines represent diversity and history as well.
But the Italian wine scene, like the country itself, brings romance and passion to each bottle. In Italy, as winemaker and author and former Little Nell sommelier Richard Betts likes to say, “Wine is a grocery, not a luxury.” Meaning it is, like the air we breathe, simply a part of life. “In Italy, there is always a bottle on the table,” said a friend of mine emphatically, as though that were a requirement for any meal. “But the Italians sip their wines like it’s a garnishment, just something that goes with the dish. You might see eight people at a table and then just one bottle. A little wine in each glass. It’s not like anyone is trying to get drunk. It is just a part of the dining experience.”
Italians have been making wines for 2,800 years, well before the Roman Empire, giving it one of the longest legacies of wine production. Italian wines have quantity, history, and, of course, extreme quality on their side. Italy reigns supreme. In 2022, Italy was the top wine-producing nation on earth exceeding the production of France and Spain, making 49.8 hectoliters of wine. How much is that? Well, the Visual Capitalist, a very cool website that likes to help readers see graphics and statistics in new ways, says that it is “enough wine to fill 1,994 Olympic-size swimming pools.”
In addition to the Italians themselves, things that make Italy such a great wine region include the topography and geography of the country. Long longitudinally (it ranges from the 36th parallel in Sicily to the 46th parallel in Alto-Adige), oceans border its shores, the Mediterranean Sea, to the west, and the Adriatic Sea to the east. In the north, the border is the slope of the mighty Alps. Soils are diverse up and down the Boot and the rolling hills, mountains, and plains provide a constantly varying topography. God himself could not have created a more perfect place for growing grapes.
There are twenty different wine regions in Italy that generally correspond to the administrative regions of the nation, think states, but these are further broken down into 74 DOCGs, or Designation of Origin Controlled and Guaranteed wines. These are similar to our version of the appellation designation, or AVAs. There are over 2,000 varieties of grapes grown in Italy. The variations can be subtle. You don’t need to know all of them, but if you know, say six, three red and three white, you can drink your way from top to bottom through the country. Let’s look at just two to get you started:
The most widely planted grape in Italy is the Tuscan varietal Sangiovese. The name translates to “the blood of Jove” and it is the grape that makes Chianti and the Brunello di Montalcino wines. Light in both color and body but high in acid, this is a versatile grape that can produce simplicity and summer sips, or wines of power and elegance.
In Friuli-Venezia Giulia in the northeastern part of Italy is the much less planted Ribolla Gialla. Fragrant on the nose with the aromas of peaches, fresh apples, and citrus, the wines from this grape have become a darling of the sommelier set. These grapes are also favored by winemakers in the production of “Orange Wines” which are made by leaving the juice in contact with the skins and the seeds for a few days to create an orange hue.
I don’t have a trip to Italy on my docket. But a fella’ can dream.