Italy has the world’s richest variety of individual wine styles, distinctive terroirs, and indigenous grape varieties.
– Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson in The World Atlas of Wine.
No matter what individual taste preferences are, there is an Italian wine for every wine drinker. However, learning to navigate the Italian wine landscape can be a distinct challenge.
Europe’s appellation based wine laws can be confusing enough for U.S. consumers, but Italy raises the difficulty to another level. Unlike other countries where the appellations are based on geographic location or terroir, the Italian system defines regions in terms of the end product. A single vineyard can potentially be regulated under several different appellations in Italian law; the actual rules applied will depend on the final wine produced.
Then there are the more than 350 different varieties of grape approved for use under Italian wine law (as compared to just over 60 varieties in France)! That’s just for the DOC and DOCG wines. Another 500+ varieties of grape have been documented in Italy and some claim there are at least 1,000 more beyond that!
Add winemaking processes such as appassimento and ripasso, which are used more widely in Italy than anywhere else in the world. Finally, factor in the exciting things happening under Italy’s IGT classifications (Super Tuscans, for example), and the result is a stunning diversity of wines that capture thousands of years of winemaking history.
So… the question becomes how to navigate such a complex landscape?
The answer, of course, is to start with the grapes. Though there are hundreds of varieties grown in Italy, the list of important ones is much shorter. Since Italian appellations are tied to the end product, knowing the varietals used provides a frame of reference for learning the regions. From there it is just a matter of learning the relationships.
And don’t forget the good part– the best way to learn is by tasting!