Sunday, September 18, 2011

ITALY: Defined by Grapes that Hang On

Life is wine and wine is life in Italy, among the world's largest consumers, producers and exporters of this ancient libation. If the whole of Italy is a vineyard, with over 300 defined production zones in twenty(20) political regions, then perhaps Italy can be defined by its regional and native grape varieties. The vine has been here in this hilly, mountainous peninsula with its moderating sea influences since the colonization of the ancient Greeks. Here it is the time-honored tradition to match the right grape(native or international) to the perfectly compatible climate, soils and landscape.

In the foggy North, from the Alpine foothills of Piedmont, the tannic red grape Nebbiolo(Spanna) produces the regions famed Barolo DOCG's within its delimited production zone of the Langhe hills. To the east of central Alba, the more feminine Barbaresco's are found from three(3) communes, and in the northern hills the communes of Gattinara and Ghemme produce lighter blended styles from the same grape base. The surrounding provinces produce defining whites from the Moscato and Cortese grapes(Gavi DOCG), as well as aromatic, red Brachetto d'Acqui DOCG, still or frizzante(sparkling), long established as a regional specialty. High acid, low tannin red Barbera and fruity Dolcetto are among the most widely planted varietals in these hills, but usually found in the less prestigious soils.

Head east and Chardonnay in Lombardy's traditional method Franciacorta DOCG is the sparkling superstar, while the remote outpost of Valtellina DOCG, is still a Nebbiolo(Chiavennasca) blend, and a white workhorse, Malvasia is found here as well. A Red Moscato, grown near Bergamo, is the passito base for the speciality Moscato di Scanzo DOCG. Emilia-Romagna, to the south is home to Italy's first white DOCG, Albana di Romagna, made from the local Albana grape, in a volume region mostly known as the producer of volumes of light, red Lambrusco blends.
Old & New: Alto Adige trellis & pergolas
One of the tri-states, autonomous Trentino-Alto Adige is a northernmost region proudly growing international varieties, most of it DOC status, with whites like Pinot Grigo, Pinot Blanco and Muller-Thurgau. Sweeping eastward is the Veneto, cultivating huge amounts of white Garganega blends for Soave DOC's. Another important regional grape is the red Corvina Veronese, found as the base in Bardolino and Valpolicella DOC blends,  reaching its greatest expression  as partially dried recioto in the notable Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG. Popular Charmat method Prosecco is made traditionally from the Prosecco(Glera) grapes, and the base of the region's Bellini cocktails. As the eastern border Slovakian neighbor, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, is a prominently white wine region, with a mix of international and native varietals like Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Malvasia. The region has one DOCG, sweet Ramandolo from the Verduzzo white grape. An important regional DOC is Colli Orientali del Friuli from the Friulano grape, with native Picolit produced as another important white grape which is allowed in the passito sweet DOC.

Montepulciano d'Abruzzo
Vast central hills of Tuscany, have cultured numerous clones of the native Sangiovese grape over the centuries. Delineation of a Chianti Classico region from 1716 recognized an original zone of production and was officially canonized in 1932, finally becoming part of DOC regulations in 1966. Hilltop Brunello di Montalcino DOCG is derived from an un-blended  Sangiovese clone, having a brown skin when ripe, it can produce one of the world's great wines.Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG is from the 'Prugnolo gentile' clone of the same grape, and can produce great wines of good value. Carmignano DOCG is also based in Sangiovese, but was the first DOC to allow amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc in its regional Italian blend. Notably, the region's white Vernaccia of San Gimignano was the first in Italy to be awarded DOC status

In the South, Umbria's popular Orvieto DOC is made from widely cultivated Trebbiano, Grechetto and Malvasia white grapes within the historic commune. The same grapes are blended further South in Latium's Frascati DOC, so popular in the cafe's of Rome. Local native Sagrantino grapes are the base of Umbria's Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG, which is produced in dry or sweet(dolce) styles, and we also find Sangiovese blended again in the communal DOCG Torgiano Rossa Riserva. Widely planted Trebbiano(Ugli Blanc) appears again in mountainous Abruzzo as Trebbiano d'Abruzzo, but the regions DOCG comes from a local red variety, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. Towards the Adriatic, the hills of Marche have the high-acid white grape variety Verdicchio, a perfect partner for the local catch of the day, as well as white Vernaccia grapes in numerous DOC blends. Red Montepulciano shows its cloned head again in the regions DOCG, Conero-Rosso Riserva.

Volume-producing Apulia is a dominant red-wine region and home for many migratory ancient varietals, such as the red/black Primitivo and Negromaro grapes. Aglianico is another ancient Greek variety, and known as the Nebbiolo of the South. It is proudly found as the principal red grape in Campania's Taurasi DOCG and in Basilicata's only DOCG, the volcanic-nurtured Aglianico del Vulture. As 'Magna Graecia' other historic white grape varieties, like Greco di Tufo, in still or frizzate styles, and the classic, aromatic Fiano di Avellino found DOCG homes in the Campania sunshine. Fiano was also planted on the large island of Sardinia, but is overshadowed by a more famous white, Vermentino di Gallura DOCG. Across the sea in Liguria the same Vermentino grape is known by the synonym Pigato. While under the Crown of Aragon, the vineyards of Sardinia also rooted imported varieties like the white Tourbat, the red Carignan and Nerello.Not every variety of the South has been imported. Autonomous and mountaneous, Sicily has the native black Nero d'Avola grape, important in producing the islands' Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG. Often conquered Sicily is known more as a volume producer and the home of Marsala DOC, a fortified and aged sweet wine from a collection of native white grapes dominated by Catarrato and Grillo.

Today, the wines of Italy are a curios mix of appellation and varietal labeling, as they have throughout history, perhaps because the region is defined by its grape(s). Labels offering a 'Riserva' designation additionally reflect additional aging, usually 2 years longer. While the often used 'Classico' claim typically refers to the original zone of traditional production for that regional product. Veiled over all of this are the top quality tier of the DOCG wines, those of 'controlled designation of origin guaranteed', applied to 47 regional wines, who in theory represent the best of their appellations. All that needs to be done is to match the right regional grape with the perfect spot to cultivate it, and then hang on for more than 2000 years.

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