July/August 2005

Touched by God: Why Italy's vintages grow better than the rest

By Eric J. Lyman

     On my first trip to Bordeaux in the early 1990s, I visited the venerable estate of Prieure Lichine and had what turned out to be an extremely memorable chat with a local wine merchant. I was tasting the very good 1986 vintage; the merchant stopped by on business when he decided to lecture me for several minutes in flowery and heavy accented English on why the wines of France were the only truly great wines in the world.
     A week before, his speech would have been unnecessary; I was a dedicated Francophile. But I’d just come from Milan where I’d tasted my fist -- and still only, to be honest -- Barbaresco from Angelo Gaja. Days later, the taste still seemed to linger on my tongue.
     When the merchant finally stopped to take a breath, I offered meekly, "But I've had some pretty good wine from Italy--."
     That set him off. "Italy! Italy! Italy!" he interrupted, nostrils flaring. "For Italy it is easy! A monkey could make great wine in Italy!"
    That may stretch the point. But the exchange did pique my curiosity about Italian wines, and that interest has grown ever since. Perhaps it wouldn't be a stretch to say that I might not have moved to Italy years later if it hadn't been for the chain of events started by that conversation.
     But does Italy really have it that good? Good enough to make even the merchant in Bordeaux, the Promised Land of the wine world, jealous?
     In a word, yes.

     The ancient Greeks called Italy "Oenotria," or Wineland, because of its natural gifts. But for much of its history the gift was wasted: Italy produced large quantities of very forgettable wines.
    It is easy to forget now that until the 1980s, most peoples' opinions of Italian wine was dominated by the old-fashioned straw-basket Chianti, a squat bottle of simple and often pungent wine that was once ubiquitous in pizzerias around the world.
     Not that the country didn't have a tradition of great wines. Some say Italy’s first legendary wine was the 1928 Bertani “Acinatico” Amarone. Other great wines followed every few years: the 1947 Giacomo Borgogno Barolo, for example, the 1955 Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino, and the 1961 vintage of the same Gaja Barbaresco that helped convert me into the Italian wine fan I am now.
     But great Italian wines of past generations were, as one old Tuscan winemaker told me once, "touched by God" -- blessed by perfect weather and circumstances so ideal that it hardly mattered that the technology used to craft them was crude.
      But constantly producing fine wine is more challenging. Starting in the 1970s and gaining steam in the 1980s, Italian producers invested in winemaking technology, grape selection methods. And the effort paid off.
     "Twenty or thirty years ago, the French used to joke that the Italians weren't producers of wine, just grapes -- and that some of the grapes are used to make something that vaguely resembled wine " chuckles Simione Zanobini, co-owner of the wonderful Fratello Zanobini Enoteca in Florence. "Nobody makes that joke any more."
     Claudio Rizzoli, who heads Mezza Corona, the leading grower of Pinot Grigio, Italy's top-selling wine, agrees.
     "Italy has some wonderful natural gifts in terms of geography and tradition, but in the past, we relied too much on these gifts; we didn't work at it," he says. "Only in the last 20 years have we really worked at it."
      Rizzoli recounts that until the early 1970s, Mezza Corona didn't even own a tractor: tons of grapes were hauled to the winery by horse, an era that now sounds like quaint and ancient history in comparison to today's modern methods.
     "Using computer analysis on everything from fermentation temperatures and grape selection, and ageing in small oak barrels rather than cement casks may run counter to the view of a wine maker as an artisan," explains Claudio Nicolini, a Verona-based wine making consultant who has worked with two dozen wine makers in Italy and abroad. "It is not nearly as romantic as the idea of the ancient Greeks venturing across the Adriatic Sea in old wooden boats filled with vines to be replanted. But the two kinds of development [technical and artisan] are equally important. Without the investments of the 30 years, people would still be talking about Italy's potential. Now they only talk about her world-class wines."

     Of course, people would have ever talked so much about Italy's potential if the country didn't have so much of it.
     Because of geography and topography, there is hardly a combination of weather, soil type, and latitude that is favorable for wine and which doesn't exist in Italy.
     Almost all of the world's great wine growing regions are in a band between around 30 degrees and 50 degrees latitude, either north or south of the equator.
     There are a few slight variations due to localized factors. In the Mediterranean region, for example, the influence of the warm-water Mediterranean Sea shrinks the band a little on the southern side, meaning it starts at around 35 degrees north and still stretches to 50 degrees north.
      But, in general, these two bands cover every serious wine growing area in the world. The southern band includes New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Argentina, and Chile. In the band to the north, we find California, New York, Portugal, Spain, France, Southern Germany, Hungary, Romania, and, of course, Italy.
     But Italy's border do not just fall within the band, it nearly spans the whole thing. From the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, which is practically a stone's throw from Tunisia, to Alto Adige, bordering Austria high in the Alps in the north, Italy stretches from around 36 degrees north latitude to almost 48 degrees north. 
     Italy isn't as large in terms of square miles as France, or Germany, but it is very long: the northwestern Italian city of Turin is about as close to Manchester, Madrid, or Copenhagen as it is to Palermo on the island of Sicily.
     That diversity of latitudes means Italy is one of a small handful of countries in the world that can grow temperamental cool-weather grapes like Riesling and Pinot Noir and also grapes that thrive in the sun and heat like Nero d'Avola and Primitivo.
     Italy's land mass stretches generally from north to south and is surrounded by the sea, which means most rivers wind in east or west from the mountains to the seaside, creating thousands of south-facing slopes on the northern banks for those rivers -- again, ideal circumstances for high-quality grapes, which will be able to bathe in the sun every second between sunrise and sunset. A rolling topography, localized conditions ranging from desert to borderline tropical, and a variety of altitudes hosting grape growing areas are also important.
     Much of he Italian peninsula was created by volcanic activity, leaving behind the kind of volcanic ash, limestone, or tufa. Non-volcanic parts of the country are often blessed with generally rocky or gravely soil, and even clay -- all soil types that wine maker love because the encourage drainage and in some cases the light color of the rocks or pebbles below can reflect the sun's rays back at the grape plants from below.
     Italy includes around 1 million different vineyards, and more than 1,000 unique grape varieties are cultivated, by far more than any other country. 
     Many, such as Mezza Corona CEO Rizzoli, say the best way for the country to move to the next level is for the larger wineries to acquire smaller attractive smaller producer until a certain critical mass of land and production allow for investments in the latest technologies.
     "It's no surprise that Italy's development as a top wine country followed the country's overall development after the war, because there was more money for investments," Rizzoli said. "But these small producers you see everywhere are less interested in change, and if they wanted it, they could not afford it."
     But many others, such as Enrico Maccario, owner of the Enoteca Gradi Vini in Alba, my favorite source for Piedmontese wines, thinks small producers have an advantage over their larger cousins.
     "It is true that small growers can be very resistant to change," Maccario says. "But in small producers you also see that the natural idiosyncrasies and individualism of the Italian character shine through. 
     "Italy has an advantage to have so many small producers, because they can make great artisan levels wines that sell, " Maccario went on. "They will never make a mark on the market because production is low. But for the wine producer that's fine. He sells everything he can make. And a few lucky customers find a real diamond."
     For now, Italy offers the best of both worlds. Major producers furnish excellent wines, including Gaja in Piedmont and Antinori in Tuscany and Umbria. Scores of smaller winemakers, meanwhile, conjure up gems that few have heard of.
     A personal example: the best wine I've drunk this year is probably a Brunate Ceretto I bought six bottles of at he suggestion of Maccario, the Piedmontese wine merchant. I thought that the heady flavor and round complexity of the wine would make it a hit in the U.S. market, a notion that amused Maccario. "They only made 650 cases of this wine," he laughed. "You bought one case, I have a few others here and some other distributors have the same I have. The producer holds on to a few. What is left to send to New York?"

     Labeling is another area of ambiguity.
     New World wines -- from the U.S., South Africa, Australia, among others -- are rarely confusing, with the names of the producer and the grape variety in large type. Finding the Chardonnay you are looking for could not be easier.
     It's a little more complicated in France, where the same Chardonnay lover must remember that Chablis is made from the great grape, and from that point on he or she simply looks for Chablis.
     Forty years ago there was little confusion in Italy: most Italian wines were bottled by consortia that bought the grapes from members, and the bottles carried simple labels identifying simple wines, like "Chianti 1965" or "Vino Bianco Italiano." But nowadays, Italian wine labeling is about as organized as the mass exit from Rome's Stadio Olimpico after a scoreless tie nobody wanted.
     In some cases, Italian wines carry the name of the grape, like Barbera, which is native to Piedmote but is also grown in Friuli, Liguria, Lombardy, and Umbria, among others. But wherever you see it, it's still made using the Barbera grape, with the name of the region it was produced in afterwards. To wit: Barbera d'Alba.
     Then there is the classic Tuscan grape Sangiovesse. Sometimes you'll see a bottle labeled "Sangiovesse," but it's usually found under the name Chianti or Chianti Classico. The same grape is also used under the names of different clones in Morellino di Scansano, from near the Tuscan coast, and in the world-class reds of southern Tuscany: Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. And all these wines can be very different.
      Confused yet? Try this: there is a well-known grape named after the city where Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and its lesser brother Vino Rosso di Montepulciano come from but the grape isn't used there (remember, they both use a version of Sangiovesse). Instead, that wine is made to the southeast of the village of Montepulciano and called Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, an accessible and food friendly wine used as the house red in many Roman restaurants and something that could hardly be more different than the similarly named cousins in Tuscany.
     "It's true that someone has to understand quite a bit about Italian wine before feeling like you understand anything at all," says Nicolini, the consultant. "Most people just find the name of a red and a white that they like and they stick to that. But I think the confusing terrain makes it interesting to try new things."

     Italy got a late start in the race to make quality wines. What we now call Italy was just a bunch of warring kingdoms in 1855, when the French drew up their famous classification system in Bordeaux. Something similar (though much less rigid) appeared in Italy more than a century later, in 1963, with the creation of the DOC (denominazione di origine controllata) system that included the first guidelines for wines that carry the DOC seal on the label.
     But why did this shift toward quality in Italy take place when it did? Like most things in the country, it's difficult to explain. But it is no doubt related to the fact that as the country became wealthier there was more money to invest in the wine business. And Italian palates began to involve as locals traveled more and tasted the best wines in other countries. There was also a string of exceptional vintages in the 1980s that meant an immediate payoff for those who made the investments.
     Nineteen-ninety was the first year it all came together, the year most point to as the year Italy really joined the big leagues. By the time I stood in Bordeaux wondering if I knew what I was talking about by mentioning Italian wines to the French wine merchant, the wine renaissance in Italy was already well underway.
     And how far will it go? Most people would say that Italy is now at (or nearly at) the level of France among the world's greatest producers in terms of quality, quantity, and consistency. In my mind, that it true without a doubt; it in only in terms of tradition and history that France still stands out.
     To some, the future will depend on blending the future and the past.
     "Italy has so much in terms of natural resources and tradition that it can do everything," Nicolini said. "Italy can make great traditional wines and make wonderful new world-style wines. The future is very, very bright for the best wines in this country."
      But Florence's Zanobini cautions against too much change.
     "Modernity is fine, but Italy cannot forget its past, " he says. "Creativity and innovation are important, but a wine must stay close to its history as well. You cannot go to Egypt, and say, 'well, the pyramids are nice but they would be improved with a few changes …' Maybe the example is silly, but you see the point. If you start using unusual grape combinations and techniques you could make amazing wines, but then these wines will not be Italian wines."

-- Eric J. Lyman is The American’s food and wine columnist. His email address is ejlyman@theamericanmag.com

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