Wine is the translation of weather, climate, and time into a bottle. A single sip can transport a drinker to a specific plot of land at a specific moment in history. Great wine is also alive, changing from year-to-year in the bottle, moment-to-moment in the glass.
I cannot substantiate any of the previous statements with hard data, but they all felt true with the right glass of wine in my hand. Admittedly, most wines don’t inspire me to ramble like that. But I do drink a lot of wine in search of those moments.
All I know is that when I say annoying things like that, most often I’m drinking Italian wine. I think that if you get bitten by the bug and come love wine irrationally, you eventually choose France or Italy. With all due respect to Spain and their delicious albarinos and tempranillos, the real wine game is on either side of the Alps.
Italian wine, like the country itself, is hard to pin down. After ten visits and several long stays, I still find it hard to describe the place. It’s bewitching and maddening at the same time. I keep coming back for more of something, but I don’t know exactly what.
The beautiful disorder of Italian life carries over to it’s wine culture. Yes, there are the purebreds of the stable. Piedmont’s Nebbiolo treasures and Tuscany’s regal versions of Sangiovese form the nobility of Italian wine. But outside of that it’s a wide open, constantly evolving field. This is where it gets exciting.
The DOCG and DOC system has tried to tame some of that wildness, while increasing quality. However, it’s not as restrictive as France’s AOCs and experimentation seems more acceptable in Italy. The peninsula’s 500+ (and growing) native grape varietals mean there are always new combinations of grape and earth to be discovered.
Italy also exports the most wine to the US by a wide margin over any other nation. The problem we all face is that too much of that wine is mass-produced Chianti, Pinot Grigio, and Prosecco. These often lack any sense character or depth. Italy’s wine is a victim of its success as a tourist destination and brand. Italian wine in the American market most often is easy drinking and simple, perhaps evoking our own nostalgic impressions of la Dolce Vita.
But behind that ocean of pleasantly generic plonk, there are wines that will blow you away for a pittance. In many cases they are made from grapes rarely you’ve never heard of and have no marketing cache outside of their local region and village.
There are high-quality producers across Italy, just now finding US representation or working with direct importers to sell a limited amount of their wine on our shores. This is the incredible bounty increasingly available to drinkers.
I concede it takes effort to understand and find your niche with Italian wine and go beyond the widely distributed brands. It can be challenging to find value from Tuscany and Piedmont, though options still exist. I started this site to write about the best wines and grapes from Italy that you can seek out in your own wine drinking journey.