With over 50 liters per person per year, Italy is one of the largest wine consumers in the world. It goes without saying that wine is deeply entrenched in Italian culture. Wine is standard on the dinner table of every family and it’s generally not seen as a decadent treat, but rather as a noble complement to the meal, at par with bread. And, right next to bread, wine is even “sanctified” by being an important part of the Catholics celebrations.
Even though Italians are exposed to wine from the time they are very young, children are generally not attracted to it. This is partly due to the fact that table wines tend to be an acquired taste, and arguably also because the wine’s appeal is demystified by its wide availability. As a result, generally, there is no need for the law to regulate wine commercialization or consumption based on age. Anybody can buy wine (or any other type of alcohol, for that matter) in regular grocery shops and supermarkets. The young generations, however, are nowadays getting more and more attracted to wine in a phenomenon that has seen the rebirth of ‘enoteche’. Literally meaning wine cellars, enoteche are wine-tasting bars that offer wine by the glass or by the bottle, usually along with cold cuts and cheese.
The passion for wine is big in most Italians, but excluding professional winemakers almost no Italian is interested in making their own – certainly, there are no wine kits available! This is because winemaking is considered a challenging process that is usually not worth the effort, given that in Italy basic wines are inexpensive and generally far more pleasing (to the refined average palate) than any amateur wines. Some people, however, order large quantities of wine from the makers and have it delivered to their homes by tanker. They usually store it in their own demijohns and then fill one flask at a time, or bottle it in glass bottles meant to be reused. This is a relatively common practice in certain areas, both and as a hobby and to save money on an item of everyday consumption, as wine is.
As we were saying, winemaking is complex. The process starts with the preparation of the grapes, which is different for red and for white wines. To make red wine, black or red grapes are machine crushed (no one stomps on the grapes with their feet anymore!) and allowed to have a first fermentation along with their skins. White wine is instead fermented grape juice, extracted by pressing grapes and discarding the skins. As a result, it’s technically possible to make white wines out of red grapes, though generally, this is not the case. Rosé wines are made by extracting juice from red grapes while allowing a minimal contact with their skins (and absolutely not by mixing red and white wines!) The reason why the skin makes so much difference lies in its high content of polyphenols, compared to the grape’s pulp. Not only do polyphenols affect the flavor and the color of the wine, but they are also responsible for the tannins (and the astringent mouthfeel that they bring). Polyphenols also act as antioxidants with a stabilizing effect that allows red wines to age far longer than any white wines.
The first fermentation starts when yeast is added to convert the sugars into ethanol (and CO2, which is released into the air), a process that usually takes a couple of weeks. If this transformation is incomplete, some of the sugars contained in the grapes remain in the must and the resulting wine will be sweet (the fermentation can be interrupted by lowering the temperature or by adding chemicals to kill the yeast). Wines then undergo a second fermentation: a bacterial process meant to reduce the wine’s acidity. White wines are generally fermented in stainless steel containers, whereas reds can be transferred to wood kegs to absorb additional flavors. To obtain sparkling wines, a third fermentation takes place inside of the bottle, where CO2 is trapped.
Because of their different composition, red wines and white wines have unique properties and different uses. White wines usually have a lower percentage of alcohol (10-12%), they are consumed slightly chilled (around 10 °C) and are paired up with appetizers, delicate first courses, white meats, and particularly fish and seafood. Red wines have instead generally higher alcohol content (11-14%), they are consumed at room temperature, or slightly below it (around 18 °C) and are paired up with strong first courses, aged cheeses, and red meats. Both white and red wines are also fundamental in cooking, and, generally, they are not interchangeable.
Most commercial wines are sold “ready to drink” and are not meant to be stored for a long time. Aging wine is a very difficult process that requires perfect conditions of temperature and humidity, conditions that can’t be easily achieved without proper equipment or environment. Storing wine is instead relatively easy: wine bottles should be kept away from direct sunlight and laying on their side to keep the cork wet (a dry cork will shrink and let some air into the bottle). Once opened, some wines need to rest briefly in a decanter both to allow sediments to deposit and to promote some “aeration.” Though slightly controversial, aeration is considered beneficial to “soften” strong red wines, reducing the harshness of their tannins. Aeration is generally not recommended for white wines and more delicate reds as it may disperse some of their aromas and is never recommended for sparkling wines.
Wine is best appreciated in proper stemware. The stem allows the wine to maintain its temperature by ensuring minimal contact with the hand of the person holding it. Red wines are generally served in larger glasses, with wide openings to allow for more aeration (large surface of contact between wine and air). White wines require less aeration and are usually tasted in taller, narrower glasses that also help the wine better maintain its temperature. Sparkling wines are instead served in very narrow and tall glasses (called flûtes) to reduce the contact with the air and keep the bubbles inside and towards the nose of the person drinking it.
Before introducing a list of the main Italian wines, let’s go over the denominations recognized by law:
- Table wines that don’t follow naming regulations. Generally, these are lower quality wines where the grape and the year of production are not indicated on the label. In some cases, however, table wines can have very high quality and be sought by connoisseurs that don’t need any official certifications.
- IGT – Table wines with Indicazione Geografica Tipica. The grapes are certified to come from a geographical area where the named grape is typical. Currently, there are about 120 wines under this category.
- DOC – Wines with Denominazione di Origine Controllata. The exact location of the origin is certified. In Italy, there are currently about 300 DOC wines.
- DOCG – Wines with Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. The designation of origin is certified and guaranteed. Currently, only 35 wines belong to this category.
The law also specifies which qualifiers can be appended to the name and their exact meanings:
- When a wine’s name contains the word ‘Classico‘ (e.g. Chianti Classico), the wine is guaranteed to be made in the core of its typical region. All ‘Classico’ wines are DOC or DOCG.
- The word ‘Riserva‘ can only be used on wines that have been aged more than the time strictly required by their denomination. The label must show the year of production.
- When a wine’s label shows the word ‘Novello‘, the wine is guaranteed to have been bottled within the end of the year of when (at least 30% of) its grapes have been harvested. The label must show the year of the vintage.
- The qualifier ‘Superiore‘ can only be used to indicate a wine whose alcohol level is greater by at least 1% than the minimum established for its designation.
Finally, here is a list of some of the most renowned Italian wines. Many of them are named after the grapes that they are made of (highlighted in bold). Some other wines, instead, have their own unique names, usually to reflect their areas of origin.
Vin Santo, dessert wine usually made with Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes, e.g.: Vin Santo del Chianti [DOC], Vin Santo del Chianti Classico [DOC], Vin Santo di Montepulciano [DOC] -Tuscany-. The name ‘santo’ (which means holy in Italian) possibly comes from the fact that it was typically used during the mass. The wine’s elevated sugars and alcohol level is obtained by allowing the grapes to dry out before fermenting. A common way to enjoy Vin Santo is to pair it up with almond biscotti called Cantucci, according to the Tuscan tradition.