Let me roam twisting, narrow cobblestone streets, hillsides planted with ancient vines that know romantic Italian names I can never hope to pronounce. Give me a slice of crusty focaccia, some golden olive oil, a chunk of goat cheese from Piedmont and a bottle of a brave Italian wine.
Okay, I know this is far too poetic and sentimental, but Italy's one of my favorite countries. Its fragrant, traditional foods haven't changed much over the past millennia, and its table wines are often rich, profound and smooth. Italian winemakers are still passionate, individualistic and dedicated artisans whose craft is activity rooted in daily satisfaction and a history of 3000 years. Who can resist any of this?
Ninety percent of Italian wines are made with uniquely Italian fruit. Almost two-thirds is red, coming from hundreds of private varietals you won't find elsewhere. The most important red grape is sangiovese, which is especially prominent in dry, hot Tuscany, where it's the base grape for the most common quaffing-quality wine, Chianti. Sangiovese also produces the voluptuous, deeply sensuous Brunello di Montalcino and its sister, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
The second most important grape is barbera, the dark, acidic red of Piedmont and other regions. Nebbiolo, Italy's third grape, creates the heavyweight Barolo and Barbaresco wines that've given Piedmont such fame. Also important is the Beaujolais-style varietal dolcetto.
There's a new trend among Italian winemakers - a trend toward experimenting with varietals the rest of the world knows all too well...cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay and pinot noir -- but when in Rome, it's still best to do as the Romans do. After all, Italian grapes are what make Italian wines so great!
As for Italy's whites -- pinot grigio, trebbiano, vernaccia, malvasia and moscato -- they haven't reached much fame. Not yet. But here's another trend to watch for. Some say that from Italy's lesser-known regions, Campania in the south among them, cool whites already belong to the world's finest, and it's just a matter of time 'til we all discover them.
Since we're talking trends, Italian winemakers are tapping into the ever-more competitive export market, building on the increased popularity of Italian wines. Wines from some of the lesser-known appellations are getting better and better. This isn't necessarily the case with those from the established wine regions. And all Italian wines, regardless of their origin, are rapidly increasingly in price.
Let's look at the Italian appellations, which do their best to define and classify the enormous, unruly vineyard that is Italy. In general, Italian appellations aim to follow the same pattern as in France, with smaller areas producing supposedly better wines within larger areas with more generic products. Italy's 2,000-plus labels follow a newly organized pattern in which a wine is named after the region, mentions the appellation status and gives equal importance to the name of the producer.
To understand the labyrinth of 20 regions and close to 300 appellations, you need to consider Italy's history, the Mediterranean temperament and the rigidity of relatively new rules and regulations.
Italy is the world's largest wine producer. Its vines sprawl from mountains to seas in one contiguous sweep of hills, valleys and plains. Wine, for Italians, is part of daily life -- a staple, like bread. Before government regulations were imposed, the character of wines used to vary, of course, from region to region. But in every village a few dedicated artists produced superb, intelligent wines, simply for the love of it. Thankfully the artist spirit survives, though here's what today's winemakers are up against:
After millennia of a wine culture tradition, the Italian government decided to follow the example of other wine countries and gradually imposed -- as of 1963 -- an elaborate set of rules and regulations to control minimum standards, production and profits. Originally it defined just two controlled classes: Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG): 18 elite zones within the approximately 300 DOCs.
In 1992 the laws were tightened even further because the Italians flat-out refused to be pigeonholed like that. The new system, however well-intended, warrants a rural, uneventful tradition and guarantees a certain consistency among wines from a delineated area. But it leaves out the artist who excels at his craft and severely restricts the exciting efforts of passionate winemakers eager to improve their wines to the level of world-class creations.
Faithful to their freedom of expression, these artisan winemakers cannot claim DOC or DOCG status. According to the rules, their great wines - some among Italy's best - must be marketed and labeled as generic table wines, Vino di Tavola. Thus the stellar wines belong to the same class as Italy's inferior wines - some of the country's worst.
To acknowledge part of the problem and to alleviate the confusion, the government's come up with two newer categories:
* Indicazione Geografica Tipica, (IGT): Gives recognition to many of the best table wines but imposes certain limitations. These wines are labeled with the name of the varietal, and vintners must use only that specific grape and grow and harvest it according to certain rules. IGTs are great, affordable wines, but you must find your way through them by tasting.
* Vigna wines: Specific, proud vineyards within DOCG zones have taken the conventional standard to the top and are now acknowledged for their undeniably superior wines.
So what can be said about Italy's 20 wine regions to provide you with some kind of roadmap? First of all, most of what you'll find in U.S. stores is from three regions only:
Piedmont: In western Italy, this free-spirited, diverse region with innumerable varietals and styles has more DOC zones than any other and produces the sensuous, velvety, world-famous nebbiolo wines in Barolo and Barbaresco.
Veneto: Close to Venice at the Adriatic Sea and bordering the Alps in Austria, these hilly vineyards -- with well-known appellations such as Soave, Valpolicella and Bardolino -- produce more wine than any other region. From here comes vast amounts of easy-going wines made with Italian-only varietals.
Tuscany: In the heart of Italy, growing olives alongside vines, this old countryside is home to Chianti. Made with 75 percent sangiovese, Chianti leaves lots of varietal playroom for big quality differences by the region's producers. The DOCG Chianti Classico must be pure sangiovese, however.
But there are developments elsewhere which may shift the balance soon. The uninterrupted, anonymous vineyards of Abruzzi and Apulia produce thousands of gallons of excellent wine that improve cheap blends elsewhere in the world. Here's an area worth watching for emerging high-quality table wines. Campania, the region surrounding Naples and Sorrento in the south, is finally taking advantage of fertile volcanic soils and a temperate sea climate. Cool whites in this region made from the greco grape are pushing to world-wide recognition fast.
While you may not see too many labels around your local shop from Italy's lesser known regions, when you get to Europe, by all means roam the twisting streets and fertile hillsides to explore Italy's brave and sensual wines! And write some poetry while you're at it.