The Italian peninsula is a complex place. Descending from the Alpine north to the Mediterranean south, you encounter a rich variety of people who – while not ethnically diverse in any great way – display confusing and contrasting characteristics.
As with people, so with wine.
I always thought the fact that sums Italy up the most succinctly is that Sangiovese, Italy’s most widely planted grape has seventy one synonyms – all regional expressions of, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same grape.
Within this bamboozling array of different names you will find complex and beautiful Brunello di Montalcino, the rustic Puttanella and the obscure Patrimonio. Of course, what really put Sangiovese on the map was Tuscany’s Chianti; the red cherry and plumminess that grabbed the attention of wine drinkers in the 1960’s and 70’s with its memorable wicker encapsulated bottles and value for money “gluggability”.
For that reason, Italian wine is sometimes seen as being straightforward and easily accessible, providing “every day drinking”. But take a bit of care to look properly and you can find extraordinary complexity and choice on multiple levels.
That is what has engaged me the most over my time in the wine trade. In a vaguely masochistic way, I love that whenever you get cocky enough to think that you are beginning to crack it in knowing about Italian wine, it delivers a surprise that blows you to pieces, levelling any arrogance in a second. The consolation is that you can drink your sorrows away while learning your lesson in humility.
My odyssey into Italian wine started fifteen years ago in an attempt to spout knowledgeably at an interview. I didn’t get the job, most probably due to the fact that although I tried to convey my “understanding” of the aristocracy of Piedmontese Barolo and Amarone in the Veneto in the north, it was blatantly apparent to the prospective employer that I was really just winging it.
It inspired me to study more, moving from the accessible Montepulciano d’Abruzzos from Marche on the eastern seaboard to the highly cultured middle child of Tuscan Brunello di Montalcino, the “peasant” Primitivos of Puglia and Sicilian Nero d’Avola. And that’s just a few of the reds.
What has piqued my curiosity recently has been the stylistic differences that the Italian south can offer, especially the sweet or dessert, wine.
Some of Italy’s best dessert wines come from the Mediterranean island Pantelleria, a volcanic outcrop one hundred and eighty kilometres south-west of Sicily and just sixty clicks east of Tunisia.
Italy, in my humble opinion, delivers the best “bang for your buck” one can find in the wine world. The full portfolio of tastes is available there, from crisp light white Fianos to silky, powerful Negroamaros.
Don’t just take my word for it. Explore Italian wine and begin a romance. You might find – like me – that you’re still enamoured many years later.