Italian Wine Regions
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Piedmont produces red wines of equal (some would say superior) quality to those of Tuscany, especially the two giants made from the nebbiolo grape, barolo and barbaresco, which come from the Langhe region around the city of Alba. These wines are big and tannic, with little fruit apparent in their youth (at least in the traditional-style versions), but can develop great elegance and complexity with age. They are considered an apt accompaniment to Piedmont's other great gastronomic treasure, white truffles (though, curiously, good vintage years for barolo and barbaresco are usually bad years for truffles, and vice versa). The barbera and dolcetto grapes produce excellent wines, juicy and full-bodied, in various parts of the region, with barbera d'Alba and barbera d'Asti being particularly well-regarded. A famous spumante (sparkling wine) is made in Asti, from muscat grapes. White wines in the region are considered less distinguished, but there are some very agreeable ones, produced from cortese, arneis, and other local grapes. As with most parts of Italy, in recent decades, many international varieties have been planted here, among them chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, and syrah, some of them producing wines of great quality.
The German-speaking part of Italy (once part of Austria), the region known as Trentino-Alto Adige — or Südtirol — produces white wines of high quality, from grapes including pinot grigio (the region is home to the ubiquitous Santa Margherita bottling of that grape), chardonnay, riesling, sylvaner, müller-thurgau, and gewürztraminer (named in part for the Südtirol village of Tramin). These wines tend to be bright, clean, and pleasantly acidic, with plenty of fruit. Red wines are generally less distinguished, but some interesting and unusual ones are made from varieties all but unknown in other parts of Italy, like largein, schiava (called trollinger in Germany), and teroldego rotaliano, as well as more familiar cultivars such as cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. There is also good sparkling wine produced by traditional methods in the region, some of it based on chardonnay. The vineyards of the Südtirol are some of the most precipitous, and beautifully situated, in Europe.
Widely considered to produce Italy's best white wines, this wine region in northeastern Italy, abutting Austria and Slovenia, is divided into four zones: Collio, Colli Orientali del Friuli, Isonzo, and Carso. Collio is largely white wine country, employing such varieties as friulano (known as tocai friulano before the 2006 vintage), ribolla gialla, and malvasia istriana, as well such more familiar grapes at chardonnay, pinot grigio, pinot bianco (pinot blanc), and sauvignon blanc (called simply sauvignon here). The wines are typically high in acid, with intense concentrations of varietal fruit. The same varieties are grown in Colli Orientali del Friuli, as is another local grape, verduzzo, and a fragile cultivar called picolit, used for a well-regarded dessert wine. The region also yields a considerable quantity of lean but fruity red wine, with merlot being particularly successful, though there is also cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and a host of regional varieties unknown elsewhere — among them pignolo, schioppettino, tazzelenghe, and refosco dal peduncolo rosso. Isonzo and Carso are less important in the international wine market. Isonzo produces a pleasant sparkling pinot bianco, a range of table wines both dry and semi-sweet from a wide range of regional and imported grapes, and a late-harvest white wine often made from gewürztraminer, though other varieties are also used. Carso, on the Istrian Peninsula, is best-known for red wines made from the indigenous terrano grape and for whites based on malvasia istriana.
Famous worldwide for three wines above all — soave, valpolicella, and amarone della valpolicella (usually called simply amarone) — is one of the largest wine regions in Italy, and the country's largest producer of DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata — the Italian version of the appellation system) wines. Soave can be of ordinary table wine quality (as with the big-name brands) or a fresh, medium-bodied white of some complexity, often with a distinctive nutty character. The main grape is garganega, with pinot bianco, chardonnay, and a local clone of trebbiano, as well as a number of lesser-known varieties, permitted in smaller quantities. Valpolicella is fruity red (cherries are often invoked to describe the flavor) made from local varieties, principally corvina, along with molinara, rondinella, and others. Valpolicella's big brother, amarone, is a dry, high-alcohol, often raisiny-tasting red made from late-harvested grapes dried for three to four months before vinification. Ripasso is a category of wine developed in the late 20th century, which has some of the characteristics of amarone but is lower in alcohol and somewhat lighter. It is made by adding the leftover grape skins and seeds from amarone production, or sometimes dried grapes themselves, to valpolicella and allowing them to macerate. Another red wine from the same region, bardolino, is made from the same grapes as valpolicella but is lighter in body, with fresher fruit. There is also a rosé called chiaretto. Bardolino has never achieved the international popularity of valpolicella. Imported grapes, including cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, have done well in the region, as well, and Italy's best and most plentiful prosecco (sparkling wine) comes from the Veneto regions of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, near Treviso. The main prosecco grape is glera (formerly known as prosecco itself), though pinot grigio and pinot bianco are also used.
In recent years, the wines of southern Italy, and particularly those of Puglia (also called Apulia) and Campania, have become increasingly popular in the United States and worldwide. Puglia is the so-called "heel" of the Italian boot. It produces ripe, earthy red wines from such grapes as negroamaro (whose name means bitter black), primitivo (which is in effect zinfandel), and nero di Troia. The best whites, fruity and honeyed, are made from fiano and bombino. The wines of Campania were popularized in the U.S. by Mastroberardino; these include distinctive, herbaceous whites made from such grapes as fiano, falanghina, and greco di tufo, and an excellent, refined red called taurasi, made from aglianico grapes. The evocatively named lacryma christi ("tears of Christ"), from Mount Vesuvius, is made in both white and red versions, from local grape varieties. Calabria — the so-called "toe" of the Italian boot — produces mostly earthy red wines, made primarily from a local variety called gaglioppo. The small region of Basilicata produces an appropriately small amount of wine, most famously the rich, ripe aglianico del vulture.
Wine is made all over this island just south of Corsica, off Italy's southwestern coast. The star among white wines is vermentino di Gallura, with its floral, tropical-fruit character, one of only four Italian whites deemed worthy of a DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, the highest level of Italian appellations). Vermentino produces good wines in other parts of the island, too, and there are notable plantings of malvasia and muscat. Grenache, under the local name cannonau, produces the island's best red wines, high in alcohol, deep red in color, and full in body. Carignano (carignan), cabernet sauvignon, and the southern Spanish grape bobal are also found.
One of the oldest wine regions in Europe, Sicily is known for a wide range of wines made in both traditional and modern styles. The island's most famous wine is marsala, a soft but full-flavored fortified wine — dry, sweet, or in-between — made from grillo and other local white varieties, or in some forms from Sicilian red grapes. A lesser-known sweet wine is zibibbo, made from the varietal of the same name (a muscat relative), with the grapes partially fermented in the sun; unlike marsala, it is not fortified. Until the latter part of the 20th century, most Sicilian table wines were overripe and fairly simple, but in recent decades, the local wine industry has modernized and vastly improved. The traditional white wine varieties, which tend to produce floral, spicy wines, include grillo, carricante, catarratto bianco, and grecanico. The most prominent red wine variety is nero d'Avola, which yields full-bodied, tannic, well-structured wines sometimes compared to syrahs, and there is some primitivo, as well as such Sicilian cultivars as perricone and nerello mascalese. Cabernet sauvignon has become popular in recent years, often blended with local grapes, thanks to the efforts of producers like Donnafugata, Planeta, Regaleali, and Corvo. Moscato di Pantelleria, made on the Sicilian small island of that name, about 50 miles off the coast of Tunisia, from muscat of Alexandria grapes, has something of a cult following.
Italy can make a claim that France and Spain can't: Wine is grown in every one of its administrative regions, from the Alps to within a hundred miles of North Africa. Wild vines flourished around "the Boot" for thousands of years; the ancient Greeks, who colonized Sicily and other parts of southern Italy, introduced viticulture. The Italian government today officially recognizes more than 350 grape varieties grown in various parts of the country, from aglianico to zibibbo. Many varieties are grown only in Italy, but Italian vineyards have also been hospitable to all the major international varieties. Wines of every kind — white, red, rosé, sweet, fortified, sparkling — are made, varying in quality from banal jug wine to some of the finest vintages in the world. Among the lesser-known regions for wine are the Valle d'Aosta, Liguria, Abruzzo (famous for the soft, dark montepulciano d'Abruzzo, made from the montepulciano grape), and Umbria (whose most famous wines are orvieto, a crisp white made mostly from grechetto and trebbiano; torgiano, yielding sturdy reds from mostly sangiovese and canaiolo and whites blended primarily from trebbiano and grechetto; and sagrantino, from the variety of that name, a spicy, earthy red that first gained international popularity.
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