Italy's Anniversary Wines

Lift a glass to 150 years of unification with red and white blends from 20 regions.
Italy's Anniversary Wines

Italy’s honor is its food and wine.

But in the coming year when Italian President Giorgio Napolitano needs a wine to pour on very special occasions or a gift bottle to a visiting head of state, the wine of choice will not be Italy’s best-tasting wines but its most symbolic wine and perhaps most politically correct.

This year, Italy celebrates the 150th anniversary of its unification as a nation in 1861. In honor of this, last year President Napolitano agreed to a proposal by Ettore Riello, president of Veronafiere and Vinitaly, the country’s massive trade fair held each spring in Verona, to create two special commemorative wines — one white, one red, each blending the signature white and the signature red grapes of each of the country’s 20 different political regions.

He was presented the two wines this past weekend in New York while visiting the United Nations. They were to be poured at special events involving the president.

Mama mia! Imagine the political headaches and winemaking challenges in putting together such wines!

Here’s how it went: Each region chose what it considered its primary autochthonous (native) red and white grape, and each region made two basic wines — the white from the 2009 vintage and the red, which would have some wood aging, from vintages from 2005 to 2009. These 20 red and 20 white base wines were then blended in Verona under the aegis of the Italian Association of Enologists and briefly aged in the bottles. No big winemaking names, so no bruised egos.

Special bottles were designed — the white somewhat in the shape of a Burgundy bottle with a green capsule and the red a squatter version with rounded shoulders and a red capsule. Labels are small with wax seals, and they undoubtedly do not include pregnancy and other health warnings.

“I’ve not even tasted the wine,” says Stevie Kim, Vinitaly senior adviser, “but I asked Giuseppe Martelli [head of the enologists’ group], and he said they tasted good. I would have asked if they were even drinkable!”

There were lots of interesting grape choices by the regions. Piedmont, for example, picked the more common Barbera as its red over the more prestigious Nebbiolo, which isn’t represented in the mix. The ubiquitous Pinot Grigio did not make the “Terrific 20” of whites. Not surprisingly, Tuscany chose Sangiovese as its red, but so did neighboring Emilia-Romagna, which is making a bid to challenge Tuscany on the quality of that variety. Both Apulia and Campania picked the white Fiano.

Then there are grapes that only the geekiest of wine geeks would know — Priè Blanc, Garganega, Croatina, Tintilia, Cesanese di Affile, and the wonderfully named Gaglioppo.

According to Kim, 1,500 standard bottles each of red and white were made along with a few larger-format bottles. “None was made for commercial purposes,” Kim said, although noting that sooner or later some gift might find its way to the auction market. Which means that, unless you have some political or trade-related pull, you won’t get to taste them.

There is no word yet on whether Robert Parker or the wine magazines will find ways to give ratings and suggest matching foods. Or whether someone will make a Super-Italian by blending in Chardonnay or Merlot.