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Delhi Wine Club

Posted: Wednesday, 11 August 2010 16:39

ITALY: Kal, Aaj aur Kal

Italy’s wine culture goes back as far as the Etruscans, yet it is only in the last quarter century that it has made leaps and bounds in quality winemaking and though by far the most complex, it is the richest and most exciting wine producing country, writes Michèle Shah, looking at Kal-Aaj aur Kal-Past, Present and Future while taking us through a journey through different  wine regions.

Past and Present

Ammirato Wine Oil Italian Flavors


Even as far back as forty years ago, when Italy was still predominantly an agricultural land, wine was produced in quantity and consumed as part of the daily staple diet.

Over the last two decades, Italy’s winemakers have been filled by boundless optimism. New estates, new wines, and new money have been invested in emerging areas, not to mention continuous improvements in wines already on the market place.  Various factors have contributed to what has been a remarkable improvement in quality over the past few decades.  A new generation of dynamic winemakers has combined inherited know-how with technical innovation, Clonal research and vineyard management.

Carlo Ferrini- Consultant

“This research has been critical to quality improvement,” stresses winemaker consultant Carlo Ferrini.  “Italy, however, still needs to carry out more scientific research.  We need an authority in Viticulture, like Bordeaux University.  Research is more or less left to the individual producer to carry out his own massal and clonal research.”

The most important changes have come from the greater class found in Italy’s traditional wines - led by the classic reds of Piedmont and Tuscany, and the elegant whites of Friuli.  Today these regions are still looked upon as innovators of quality. More recently a new surge from the south led by Sicily, followed by Campania, Abruzzi with Puglia and Sardinia close behind, are seen as dynamic forward regions.  Their sun-blessed Mediterranean climate yielding fruit-forward wines with structure are able to relate quality to quantity and maintain lower prices, producing wines which can compete successfully with the growing category of New World style of wines.

Yet this surge of enthusiasm now inevitably calls for restraint and realism. The so-called international varieties – Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc have staked an important place in the vineyards, and even more significant achievements have come from the many native varieties that yield wines of unique and inimitable taste, personality and style. Blends of the two have given some fascinating wines of great class, but the number of international- indigenous combinations seems endless and while none can blame Italy’s winemakers for wanting to exploit the possibilities to the full, maybe the country is near the point where it explodes from an abundance of wines, drowning the spectator in a sea of names.

Regions, Varieties and Appellations

Italy is by far the most complex, yet at the same time, the richest and most exciting wine producing country.  The sheer diversity of its wines stems from 350 registered indigenous grape varieties, spread over twenty regions of production, each with their individual styles, unique ‘terroir’ and microclimate.  With this vast plethora, Italy is in a position to offer the consumer something different and exciting, as well as having the potential to reverse the growing trend of the globalization and standardization of wine. 

The other side of the coin is that such a variety of wines from so many sources does not assist effective marketing and can be confusing to the consumer.  Italy’s wine panorama is to say the least incomprehensible and awesome to the consumer.  The market sector is led by its hundreds of appellations with their individual grape varieties.

Still today where Brands lead most markets, Italy has virtually no real Brand so to speak of. The country’s classified wines are designated DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) or DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) and IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica. To summarize, there are almost 350 different appellations divided between docg, doc and igt.

Market Trends

Life styles are changing rapidly throughout the world, consequently, so is the production of wine.  Wine is a commodity which needs to adapt its profile to fit in with the ‘life style’ of this present era, without forgetting its ancient roots.

The unique selling point of Italian wines is the diversity, unbeaten by any other country; the overall improvement in quality in recent years; the willingness of consumers to try new products, supported by influential wine journalists, together with the promotional focus on regional wines and food, which are key points in understanding current market trends.

According to the Renzo Cotarella, one of the most respected winemakers of Italy, working as General Manager with Antinori for 30 years, the phase of powerful, anonymous, pumped-up muscular wines or soft, flabby, sweet wine is no longer in vogue.  “Today’s consumer is looking for a wine that is not overly concentrated and that can express ‘terroir’ and personality.  It is important to use our ‘diversity’ as a point of difference, yet at the same time produce wines which please the consumer,” says Cotarella.

Indigenous varieties versus international varieties are a hotly debated issue.   “Indigenous wines are important, but our top wines other than Brunello and Barolo are Bordeaux blends, such as Ornellaia, San Leonardo and Sassicaia,” comments Ferrini. 

Southern Italy in particular Sicily and Campania are probably the two most exciting emerging southern stars, especially with northern estates investing in the south bringing in established expertise, know-how and a modern, dynamic approach to exports.

Other estates, such as Planeta from the south realize the importance of their indigenous Nero d’Avola, capitalizing on its market appeal.  “Sicily has emerged thanks to research in improving the quality of its indigenous varieties such as Nero d’Avola.  Speaking for Planeta and Settesoli we have chosen to concentrate both on international and indigenous varieties,” comments Francesca Planeta.

Italy’s indigenous vines and wines

Globalization and standardization are inevitably conducive to stagnation in today’s world of wine production.  Italy’s winning card is its diversity and its plethora of indigenous grape varieties unique to each region.

This places Italy in a position to offer the consumer something different and exciting, as well as having the potential to reverse the growing trend of globalization.

However, in spite of this variety and diversity, many of Italy’s critically acclaimed wines are produced from non-indigenous varietals. Italian producers find it difficult to escape the dilemma of being channelized into producing something ‘familiar’ and ‘sellable’ for their commercial markets, rather than different and challenging.

Northern Italy

The chain of granite Dolomites surrounding Alto Adige creates a perfect microclimate for the region’s indigenous red varieties such as Lagrein, a deep garnet red, with round soft tannins and the lighter Schiava or St Maddalena which is 90% Schiava and 10% Lagrein.

J. Hofstätter, one of Alto Adige’s historic estates founded in 1907 in Termeno (Tramin) claims that the indigenous Traminer originated in Tramin. As with many Alto Adige producers his vines spread over 50 hectares and seven estates.

“Our objective is to look to the future and make our wines more accessible to our consumers and distributors,” says Martin Foradori, new generation owner and sales director of Hofstätter.  Foradori has blended several mono-varietal labels in both reds and whites into Cuvée wines, while leaving the best selections to be made into single vineyard wines, such as their indigenous Pinot Noir, single vineyard Barthenau, Vinga S. Urbano and their Gewürztraminer and Pinot Bianco, wines exporting well to UK.

‘Indigenous vines are important,’ stresses Hans Terzer, winemaker of the cooperative St Michael Appian with 350 members. “It’s necessary to distinguish between the important ones and less important varieties.”

According to Terzer, not all Italian indigenous varieties have a strong enough profile to be vinified as a mono-varietal. They often need the rounder, fuller, fleshier and more structured international varietal to give the right balance to the wine.

Veneto’s Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, Molinara Negrar, Ozeleto, Rossignolo and Garganega are the backbone of red Valpolicella and Soave’s indigenous white wines. 

Valpolicella has always had its backbench of quality minded-traditional producers such as Allegrini, Masi Speri, Tedeschi, and Bertani, along with a new generation of winemakers such as Accordini, Bussola, Brigaldara, Dal Forno, Zenato and a host of others.

“We have always believed in indigenous wines,” says Paolo Speri “Our native wines may not do so well in blind tastings, but indigenous varieties represent our cultural identity and this is what appeals to our consumers.”

Livio Felluga’s Friuli estate with 135 hectares and a production of 800.000 bottles produces blends, such as Sharjs (Chardonnay - Ribolla Gialla) and Vertigo (Merlot -Cabernet Sauvignon).  Top labels, Terre Alte and Sasso only indicate the territory of production – Rosazzo - which according to Felluga is more important to identify rather than the grape variety.

“Let’s not forget that the profile of a wine does not only depend on the variety, it’s the climate, the terrain and man that give a vine and a wine it’s imprint,” says Andrea Felluga.  “Indigenous needs to be treated with care, many varieties were abandoned in the past because they were considered not interesting, the so-called international varieties such as Merlot and Pinot Grigio today play a part in our Friulian indigenous varieties.”

According to Claudio Alario, Piedmont has a head start with its native Nebbiolo, the basis of Barolo and Barbaresco, wines which have been exported for almost a century.  Piedmont’s wealth of indigenous grapes includes some incisive varieties with individual character, such as Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Freisa, Nascetta and Pelaverga.

“Growing indigenous grapes is costlier, one needs to invest in clonal research for the best species,” says Alario. “The reward is that if you do a good job, indigenous varieties are unique in character and taste.”

The king of Piedmont wines is Barolo. However, Fabio Alessandria of Comm. G. B Burlotto, a small 60.000 bottle producer assures that even a less structured Pelaverga or a Dolcetto offer a completely unique experience.

Central Italy

Leading the helm, Tuscany’s Sangiovese ranks among some of the world’s top wines.  Historically Chianti has always been a careful blending of Sangiovese and other varieties – often using more structured wines from the south.

According to Luigi Folonari, MD of Ruffino, Sangiovese is a difficult variety, which if not favourably exposed, can benefit from a small percentage of international grapes, such as Shiraz. “I am not in favour of blending ‘per se’, as this could lead to an ‘illusion’ of what is not really the true character of a Sangiovese.  As ‘Old World’ producers, we have a duty to carry forward a tradition.  If we are going to use Merlot or Cabernet, we must declare it, to avoid creating a ‘false’ concept of an ‘Italian’ indigenous style of wine.” 

Moving south to Umbria, Grechetto, Sangiovese, Gamay, Canaiolo, Trebbiano and other varieties form part of it’s territorial wealth and identity.  According to Umbrian born enologist consultant, Riccardo Cotarella, indigenous Sangiovese produces excellent reds in Umbria, but at the same time he acknowledges a surge in quality of wines with international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, such as Sportoletti’s Villa Fidelia and Pieve del Vescovo’s Piovano and Lucciao and his own Falesco estate wines.

‘Looking at white wines on a global basis, I am convinced that there are few international wines that can compete on a quality/price ratio with Orvieto wines, characterized by their simple, but pleasurable fragrant, mineral quality,’ explains Renzo Cotarella, CEO of Marchesi Antinori.

Sagrantino a niche wine constituting a mere 5% of Umbria’s total production is by far the trendiest and most exciting driving force of Umbria produced as a mono-varietal Sagrantino DOCG along with the Montefalco Rosso DOC. “Sagrantino is 100% indigenous,” says Giampaolo Tabarrini, small Sagrantino producer in Montefalco. “It has taken centuries for this variety to adapt to the local conditions.  It is unique to Montefalco and it is very unlikely that it could grow in different climatic areas, yet it is the winemaker who interprets the variety, adding a touch of his own personality.”

Characterized by tough, small-berried fruit, its tannic structure averaging 14% alcohol was, in the past, vinified to make Passito wines.  It is only in recent years that low yields of Sagrantino have been vinified in the dry version making it a wine which in good years can age well up to 25 years and more.

As one descends further south, towards the Abruzzi Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, characteristically a purple black grape, produces a fruity wine with international appeal. With good vineyard management and good ‘terroir’, the grapes give intense colour, ripe fruit, structure and soft tannins.”

Southern Italy and Islands

Looking ahead in Italy today signifies looking southward, to its southern regions of Sicily, Puglia, Campania and emerging regions such as Basilicata and Sardinia.

Southern Italy’s favourable microclimate and terrain, in many ways similar to that of ‘New World’ countries is able to compete by producing ripe, full-bodied wines with soft supple tannins for easy consumer appeal.  As the market evolves and tires of ‘international standardization’, southern Italy’s trump card, if played well is the export of its indigenous wines, either as mono-varietals or blended to international varieties.

Structured southern reds include Negroamaro, Nero D’Avola, Primitivo, Aglianico, Canonau and Carignano, while main whites include Falanghina, Greco di Tufo, Fiano di Avellino Vermentino, Vernaccia and Inzolia.

Aglianico is one of the main southern varieties coming from three areas: DOCG area of Taurasi, Taburno DOC and Vulture DOC, situated in the regions of Campania and Basilicata.  It is complex to cultivate and can be harsh, unforgiving and reserved, reaching full ripeness with extreme difficulty. Due to the high acidity the tannins are often difficult to manage.  Yet, if tamed it makes a structured, complex, aristocratic age-worthy wine.

Ten years ago Aglianico’s traditional producers could be counted on one hand: Mastroberardino, Struzziero, Paternoster, D’Angelo and Ocone. Today emerging and established estates such as, Feudi di San Gregorio, Terredora, Caggiano, Cantina del Notaio and GIV constitute some of the region’s key players, while the larger cooperatives, Cantina del Taburno and Cantina di Venosa have the numbers as well as the quality to muscle their way into the market.

“Aglianico, Fiano and Greco are the backbone of our historical heritage and remain our flagship wines,” explains Piero Mastroberardino, MD of Mastroberardino, Campania’s historic estate, established in1878. “To produce indigenous mono-varietal wines takes courage, often the addition of international varieties helps in promoting these to new markets and encourage consumers.”

What is fundamental, according to Alessio Planeta is clonal and massal research on indigenous varieties “There are some wonderful native grapes just as there are some useless ones,” stresses Planeta “We need to experiment and evaluate the potential of a variety to get the best results in the vineyard and winery.”

Crossing over to the island of Sardinia, excellent wines can be found throughout the island.  Model cooperative Santadi produces vibrant Carignano del Sulcis and Vermentino.  Quality producer Argiolas, a 300 hectare estate with 2.5 million bottles produces a top label Turriga, a premium sapid blend of Cannonau, Bovale, Carignano and Malvasia Nera.  Paolo Contini’s 80 hectares estate with a 600,000 bottle production is considered the island’s top Vernaccia producer.

While on the eastern coastline the Alberto Loi winery at Ogliastra, is considered the most celebrated area for the production of the Cannonau wine, a robust wine which expresses its individuality and natural biodiversity with audacity and power.

Michèle Shah

Michèle Shah is a Tuscany-based British Wine Critic specialising in Italian wines. She won the Grandi Cru d’Italia best international journalist award 2009. She is an Export Consultant on Italian Wines and Advisor & Coordinator for Winett Taste & Trade. She may be contacted at


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