When we think of Italy, we think of a history long steeped in an inherently Italian culture. The truth is, Italy as we know it didn't exist before 1861 (Tiffany & Co. Has been around since 1837 for those who enjoy trivia). Rule under the Holy Roman Empire, the rise and fall of city-states, being spilt up again after the Italian wars and absorbed into various territories in Europe, and the eventual rule (and defeat) under Napoleon finally led to an idea of the nation state in the late 19th century which formed the Kingdom of Italy. And keep in mind this was all after 962 A.D. (Before that was far more turbulent).
Here we will give a quick, but informative view of some of the major areas of Italy, which may very well lead to your own continuation of study – and tasting.
The real start of Italy came when King Victor Emanuel II when he attacked Austria with the help of Prussia (the Third Italian war of Independence) - the attack began from the region of Piedmont (as does our first wine of the night).
Piemonte is 'the foot of the mountains' in Italian. Bordering France and Italy, it houses some of the most Notorious winemaking areas, only 30% of the region is suitable for grape growing. Soil content differs within the region - western soils are laden with calcium-rich marl, producing wines with more finesse and quickened aging potential. Soils from the east and more sandy and iron rich, producing heavier, more deeply structured wines. Besides Arneis and Barbera, this region produces the varietals Dolcetto, Cortese, Bonarda, Erbaluce, Freisa, Grignolino, and of course, Nebbiolo. There are many more, but then again, there always are in Italy :)
Next up is Veneto in the Northeast. Going back a step, even though the campaign on Austria wasn't successful for the King, they did gain Veneto as a result - so that's something. Before that, they were an independent state for more than a millennia, ruling over one of the biggest trade empires of the world at the time. After the Napoleonic wars they were handed over to Austria (and we know how that worked out). The soil in Veneto is silty and sandy, with some areas having thick volcanic soil, clay, and calcareous debris. Other varietals to look out for are Verduzzo, Vespaiolo, Valpolicella Blends (Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara), and Marzemino - to name a few.
We could have done this entire class on Tuscany alone. That being said, we are going to focus on the Chianti Classico subregion. This area was the original Chianti region, as time went on its wines became the ambassadors for all Italian wines. When that happened, it was decided that the land would be expanded. Seven subregions were added over the years - Chianti (Base level), Colli Fiorentini, Chanti Rufina, Colli Arentini, Colli Senesi, Colli Pisane, Montalbano, and Montespertoli. The soil content varies from Albarese (sandstone) in the South, to Galestro (chalky marl stone) in the North.
Historically speaking, the world has had its hands all over Puglia. First colonized by the Greeks, it had been occupied by the Samnites, Romans, Carthagnians, Norman's, Spain, Austria, Turks, Venetians, Barbary Pirates, the French, and of course became part of the Italian Kingdom in 1861. This has made Puglia one of the most archeologically rich areas in all of Italy. The land is hot and flat, grape growing is able to occur due to the constant cooling wind form the Adriatic Sea. The soil is mostly soft clay - making the wines very juicy, yet rustic. Negromaro is the main grape in this region, with others such as Alglianico, Malvesia Nera, Montepilciano, Bambino, and Fiano making the occasional appearance.
And finally, we have come to Sicily. Many arguments occur over who are the 'True' Italians, some Sicilians of the older generations still call the mainland Italians 'Southern Austrians'. Sicily is warm, surrounded by cool sea air, and amazing for grape growing. The history of Sicily is not unlike Puglia - settled by Phoenicians and Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs, Norman's, And Spain. The mid 1800's saw the formation of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and in 1946 during Italian unification finally gained status as an Autonomous region.
Sicily is also home to Mount Etna, Etna is Phoenician for 'Furnace or Chimney' depending on interpretation. Either way 'hot as hell' is the current theme. It's the tallest volcano on the European continent, and is almost constantly active. But besides placing the nearby inhabitants in imminent danger on a regular basis, Etna gives the soil its volcanic ash. Volcanic soil (the most common is called Jory) has an almost glassy appearance, and is comprised mostly of Basalt. It is rich in calcium, iron and magnesium - which give the wines a great minerality. Potash and phosphate is also given off during the process - which is fantastic for any agriculture (and the reason people live there in the first place).The soil imparts more red fruit, floral notes, and spice characteristics than other soils.
There are, of course, more regions, and perhaps we’ll touch on those next week. But for now, enjoy finding and tasting some new and delicious wines. We hope we have opened a door for some of you.