Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk |

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

One recent evening, as I watched the Tour de France on the big screen while sipping a refreshingly soft pinot grigio, I began to wonder which nation would be most deserving of the Maillot jaune, or yellow jersey, if there were a competition for “best winemaking nation.”

It is a silly question of course, but summer evenings are made for rumination. And, while it might have been a combination of Riccardo Ricco’s magnificent climbing prowess and the subtle intoxication fostered by the pinot grigio, I began to make a case in my mind for Italy being the greatest wine nation on earth.

I began my argument with an Aspen adage that is, if anything, even more irrefutable in winemaking than it is in real estate: Location, location, location.

Italy occupies a space between the northern hemispheres’ 37th and 47th parallels, the sweet spot for fine wine. The country’s northernmost border lies on the southern edge of the mighty Alps and then narrows into a perfect peninsula, sloping south nearly to Africa. A spine of mountains running from north to south allows grapes to bask at altitude in the sun as they grow in the varied but always temperate climates.

The surrounding Ligurian, Tyrrhenian and the Adriatic Seas hug both sides of the peninsula, moderating any excessive heat with cooling breezes. The soils, a result of millions of years of volcanic upheaval, are dominated by ancient stone, clay and dirt and are ideal hosts for the vines that dominate the length of the nation. If you could design from scratch an optimal region for growing grapes it would be nearly impossible to improve on the geography and geology that nature has bestowed on “The Boot”.

And the grapes know it. According to The Italian Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MIRAF) there are some 350 varietals designated as legal for cultivation and sale as wine. But that is not the half of it. It is estimated that there are another 500-or-so separate and distinct varietals growing in Italy on more than 2 million acres of vineyards.

In fact around 20 percent of all the wine in the world is made each year in Italy, making it the second largest producer of wine behind France. Sangiovese, the grape found in Chianti wines, is predominant among Italy’s grapes but it accounts for just 11 percent of the nation’s production. Red varietals such as nebbiolo, barbera, montepulciano and dolcetto also thrive. As do the white wine grapes trebbiano, malvasia moscato bianco. Add another 800 or so varietals and you have the most varied viticulture found anywhere.

The tradition of wine in Italy goes back many centuries before the birth of Christ, when the Etruscans and Greeks both came to the boot with various vinification techniques. But it was the Romans who began to take wine seriously. They were the first to understand that aging wines could be beneficial to their taste, and the Romans were instrumental in the development of the first jugs and storage devices.

OK, so Italy has sunshine, ocean breezes, lots of grapes and a centuries-old tradition of wine. Does that really qualify it as the best wine making country in the world?

Close. But for me, the secret ingredient that seals the deal for Italia is the passion possessed by those who grow grapes, make wine and share wine with the rest of the world. In Italy, wine is an essential part of life. No meal is complete without a glass of wine. It is as ubiquitous as bread on the table. In Italy people don’t choose to go into wine as a career, rather wine chooses them.

A good argument could be made for France, Spain, America and Australia (all countries with competitors in the Tour as well), but when you mix in the passion of the people with the tradition, the geography and the geology, you have a perfect storm that, at least on this man’s summer evening, gives Italy the top spot.

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