WineInk: The diversity of Italy
So many wines...
Ask around Aspen which country is the king of wine, and most people will answer, “Italia.” Not that France won’t have its fair number of fans. And, of course, California (which we designated last week as its own wine nation in this column), and Australia will get thumbs up, as well.
But as a look at the lists at Aspen’s elite Italian establishments like Casa Tua, Campo di Fiori, Ellina, and Acquolina will demonstrate, there is an outstanding collection of the best wines from up and down “The Boot” to be found here in town. Yes, in all of these restaurants, there will be solid selections of the revered wines of Barolo, “The Wine of Kings,” made from the Nebbiolo grape.
But part of what makes these lists so special — and Italian wines are special — is the diversity that is represented by Italy’s hundreds of grape varieties and almost as many winemaking styles and traditions. Ranging from the timeless — but ever evolving — traditions found in regions like Tuscany’s Chianti, where Sangiovese grapes produce earthy, easily drinkable wines, to the minerally white wines of Sicily, to the multitude of sparkling wines produced throughout the nation in a number of different styles, there is seemingly no end to the range of wines from Italy.
Start with Chianti, perhaps the earliest Italian wines to be become popular in America back when they were imported in straw-covered bottles called “Fiasco.” You remember those? Like so many things Italian, Chianti can be complicated. The name “Chianti” was first used in reference to wine in 1389. The northern Italian region in Tuscany — with its sunny climate, hilly terrain, and nurturing limestone and clay soils — has been a mecca for wine producers since. And it has one of the most unique legal histories in Italian wine.
It was in 1716 that Grand Duke Cosimo III dé Medici of Tuscany’s ruling family decreed a law identifying Chianti as a unique production zone that would forever define a portion of the landscape between Florence and Sienna. This was an early instance of legislation defining a specific area as a wine growing region, and it provided a template for how wine regions are regulated around the world.
Today, the wines of Chianti are divided and designated in a number of different ways, ranging from geography to quality. A wine that is made from grapes grown from the greater Chianti region may simply carry the name Chianti on the label. But there is a special region that has been designated as Chianti Classico, and the wines from this region bear that name, along with the “Gallo Nero,” or Black Rooster, on the label and the neck of the wines.
For a wine to wear the Rooster, it must consist of at least 80% Sangiovese grapes grown in the Chianti Classico region, have an alcohol level of at least 12%, and, to be a Riserva, aged for 24 months prior to release.
The wines, when consumed young, can be very fruity and vibrant with flavors of bright cherries and strawberries and an aroma that smells like a basket of fresh picked flowers still holding dirt on their roots. A delight indeed. For many, even those who love Brunello di Montalcino or the aforementioned Barolo from Piedmont, it can be argued that Chianti Classico is the defining Italian red wine.
Then there are bubbles. The Italians love to drink sparkling wine, and like most things about Italian wine, there are so many different regions and grapes and production techniques used to make the sparklers that it is hard for even learned wine lovers to keep track.
But we all know Prosecco. In the past decade or so, Prosecco has emerged as the most well-loved, and certainly the best-selling, Italian sparkling wine in the United States. Proseccos are produced using white, aromatic Glera grapes found in the northeast portion of Italy in the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia and Veneto regions and, perhaps most notably, in the DOCG designated towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene.
Most of the Prosecco wines are made using what is known in France as the Charmat Method or, as it is sometimes called in Italy, the Martinotti Method or even the Metodo Italiano. In this process, the wines are originally made as still wines and then placed in pressurized steel tanks where sugars and yeast are added. As the yeasts interact with the sugars, it creates alcohol and carbon dioxide bubbles in the wines. This process speeds up the time needed for a secondary fermentation and allows the wines to be released much sooner than if they underwent the secondary fermentation process after they were individually bottled, as is the case with Champagne.
Prosecco is not the only Italian sparkling wine to use tanks in its production process. The refreshingly light, semi-sweet, and sparkly Asti Spumante wines, which are made using Muscat grapes from Piedmont region, are also produced in stainless tanks, though they do not undergo a secondary fermentation.
And then there is Lambrusco. These food-friendly, pink and red sparklers from the sophisticated culinary region of Emilia-Romagna are produced using, yes, Lambrusco, a red grape, and undergo the same Charmat fermentation process used in Prosecco. But the result is a completely different wine.
The most elegant of Italy’s sparkling wines may well be Franciacorta, a sparkling wine from the Lombardy region made from the same grapes — Pinot Nero (the Italian Pinot Noir) and Chardonnay — that are used in the production of Champagne. These wines are also produced using the more labor intensive Méthode Champenoise, also known as the traditional method, used in Champagne. Instead of undergoing a secondary fermentation in steel tanks, the wines are bottled and then placed neck down in cellars and riddled, or turned, regularly as they develop their bubbles before being disgorged. Just like Champagne.
But back to the red wines of Italy. One of my favorite Italian indulgences would have to be the intense wines called Amarone. Amarone comes exclusively from the Veneto region of Italy in the northeastern part of the country. Blessed by the presence of the waters of Lake Garda, the area is stunningly beautiful. It is also a very important place in the world of Italian wine, home to the white varietal Soave and the lighter style red, Valpolicella.
Amarone is a blend of three regional grapes, Corvina, which dominates, Rondinella, and Molinara. These grapes are given as much hang time as possible and are harvested late in September or even in early October. Hand-picked, the grapes are placed on bamboo mats to dry for up to 120 days in the process with a name I so adore, appassimento.
In Italian, it refers to the process in which the grapes are dried and allowed to shrivel to allow the sugars to concentrate. This is used to produce the rich, deep, dark Amarone wines.
Amarone is a product of patience, and each bottle tells a tale of the intense labor, love, and time that go into making them. In every mouthful, the quest for quality is clear. The marriage of these factors make Amarone among the most intriguing wines you will ever taste.
From the wine of kings to the humble Chianti, from the trendy Prosecco to the time-consuming, passion-driven appassimento wines of Amarone, the wines of Italy will never disappoint.
Masi Costasera Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOCG, Italy
A wine revelation, this is a selection from a renowned and special producer and a renowned and special place. I first tasted this Amarone at a luncheon hosted by Masi. The three grapes — Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara — had spent the winter drying on bamboo racks to concentrate their flavors and aromas, creating an interaction that makes this one of my favorite all-time wines. Deep and dark, tannic but smooth, with flavors ranging from almonds to cherries to spice to mocha This was an amazing wine.