There’s a reason why in ancient times Italy was called enotria. Its dizzying diversity of grape varieties, seemingly infinite acreage of land dedicated to vine cultivation, and ideal location in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea gave rise to the “Land of Wine.”
As one of the important producers of wine in the world, Italy rivals France for first place. Also the world’s top wine exporter, it’s among the biggest wine consuming nations as well. While many French and international varieties have been well-established, Italy depends upon its own indigenous varietals for most of its wine production. Some of these native grapes such as Sangiovese are now widespread throughout the world while many continue to thrive only in their native homeland.
You could spend your entire life studying the hundreds of native varietals and traditional wine-making techniques that make Italy so fascinating, and at times, confusing. But let’s grab the boot by its laces and start exploring Italy by distilling its twenty official wine regions into 3 overarching areas.
The Italian Alps, the Appenines, and the Po River are the main topographic features of Northern Italy, the region containing some of the most highly-respected wine regions. The Piedmont, at the foothills of the Alps, is home to Italy’s great red wines, Barolo and Barbaresco. Made from the Nebbiolo grape, these wines are sought after by wine connoisseurs and can rival the best French Burgundies in exclusivity.
Further East, the Veneto region produces Italy’s largest quantity of quality wine including Amarone—wine made from an ancient process of drying grapes on mats—and the ever-popular Prosecco, sparkling wine made from the Glera grape.
Bordering Austria, the alpine regions of Trentino/Alto Adige are revered for their stunning whites from Chardonnay, Muller-Thurgau, and Pinot Grigio grapes. Finally, Franciacorta-- Italy’s finest sparkling wine made in the traditional method--hails from Lombardy, the region just west of Milan.
By far Italy’s most famous wine region is Tuscany, located on the western coast of the peninsula. Iconic for its stone farmhouses, vineyard-covered hillsides, and Chianti, the region has become Italy’s wine claim to fame.
Chianti--one of Italy’s largest-volume quality wines--and most superstar red wines of the region, are made from Tuscany’s signature grape: Sangiovese. Surrounding Florence and Siena, the larger Chianti area also contains the smaller, more restrictive Chianti Classico zone. The latter is a formal label reserved for the highest quality wines meeting more stringent age and varietal percentage requirements.
Also propelling the region to notoriety are “Super-Tuscans,” or wines made from international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc. Darlings of wine collectors, these red blends are considered on par with the best crus of Bordeaux and California. Rounding out Tuscany’s other fantastic Sangiovese-based wines are Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
While Italy’s central wine region is dominated by red varietals, other intriguing styles exist. The Emilia-Romagna region, stretching across the top of the peninsula, is most famous for Lambrusco, a slightly frizzante wine. Finally, Le Marche, which is located on Italy’s eastern Adriatic coast, is famous for white wines made from the Verdicchio grape.
South and Islands
Southern Italy and its islands have been producing wine in its sun-drenched vineyards for over 3,000 years but is paradoxically considered an emerging region and almost “New World” in character. With relaxed regulations and increased investment in modern technology, international interest in the unique styles and varietals continues to grow.
Surrounding the city of Naples, the region of Campania produces wines of great character due to its volcanic soils. Greco di Tufo and Fiano are the most notable examples of whites, while Taurasi, made from the red, Aglianico grape is considered the Barolo of the South.
The island of Sicily is best known for its dessert wine Marsala, but has been garnering recent recognition for dry reds made from its indigenous red variety Nero d’Avola. Sardinia, Italy’s other Mediterranean island, has become well-known for high quality red wines made from Cannonau, the Sardinian name for Grenache.