Julie Harrison - Italian Wine (Part One): The North

Publish Date
Wednesday, 18 May 2016, 4:12PM
By Julie Harrison

There is a lot more to Italian wine than Chianti in raffia covered bottles!  The geography of Italy from the cooler, mountainous North to the hot, dry South means that a broad range of wine varieties thrive here with more crisp, acidic wines being produced in the North and luscious, ripe, fruit driven wines in the very warm South.  There are many small producers and many native varieties of grape which can be somewhat confusing.  Keeping it simple there are some key areas producing wines that are worth looking out for.

Italian wine classification can seem a bit of a mystery but it fundamentally mimics the French system.  There are now 4 basic categories of wine Vino da Tavola (table wine),  IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica),  DOC (Denominazione D’Origine Controllata)and DOCG (Denominazione D’Origine Controllata E Garantita).  The DOC and DOCG categories can be likened to the French Appellation Controlee system with growers following strict rules regarding the varieties they use, how the grapes are grown and how the wine is made.   DOCG wines are theoretically the best quality Italian wines.    Three regions contain the majority of DOCG wines which are Piedmont, Veneto and Tuscany. The IGT classification is similar to the French IGP category.  It is wine produced in a DOC region but falls outside the rules set for a DOC wine and is usually of good quality.  Vino da Tavola  is a basic table wine and is what you will usually get by the carafe in restaurants in Italy. 

Piedmont in the North West of Italy is the home of Nebbiolo  one of the most famous Italian red wine varieties.  It is grown in two main areas; Barolo and Barbaresco.  These wines are not for the faint hearted and are known for their strong tannins and high acidity with both needing some aging before consumption.   They are often described as having an aroma of tar and roses along with sour cherries and spice.   Barbaresco is the more fruity and less tannic of the two, largely due to the different soil type it is grown in, and will soften earlier than Barolo.   These wines are a great option for a wine cellar but they are expensive so it pays to do some homework and buy from the best vintages.   For a more easy drinking red from this region try Barbera or Dolcetto both of which are good, inexpensive quaffing wines.  When it comes to white wine  the sparkling wine Asti Spumante made from Moscato  Bianco  comes from Piedmont as does  the very good Cortese di Gavi which is a dry, floral white that is a good option if you enjoy Sauvignon Blanc.

North Eastern Italy is often referred to as Tre-Venezie  and comprises wine regions near Venice; Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia.    This is the area where Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris), Soave (said swah-vay )  and  Prosecco are made.  Italian Pinot Grigio is minerally, light, more acidic and less full bodied than the New Zealand version.   If you enjoy Chardonnay look out for Soave made with the Garganega grape.     The Veneto region is arguably most famous for its wine from the Valpolicella region which produces the famous Amarone della Valpolicella.  Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara are the main grapes used for the red wines from this region.  Everyday Valpolicella is an easy drinking dry red wine often likened to the French Beaujolais.  The famous Amarone della Valpolicella is made from specially selected grapes that have been picked in whole bunches and kept in a drying room for four months – a process called appassimento.   Once the drying process is finished the grapes are pressed and fermented to dryness.   The drying process leads to a high concentration of sugar and flavour components in the grapes and the resulting wine is high in alcohol, rich, and complex with dried fruit characters.   This is another good wine for the cellar.  As a good example  of “waste not, want not”  The discarded grape skins from this process are added back to standard Valpolicella and made to undergo a second fermentation resulting in Valpolicella Ripasso.   This wine has more body, richness and complexity than a standard Valpolicella without the large price tag of Amarone.

Just South of Veneto is the Emilia Romagna  which is most famous for Lambrusco which has a reputation for tasting like a berry alcopop.  There are some better examples around that are slightly sparkling (frizzante) with just a hint of sweetness.   These wines are generally low in alcohol and if you search out a good one then they are quite nice served chilled as an aperitif.

Next week I will cover the famous wines of Tuscany as well as the good value wines from the South and Sicily.

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