Impressions of Italy

Eight weeks is the longest I have spent in one country continuously on my trip. The closest was spending five weeks in Germany which included one week in Alsace and the three days of Prowein. I spent about six weeks in the USA but that was broken up by two weeks in Canada. I will be spending a total of nine weeks in France, but this is in five separate incursions. Up to three months in Germany will be spent just working for some wineries in two different regions, but this won’t give me much if any time to travel. If I’m lucky I’ll be able to visit a few wineries in the same region. As you can imagine, spending eight weeks straight in one country, particularly when it is Italy, it is difficult to think about anything else as you are totally immersed in the culture and scenery. I found myself forgetting about all the places I had been already, and also about all the places I have yet to visit in the remaining 8 ½ months. All I was focused on was making the most of my time in Italy, trying to learn as much as possible about Italian wine, and how it forms part of life in Italy and the world.

With Elena Walch in Alto Adige

This hasn’t always been easy, but it has most definitely been rewarding. The first problem was that due to various public holidays including Easter, I lost four days to visit wineries. When you add the three weekdays of Vinitaly which virtually every producer in the country attends, I lost a total of seven days to visit wine regions. This forced me to sacrifice days in some regions, and other regions all together. I could only drive through regions like Trentino, Lazio, Molise and Emilia, and completely missed regions like Lombardia, Campania, Basilicata, Calabria and Sardinia, and most of Veneto one of the largest producing regions in the country. Whilst it was amazing attending Vinitaly, meeting many producers and tasting many wines, it wasn’t the same as actually going to the winery and region and learning about the wines in context to better understand them. Probably the best things about Vinitaly was catching up with some industry friends from Australia (shout-out to Matt Paul & Michael Trembath from Trembath+Taylor, and Maurizio Ugge and Peter Arquilla from Arquilla Wines), and making contact with producers I wanted to visit who all offered me places to stay and lunches/dinners. On that topic, one of the greatest things I will take away from my time in Italy is the amazing hospitality of the Italian people. No other country has come close to how well I was treated in Italy; rarely had to pay for good regional food, often had offers of places to stay, lots of help finding things and just genuine and casual welcomes everywhere.

Above Valpolicella in Veneto

The other problem that I had which was mostly restricted to the south of Italy, was in finding out which wineries were good and establishing contact to make appointments. There are probably a few reasons for this. The first is that much of the Italian wine brought into Australia has been from the north, mostly because the quality has improved sooner and faster in the northern regions. Many in the south would agree that whilst the wines are unique and amazing, serious investment and research has only been occurring in the last 15 years to improve the quality of the wines and the profiles. Most of the appointments I had in the north were through importers in Australia who often bring in the best wines in Italy and many of them I established contact with at Vinitaly. For the same reason there is not a lot online pertaining to the wines of the south, as wine journalists and critics have only just started to break the surface. As many of the good wineries are quite small, hands-on family operations, they don’t often get a chance to read emails requesting appointments and possibly don’t speak English well enough to have the confidence to welcome visitors. In some of these regions they are not used to welcoming visitors, and they are not established wine tourism regions like Tuscany. I would suggest that if these wines want to have success in export markets and further the reputation of their wines and region, they develop their programs for visiting international visitors, or at least respond to emails even if they are not available or don’t take appointments.

With Luciano Sandrone in Piedmonte

One problem that I didn’t have that surprised me was the language barrier. Granted as I have studied languages before (I speak Japanese fluently and a very basic level of French, Spanish and Italian, with German on the way), I am pretty well equipped to communicating in different languages. Once you get to a certain level of understanding about wines, this breaks through many barriers. The reason is that generally winemaking is universal, and there is very little difference around the world. Whilst processes may differ very slightly, usually between good and great producers rather than countries and regions, the difference is what nature gives you. Be that the environment in which you grow grapes, or the different varieties themselves. After visiting over 500 wineries on my trip so far there is only so much time I need to spend in a winery before being able to understand most of the practices simply through observation. What is more interesting, important but harder to communicate is the specifics of the terroir, which many wineries seem reluctant or unable to show me. This in my opinion is a lost opportunity, as this is the major reason that people like myself travel to the region.

At Fattoria Poggerino in Tuscany

Whilst the indigenous varieties are unique to Italy, they aren’t as unique as they used to be. Firstly producers around the world have been planting Italian varieties in varying degrees for many years. Secondly, producers around Europe and the world are introducing other varieties into their regions to experiment with new wine styles. Possibly the one exception to this is France, although I haven’t been to all the regions and can therefore not support this theory. Italy has been no stranger to introduced varieties, and has been doing so for hundreds of years. The majority has been more recently, planting varieties like chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah amongst many others, in every region of Italy. These varieties are referred to in Italy as “international varieties”, which initially confused me as they are all from French regions like Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone Valley. I thought at first this was because they didn’t want to give the French the credit, but I know now that it is because they are varieties that have been planted internationally, from other European countries to North & South America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The reference therefore makes some sense, but it certainly isn’t a term used in other countries I have visited, particularly not in Australia where the origin of the variety is referred to. What I think is more appropriate is referring to wine styles as international, regardless of what variety they are made from. I tasted many wines in Italy made from French varieties that were both high quality and sufficiently unique with personality. Similarly I tasted wines made from indigenous varieties that tasted like wines made from any number of places and any number of varieties. I don’t have a problem with the former, but I do with the latter, as it is authenticity and uniqueness that makes wine great, irrespective of where it comes from, or where the variety comes from.

At Vinitaly 2012 in Verona

Quality in general has clearly improved over the past 40 years as technology, hygiene, and better understanding of their unique varieties and sites has improved, in some places more than others. The producers are quite modest when talking about their wines, and don’t spend a lot of time bothering to talk about points and trophies to promote their wines. Tasting the wines back in Australia gives you a general impression of their difference to other countries, and their quality, but tasting them in the region having seen and discussed what makes them special, gives you so much perspective and insight into them. The improvements in winemaking and viticulture haven’t served to simplify or strip the wines of their personality, if anything they have made this even clearer. What technology and research has done has been to make the wines more consistent and free from faults, which is something that many European wines are unfairly and inaccurately accused of being. One of the big differences in the investment in winemaking facilities is that the major reason is for functionality and limiting the impact on the environment, rather than building very flashy architectural marvels. In most cases very historic cellars have been intelligently adapted to introduce new equipment to better control and observe the wines. That isn’t to say that there aren’t impressive modern wineries, such as Manincor and Lageder in Alto Adige, Domenico Clerico in Piedmont, Fonterutoli and Poggio Antico in Tuscany, and Masciarelli in Abruzzo. The adapted wineries that impressed me were Tiefenbrunner in Alto Adige, Vietti and Contratto in Piedmont, Felsina and Boscarelli in Tuscany and the Planeta estates in Sicily.

In the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, Sicily

Italian wine producers are of course proud of the authenticity and approachability of their wines, and they communicate this in a unique way that shows that wine for them is a fundamental part of life; by inviting you into their homes and sharing food and philosophies with you. Wine is part of life (and vice-versa) both in the sense that for people involved with wine this is not a job, this is their life; and also in the sense that wine is part of daily life. In one post I mused on what I thought made Italian wine great; fresh, approachable, balanced but not simple wines you can have more than a few glasses (or bottles) of with lunch. Just like life wine is designed to be shared, and also enjoyed with food. Italians truly understand that one of the fundamentals of appreciating wine is to consider the context of the enjoyment, and not to take it too serious all the time. This helps to make the wine not only drinkable but also affordable. It would be a shame if wines were made to be in a certain mould and charged increased prices, as this would eliminate a large portion of the potential consumers of wine.

A friendly observer in Puglia

One of the most important elements of wine in Italy is the sense of tradition. Let us not forget that it was through Italy that vitis vinefera was introduced into most of mainland Europe, having made an unusual journey from Georgia and Mesopotamia to Egypt, Greece and then Sicily. Romans had a big influence on wine in Europe, something that doesn’t really get mentioned a lot in my experience. Like other European countries, working with wine is a privilege and often also a birth right. There are so many people who are the umpteenth generation of their family to work the land and in some cases make wine, that it seems unfair that they have been born so lucky. My parents were never really into wine, so the wines in my cellar are entirely my own.

Great salami and cheese in Marche

Regional diversity is well established, and probably Italy is the most diverse country for wine in the world considering the innumerable varieties and terroirs. Not unlike Chile, Italy is a long and relatively narrow country, with mountains running almost the entire length of the country. Further north it tends to be a little cooler than the south, but this isn’t always the case. In Puglia for example it can be very warm but can enjoy cool winds between the seas on either side of the ‘heel’. Similarly, whilst Alto Adige is one of the highest regions in Europe, it is protected on all sides from coastal influence and can be quite humid and very sunny in summer. The opportunities of altitude also play a significant part in the diversity, and that is part of the reason that viticulture can be found in every region of Italy. Probably the most geographically diverse region in Italy is Sicily, which is partly due to its size. From the slopes of Etna, to the shores of Marsala, to the wide irrigated areas of Agrigento, so many opportunities are afforded to the Sicilians. Although water can be an issue, much like Chile. In combination with the range of different indigenous varieties, this probably makes Italy the most exciting wine-producing country in Europe with the most potential in the future.

Lunch with Lidia Bastianich in Friuli

Next I head to the south of France, starting with Provence then moving on to the Rhone Valley.

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