Your intrepid liquor reporter has been on a few of those new-fangled Internet dates lately, and it’s always nice to make a good first impression on the ladies with a night of pasta and wine at an Italian restaurant.
It’s hard to go wrong with a choice from any of the holy trinity of old-world wine producers, made up of France, Spain, and Italy. Unfortunately, Spanish cuisine is under-represented in Alberta, while French cuisine has the reputation of being a bit snooty. Luckily, everyone still loves Italian food and wine, so that’s where I took my Internet date!
Unlike Canada, which has two very clearly delineated wine growing regions in the Niagara Peninsula and Okanagan Valley, pretty much the entire county of Italy is wine country.
Italy is the world’s 2nd largest wine producer, trailing only their French neighbours. While plenty is exported around the world, they somehow find the time to knock back around 42 litres per capita each year, which brings shame upon us Canadians, who only manage to guzzle a mere 12 litres per capita.
If it’s any consolation, we Canucks put away around 68 litres of beer each year, which far outshines the 29 litres gulped down by our Italian friends.
The wine industry in Italy goes back thousands of years, predating even the Roman Empire. The ancient Etruscans and Greeks were the first to plant vineyards, but it wasn’t until the 2nd century C.E. that viticulture really took off under those booze-loving toga-wearing party animals known as the Romans.
The map of Italy is divided into 20 major wine growing areas, which basically correspond to each provincial administrative region. Those 20 major areas are further subdivided into hundreds of sub-appellations, each with their own unique terroir and distinctive wines.
The Italian wine regions most commonly recognized here in Canada are Piedmont, Tuscany, and Sicily, each of which have their own distinctive style.
The Piedmont wine region is home to the Barolo wines, which are made from the Nebbiolo grape. These are big and tannic wines, which really need to be paired with a protein-rich or fatty dish like meat or cheese to match the structure of the wine.
Barolo wines fetch a premium price at your local booze merchant, so don’t expect to find much below the $75 price point. These wines will age well for years, so put one away in your cellar for a special occasion.
Tuscany is the wine region made famous by countless movies, and is home to the Chianti and Brunello wines, both made from the Sangiovese grape varietal.
It is important to note that Chianti and Brunello refer to the specific villages that the wines were originally produced from, and not a particular type of grape. In this case, both Chianti and Brunello wines are made from the Sangiovese grape, whose name translates to Blood of God, which shows how impressive the Italians think this grape really is.
Unfortunately for us Canucks, the Sangiovese grape does not grow well in Canada’s cool climate, but there are plenty of Italian imports to pick up the slack. Overall, the Sangiovese grape produces a fairly light-bodied wine with high acidity, so it is generally blended with small amounts of other varietals to provide more structure.
The wines of Sicily are perhaps the oldest on the Italian peninsula, with the disciples of Dionysus making their home in Sicily back in the shrouded mists of time.
While all types of wine were produced in Sicily for thousands of years, a significant change happened in 1773, when the first commercial Marsala plantings were bottled.
Marsala is a sweet dessert wine, originally stumbled upon by fortifying a regular wine with grape brandy, in a manner similar to port or sherry. The concoction was intended to allow the wines to survive the long trip to England without spoiling, and was an instant hit both in Sicily and abroad.
Since then, Marsala has dominated the Sicilian wine industry, and has become sought after the world over.
These are but a tiny sliver of the rich cornucopia of Italian wines that are produced each year. Even if you drank a different bottle every day, it would take you several years to try them all. My best advice is to start now so you can start enjoying what Italy has to offer!