Earlier this year, I completed one of my bucket list items: visiting Tuscany and Piedmont, my two favourite Italian wine regions.
The first thing that struck me in Italy is that wine is everywhere. Grapes are planted wherever you travel, and wine is so ingrained into the culture that everyone has a story about the history and importance of wine in their particular regions.
The Italian economy isn’t exactly robust these days, but you wouldn’t know it from travelling through the top wine regions. There are winery expansions happening, along with planting or re-planting in every vineyard. Italians know how important wine is to their country, and their pride in the quality product they sell runs deep.
We made several stops in the Chianti area of Tuscany to top wineries like Brancaia and Gagliole. The rolling hills and ancient estates are like everything you may have seen in movies and photographs of the region. Experiencing the views while eating wonderful Italian food, and drinking top wines makes it an almost ethereal experience.
It was in the Montalcino region that I really came to appreciate Italy’s long history. While touring an amazing Brunello producer called Argiano we were told the centuries of history in the estates and vineyards. Noticing I was looking at several large holes in the sides of the high walls surrounding the winery, our host commented that those were left after the Second World War by the owners as a reminder of how fragile life can be after being after surviving being shelled by German forces.
A drive up the coast from Central Italy took us to northern Italy, and the Piedmont region. Most famous for some of the world’s best truffles, it is nonetheless home of one of the most prestigious wine regions of the world, and it’s namesake wine, Barolo.
All of the towns were built on the hills overlooking the valley and contain some of the most stunning 360-degree vistas of vineyards in the world.
One of our more fascinating visits was to Vietti, whose winery of five levels was built right into the hill beneath the town in the 1600s and whose winery was visited by Napoleon. The Napoleon measure of liquid is nine litres, which is the standard measure for a case of wine to this day. Apparently his troops were regularly paid in wine, and instead of corks the wine stoppers were made from cornhusks, as evidenced by some of the Napoleonic containers still at the winery.
There are 150 Barolo Vineyards but only 20 are considered Grand Cru and Vietti owns part or all of 15 of these. As in most of Italy, there are strict regulations around aging, types or grapes planted, amount of production, and overall size of the region. Vietti still uses the large wooden Barriques of several hundred litres to ferment the grapes. Their wines have such a cult following that he regularly get visits from celebrities.
One of his favourite stories involves actor Danny DeVito, who visited several years ago and convinced Luca Vietti to sell him one of his used wooden Barriques so he could convert it into a hot tub outside of his Hollywood home. Several months later Luca received a photo of Danny and some bikiniclad ladies enjoying the hot tub on a Los Angeles evening.
Our last visit was to one of the largest wineries in the region, Fontanafredda. The winery and estate was originally the summer hunting lodge for the first King of the new united Italy, Vittorio Emanuel. This huge estate is a stunning location containing the original historic buildings, hiking trails, accommodations, and a Michelin-star restaurant.
So how were the wines in these two historic and famous wine regions? Considering how well the food shone, the wines had to be very good, and they were. A great thing about a country like Italy is the sheer breadth of variety and styles of wine to suit every palate. In Chianti we drank simple Chianti Classico wine that is delicious with a basic bowl of spaghetti and tomato sauce.
These wines can be had in Halifax for well under $25. The Brunello de Montalcino is not so cheap, but the power and elegance of these great wines when paired with something like a grilled lamb dish make the expense of $50 or more worthwhile for special occasions.
In Piedmont the Barolos were also amazing; you could age some of these over 30 years. But the approachable and easy drinking Barbera and white Gavi were far more accessible, and a still distinctive of this historic region.
As always, experiment and try wines from different regions as you grow your understanding of wine and the great stories behind it.
The under-$25 wine review
Banfi Centine Toscana 2012
Italy, $19.99, NSLC
This wine is 60 per cent Sangiovese, 20 per cent Merlot and 20 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, which is why it is labelled IGT, instead of DOC. While not a true Chianti, there is enough Sangiovese in here to give it that distinct Italian character of dried cherries and earthy notes. Nice balance of tannin and baking spice finish up this great-value wine. Pair with a sausage pizza. 90/100
Tommasi Le Fornaci Lugana 2012
Italy, $18.99, NSLC
Drinking this wine reminded me that there actually are other whites from Italy other than Pinot Grigio. The Lugana has recently been revived as a cousin to the Trebbiano grape. Very interesting wine that contains peach blossom aromas but has much more weight on the palate. There is a tropical note to the flavours and the finish is long and herbal. This is a wine I often suggest to Chardonnay lovers to try something a little different. I’m happy to see the NSLC carrying a less common varietal. This one calls for a seafood stew. 89/100