Italian Wines

I came to my love of Italian wines by way of Champagne. While taking a long, rambling holiday in France, I stopped to work as a grape picker in Avize. The experience of working in the vineyards on the stunning 1982 vintage changed the direction of my career.

I returned to New York and went to work in the wine trade. I subsequently moved to London where I studied blind tasting, enology and viticulture. In 1991, I moved to the beautiful Italian city of Verona and began to write about Italian wine, food and culture. I have travelled the length of the country and on the way made friends with wine producers, restaurateurs, bakers, pizza makers, barmen, hoteliers, truffle hunters and mystery writers, among others. Let me bring you up to date on interesting wines, food products, vacation spots, personalities and events.


I love traditional Amarones, those rich but dry, incense-, chocolate- and cherry-laden wonders. Unfortunately as more and more “Amarones” flood the market, the style of wines I love are becoming all too rare.

Amarone is – or should be – a very special wine. Up to the late 1990s, the grapes destined for Amarone production were picked a week or two before the regular harvest. These specially selected ripe, healthy bunches were taken to lofts located on windy hilltops, where they were spread on bamboo racks (or in crates), and left to dry naturally for from three to six months, depending upon the desires of the winemaker. The process of semi-drying the grapes before fermenting them (known as appassimento) is what makes distinguishes Amarone. The process creates wines that have body, fragrances and flavours that simply cannot be achieved from wines made with fresh grapes. The grapes that remained on the vine were harvested for use in the production of Valpolicella. Five years ago Amarone accounted for around 20% of the harvest. Today that figure has, by conservative estimates, doubled, and by realistic estimates tripled.

In 1999/2000 I tasted every commercially available Amarone. At that time there were some fifty-five producers making Amarone in commercial quantities. Today there are over 100 Amarone producers. In 1999/2000 only “the best” grapes (that is the ripest bunches) were used to make the wine. Today there are estates that produce only Amarone. In 1999/2000 most producers opted for a long, natural drying period. Today the trend is toward forced drying systems and shorter drying times. [One producer proudly displayed a sign in his fully automated, technically advanced drying centre that referred to his “Super Natural Drying System”. Supernatural, indeed!]

There is even a move underway to change the name of the semi-drying process, appassimento. Now the preferred terms seems to be sovramaturazione. The translation of this term is “over ripening”. Over ripening?! Why discard an accurate word for an inaccurate one? Well, the general consensus is that appassimento (often translated into English as shrivelling rather than semi-drying) has negative connotations. Mind boggling, isn’t it? Yes, Amarone producers have been reduced to looking for consumer-friendly words rather than concentrating on making fine wine. And tell me, please, I want to know, how is sovramaturzione more acceptable than appassimento? Great wines and great winemakers are not affected by market surveys. (Imagine what a marketing man would do to Chateau Lafite. No! No, it sounds too much like defeat. Negative image. Let’s call it Victory. Yeah, Chateau Victory! We can put a flag on the label! But I digress…)

Eight years ago, Amarone was still primarily a wine to be drunk outside of mealtimes, with friends and good conversation. Like Port. And like Port, the alcohol levels of these wines were high – between 15 and 17 percent by volume. Now, many producers are making Amarones that can be plunked down on the table at dinner time. To do this, they have had to reduce the alcohol level, make the wines less concentrated and produce a product that can be placed on the marker sooner in order to fill consumer demand. I can’t help thinking of Helen Rowland’s comment in her 1922 book A Guide to Men: “A husband is what is left of a lover, after the nerve has been extracted.” In my version the line goes: “These wines are what is left of an Amarone, after the character has been extracted.”

Unfortunately producers still expect to hang on to the high prices that original Amarone command. Buyer beware!

I was at a dinner a few months ago with a very nice American wine importer. He was raving about having found a “really good Amarone” that cost him under $6 a bottle. I was shocked. Amarone is a labor intensive product – hand picking is essential, the grapes must be checked frequently for rot and mold during the drying process, the wines must be allowed to mature in barrel for years. I asked myself how in the world a winemaker could make a wine he could sell for $6 a bottle and still make a profit? I then asked myself what the importer was going to charge his customers. With Amarones selling for $50 (and more) a bottle, I am willing to bet that he will triple the price at the very least. I tasted the wine he so proudly offered and it was indeed a decent six buck (or even 12 buck after mark-up) bottle of wine, but it was not the style of Amarone that made the wine’s reputation.

Dear wine lovers, I beg you, do not let this kind of silliness continue. If you want a nice, satisfying red to wash down dinner, choose from among the tens of thousands of wines that you can buy for under $20. Think about a Chianti, a nice Sicilian red or – hey! – how about a Valpolicella! If you want a wine to sip and enjoy with friends, a wine that will inspire you to think, a wine that has absolutely unique flavours and fragrances, chose an Amarone, a real one. Please do not be seduced by a generic name on a bottle.

Great Amarones continue to be made and they are worth a higher price. Hold out for the real thing.

Among my favourite Amarone producers are:
Begali, Bertani, Corte Sant’Alda, Novaia, Tenuta Sant’ Antonio, Viviani, Zenato
And then there is Dal Forno. He is in a category by himself.


I have a great fondness for Soave. My strong feelings for the wine spring from the fact that I have seen first hand how it has reclaimed its identity. After all, I live just down the road – a thirty minute drive – from the zone’s lush vineyards, and, for many years, was part of the professional tasting panel that assessed each vintage.

When I first started writing about Soave it was considered a bland, innocuous white – nothing more and often, much less. In those early days only two producers poked their head above the morass. Today, there are scores of Soave producers who are making top-flight wines.

Let me give you a look at the Soave Micro-zones, Soave nomenclature, a list of my favorite producers and interview with Sandro Gini, whose Soaves are often compared with the best Burgundies.

Soave’s 14 Micro-zones
“The future of Soave rests in the cru concept”, says Aldo Lorenzoni, director of the Soave Consortium, “We are participating in an on-going study to determine Soave’s micro-zones. The wines from each of these areas have been chemically analyzed and repeatedly tasted blind by panels of experts in order to determine their specific organoleptic profiles.”

Micro-zone Commune Avg. Altitude Soil
Castelcerino Soave 250 Basaltic Tufo
Castellaro Monteforte d’Alpone 250 Crumbly Limestone
Fittà Soave 170 Clayey
Rugate Monteforte d’Alpone 150 Basaltic Tufo
Monte Tondo Soave 150 Basaltic Tufo
Campagnola Soave 130 Limestone
Costeggiola Soave 130 Limestone
Costalta Monteforte d’Alpone 100 Mix of Sand & Clay
Froscà Monteforte d’Alpone 100 Crumbly Tufo + Limestone
Montecchia di Crosara 150 Limestone, Sand & Clay
Colognola hills Colognola ai Colli 150 Alluvial
Val d’Illasi Illasi 150 Alluvial
Soave Plain Soave 50 Alluvial Clay
Monteforte d’Alpone Plain M. d’A. 40 Alluvial Clay
(altitude measured in metres above sea level)

Soave – The Basics The Soave production area is some thirty kilometres east of the northern Italian city of Verona. At its centre is the Classico zone, whose vineyard sites are limited to a few hillsides around the communes of Soave and Monteforte d’Alpone. The vineyards in the foothills and plains surrounding the Classico zone are referred to as just Soave DOC in order to distinguish them from Soave Classico DOC.

DOC: These Italian wine laws basically codify the realities of historic production zones, as related to yield, grape varieties and boundaries.

Within the DOC category are: Soave and Soave Superiore Soave Classico and Soave Classico Superiore All of the above can be made in either still or sparkling versions

Superiore wines have a higher degree of alcohol (11.5) than Soave normale (10.5). This is because the grapes from which they are made tend to be riper due to their sunnier vineyard sites.

Within these classifications there is leeway for individual expression. Producers are free to use barriques or stick with stainless steel. They may choose to use 100% Garganega, or add up to 15% Chardonnay (and/or other grape varieties) to the blend.

DOCG: As the DOC laws are based on “traditions” – which sometimes stretched no further back than the 1930s, and thus accommodated 20th century mass production practices – the Italian government introduced the concept of DOCG in the 1980s. The “G” stands for Garantita and is supposed to serve as a guarantee of high quality. To receive the “G” rating, wines are submitted to tasting panels and must demonstrate consistently high standards. This process also requires that producers work together and agree on just what those standards should be. This is not an easy task.

In 1998 Recioto di Soave became the Veneto’s first DOCG. Recioto is a dessert wine made from semi-dried grapes. When good, it offers an exquisite balance between lively acidity and sweet, apricot-tinged fruit. I believe that there will be a bit future of this style as it lends itself to pairing with certain Asian dishes. Particularly slightly spicy.

Patricia’s Favorite Soaves
Of the many good wines, my special favorites are Agostino Vicentini, Gini, Pieropan, Ca’Rugate, Coffele, Corte Sant’Alda, Inama, Prà, Portinari, Suavia and La Cappuccina. Frankly, these wines reflect my personal tastes. They are give ripe, apricot-tinged fruit, firm body and long finishes. They satisfy.

Sandro Gini makes the kind of wine that brings out the poet in every taster and stirs up memories of great Meursaults, Chablis and Montrachets. Like these other famous names, his elegantly structured and seductively fruity Salvarenza can age gracefully for at least a decade. With their rich layers of bright, precise flavors that seem to unfurl on the palate like satin ribbon, they have rightly earned their place among Italy’s Great Wines.

The Gini family has been growing grapes and making wine in the hamlet of Monteforte d’Alpone in the Soave Classico zone for generations. “We have,” says Sandro, “a history as grape growers that goes back to the 1700s. Our roots are here.”

The Ginis now own thirty hectares of vineyards and rent an additional five hectares, from which they produce around 250,000 bottles a year. “My grandfather didn’t bottle the wine. It was not the style then, instead he sold to the osterias (wine bars), like everyone else. I began making the wine at the estate in 1980 – that was the first vintage I personally made. I studied enology and did research on yeasts of the zone of Soave and I traveled and worked in other areas before dedicating myself to my estate.”

In 1987, after years of reading descriptions of French wines and studying their technical charts, Gini and a friend set off for France, with a map of the Grand and Premier Cru vineyards of Burgundy and a trowel. He took topsoil and sub-soil samples from every vineyard to help him understand what made these wines great. He returned home from that first trip determined to create an elegant, long-lived white wine from Garganega grown in the volcanic tufo and limestone soils of the 5 hectare Salvarenza vineyard. “With Salvarenza, I set out to show that Garganega [the primary variety in the Soave blend], which is a much under-rated vine, has great class and ageing potential.” The average age of the vines in the Salvarenza vineyard is between 50 and 60 years. “My vines are older than I am,” jokes Sandro. The vineyard also includes some healthy, productive hundred year old vines. “One of the reasons that our vines remain healthy is that we have always used organic farming methods; I believe that vines age more quickly when treated with chemicals. Old vines produce fewer but very well-balanced grapes. They also withstand rain and fog better because their root system is deeper and this in turn renders the flavor more interesting, allowing for maximum expression of the terroir.”

Salvarenza is fermented in barrique. “We get our casks from Burgundy. The wood is seasoned for three to four years before it is made into barrels – the normal seasoning period is usually 18 months,” says Sandro. “The wood must be elegant; it should never cover the characteristics that express the terroir and vintage of a Grand Cru. That, after all, is the beauty of a single vineyard wine.”

Gini also makes a single-vineyard Soave Classico Superiore that is vinified in stainless steel. La Froscà showcases the floral fragrances of the Garganega grape and the minerally complexity of its terroir.

“Soave has evolved in the last few years. Many producers in the zone are making excellent wines.” He breakes into an engaging smile. “Now things are getting really interesting. It is possible to taste the wines from different vineyards and really taste the terroir; you can understand how the soils and microclimate are reflected in the wine.” In an age where clumsy power is often mistaken for greatness, it is sheer pleasure to taste Gini’s wine whose strength lies in their grace and elegant persistence. These are very classy wines indeed.

Soave Wines:
Soave Classico Superiore
Soave Classico Superiore Contrada
Soave Classico Superiore La Froscà
Salvarenza Vecchie Vigne
Recioto di Soave Col Foscarin
Recioto di Soave Renobilis

Other Wines:
Pinot Nero Sorai Campo alle More
Chardonnay Sorai
Sauvignon Maciste Fumé

BOX 1: Gini’s Red
When asked what kinds of wines he enjoys drinking (excluding his own) he answers not surprisingly, “I have always been partial to Burgundy. There is something about them that I find fascinating. And for reds, I enjoy Pinot Nero. I have always liked it.” When a respected producer from the Alto Adige suggested that some of Gini’s vineyard sites had the potential to produce great Pinot Noir, Sandro immediately took up the challenge. In 1989 he planted four hectares, and thus was born his 100% Pinot Nero, whose name Campo alle More (Field of Blackberries) gives a clue to the wine’s luscious flavor. “In my opinion,” says Sandro “to make a great Pinot Nero you need an old vineyard. Mine is now 13 years old and we are achieving good results. But you need patience to make a great wine.” Sandro Gini has already shown that he has patience, vision and intellectual curiosity to achieve that goal.

Box 2: What does Gini drink with his Salvarenza?
Delicate fresh fish grilled on vine twigs, seasoned with a sprinkle of salt and basted with Soave is Sandro’s personal favourite. He also approves of the traditional pairing with boiled eggs and asparagus, dressed with a little extra virgin olive oil and salt.

Palladio and Prosecco: Parallel Expressions of Bella Figura

The events we call history are like stones skimming over the placid waters of time: each light touch creates a series of ever-widening echoes on the surface. One such event altered the fortunes of a wine region and decided the destiny of a man whose works continue to influence architects the world over. For had Vasco da Gama not discovered a direct sea route to the Orient in 1498, the Republic of Venice would not have expanded its vineyard holdings on terra firma, and Andrea di Pietro della Gondola, stonemason, might never have become Andrea Palladio, master architect.

At the time of Da Gama’s discovery, Venice maintained a virtual monopoly on trade routes to the East, and most of the city’s citizens were involved in some way with sea trade. Little thought was given to agriculture; the Republic of Venice even imported grain, leaving the fields on terra firma untilled. By the early 1520s this dependence on foreign cereals had led to severe food shortages. Venetian noblemen woke up to the fact that economic stability depended upon exploiting the agricultural potential of the mainland. These commercial needs, entwined with a growing enthusiasm for Humanist ideals, laid the foundation for the development of the country villa.

In 1524, 16 year old Andrea di Pietro joined Vicenza’s bricklayers’ and stonemasons’ guild. While working on the building site of Villa Trissino, some fourteen years, he later met the man who was to change his life: the eminent Humanist scholar and poet Count Giangiorgio Trissino (1478 – 1550). Under the patronage of Trissino, he travelled to Rome, a trip that inspired him to develop an architectural style based on classical Roman principals. Trissino also gave him the name by which he is known today: Palladio, after an angel who explains the divine significance of geometrical forms in architecture in Trissino’s poem “L’Italia Liberata dai Goti”.

Palladio’s first verifiable work as an architect dates from the 1540s: it coincided with a building boom created by a Venetian tax relief scheme that encouraged town-dwelling nobles to invest in farming complexes. Prior to this, the word “villa” usually referred to agricultural buildings. Palladio was the first architect to recognize that country houses could be monuments to their owners’ Humanist ideals (which bestowed an aura of sacredness on agricultural pursuits) as well as being potent symbols of wealth. He also thoroughly understood his Venetian clients’ desire to keep a watchful eye on their ducats, and succeeded in producing villas of sublime beauty – at a reasonable cost.

How was he able to achieve these seemingly contradictory objectives? As Renaissance Art Historian, Lisa Rubenstein explains it, “Palladio was first and foremost a stonemason, so he knew his materials better than most architects then – or now – ever did! Whenever possible Palladio stuccoed overa cheap brick column, and made it look like it was made of marble.” The Villa Rotonda, near Vicenza and Palladio’s last Villa, is perhaps the best example of this: he only used stone when he absolutely had to carve – such as on the ionic volutes atop the columns, the pediments on top of windows and the statuary. “The Villa Rotondalooks as if it is entirely made ofstone and marble,” continues Rubenstein, “but what you actually have is the architect cleverlycutting corners without anyone being any the wiser.”

With Palladio the style of the Veneto Villa reached its apex, both in terms of architectural beauty and operational efficiency. He summarized his philosophy in his architectural treatise, The Four Books of Architecture (first published in 1570 and still in print today): “….three things must be borne in mind in all construction work, otherwise the building merits no praise. The three things are: utility or convenience, permanence and beauty.” These precepts can clearly be seen in the arcaded farming wings (called barchesse) he created to flank the main section of some of his villas. Used for crop and equipment storage and, of course, winemaking, they added grandeur and beauty to the overall design, but their placement also ensured that the padrone could easily supervise the everyday work of the farm.

The wine producing area centered around the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene in the province of Treviso (that is now the Prosecco DOC zone) had already established a reputation for quality in Palladio’s day. One of the earliest mentions of the wine is found in a letter dated 1431 from the Doge of Venice, Francesco Foscari, to the Podestà (local ruler) of Conegliano, Stefano Erizzo, asking him to send a wagon-load of “great wine from the hills behind Conegliano.” By 1543 the wines of the zone had become important money-spinners for Villa owners: Prosecco was not only the quaffing wine of the osterias of Venice, but also had found an appreciative export market in Germany. A letter to the Veneto Senate dated 19 September 1606 from Zaccaria Contarini, Podestà of Conegliano, contains the phrase: “in the same territory (Conegliano) there are twenty-eight Villas, part in the plain and part in the mountains, or, better in the hills (where wine is produced). The hilly part is just as lovely and fertile as that of the plains; coming from the hills are quantities of sweet wines and other most excellent types, of which a large part is sent to Germany and the court of Poland…” A further link between vine and villa cultures is to be found in the many popular “Villa Books”, which circulated in the 17th and 18th centuries. These estate management logs – with lovely names like Le Delizie e I frutti dell’Agricoltura e della Villa (published 1634) and Centro e Dieci Ricordi che formano il buon Fattor di Villa (published 1749) – dedicate large sections to the winemaking, including chapters on “Qualitá della Cantine” and “Delli vini dolci”.

Palladio’s combination of beauty and utility is brilliantly expressed in the Villa Emo at Fanzolo. The Emo family purchased the estate in 1509. Construction of the Villa is believed to have been carried out from 1555 to 1565. Standing on the gravel drive looking up at the house, Caroline Emo remarked on the Villa’s exceptionally long barchesse, “Aren’t they beautiful. There are 11 arches in each – a number that cannot be divided – so looking at them doesn’t tire the eyes. And the dove-cotes at either end seem to bring them to a perfect end, to anchor them.” The birds kept here served as the most rapid means of communication between the estate and Venice – it took an hour for the carrier pigeons to reach the city. In the main room of the Villa, with its wide double doors open on either side, I felt as if the cypress-lined avenue (viale) leading to and from the house swept straight through the room. The walls are covered with impressive trompe l’oeil frescos by Zelotti: every room is filled with painted columns, pediments and monumental men, women and gods lounging, seducing, praying and dying. The study is a sunny chamber decorated with images of the Muses. One window frames a view of the front viale, another looks out onto one of the long farming wings. This room reminded me of the words of Palladio: “But a nobleman will obtain not inconsiderable use and relaxation from the villa, where he spends the rest of his time both keeping an eye on his possessions and perfecting them, and letting his wealth grown by diligence and the aide of the science of agriculture.”

If Villa Emo can be seen as a substantial temple to agriculture, then Villa Barbaro is a graceful tribute to Humanist intellectual pursuits. Having supplied the illustrations for Daniele Barbaro’s edition of Vitruvius (Venice 1556) – a book that served as a standard architectural reference work until well into the18th century – Palladio was in tune with the ideals of brothers Marcantonio and Daniele Barbaro. Every element in their Villa is a perfect alliance between beauty and practicality. “The spring [behind the house] forms a pool,” wrote Palladio, “which can be used for fishing. The water separates from here onwards. It flows into the kitchen and then, when it has watered the gardens, which lie to the left and right of the road that leads gradually up to the house, into two drinking troughs on the public highway.” The stand of trees surrounding the pool shelters the Villa from winter winds and provides cooling shade in summer. The family of the current owner, Diamante Luling Buschetti, bought the estate in 1934. Her parents lived in the Villa, taking their morning breakfast in the Bacchus room, whose ceiling is swimming with the glories of a drunken shepherd’s dream. The spontaneous, flowing brushwork of Paolo Veronese’s frescos brings freshness and life to the witty trompe l’oeil – a dimpled child in a doorway, a cat curled up in a corner, a smiling Lady Barbaro with her pet dog (which bears a passing resemblance to Thelma, one of the twelve rescued mongrels that roam the grounds) watch from a balcony. “The frescos are full of light and humour. This is the extraordinary charm of this house,” says Vittorio Dalle Ore, Diamante’s husband. Palladio returned to the estate in 1580 to oversee the building of a chapel. He died on 18 August, 1580 during the course of this work.

The sublime grace of Palladio’s villas are created by precise mathematical calculations. He even calculated the correct number of flutes on a Corinthian column (24) and the width between these flutes (one third as wide as the flutes themselves). “Beauty,” he wrote “derives from beautiful shapes and from the harmonious matching of the whole to the parts, the parts to each other, and the parts to the whole, so that the building has the appearance of a unified and perfect body. After all, one part must harmonize with the next, and all the parts must be absolutely necessary, if one is to accomplish what one has set out in search of.” The sensation of harmony that arises from viewing a villa designed by Palladio is palpable.

“There are the villas of Palladio and then there are neo-palladian style villas,” says Giancarlo Vettorello, Director of the Consorzio Tutela Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene. “But Palladio is the original…the real thing. Just as Prosecco DOC is the original. There may be other wines made from the same grape in other parts of Italy, but they don’t have the special character, the easy affability of our wines.”

The vineyards of the Prosecco DOC zone, lying between the Dolomites and the Adriatic, have an unusually mild micro-climate that allows the Prosecco grapes to ripen slowly. After much experimentation, it has been determined that the Charmat method (in which the second fermentation takes place in tank rather than in bottle) is the best system for making the wine sparkling, while maintaining the tangy green apple and delicate apricot notes of the variety. The most popular style of sparkling Prosecco is the decidedly fruity Extra Dry. Those in the zone swear it goes with practically any subtly flavoured food or celebratory occasion. Dry versions are excellent with mushroom tarts and radicchio risottos. Brut Prosecco, the driest style, is a satisfying aperitif. The wines of the tiny sub-zone of Cartizze (near Valdobbiadene) are richer than other Proseccos because the grapes are usually harvested later here. Refreshing and lightly sweet Cartizze is often paired with desserts, particularly fruit tarts.

Prosecco remains a popular aperitif in Venice and much of the Veneto. It also sells very well in France, a fact that makes local producers very proud. “Prosecco is not like Champagne. It has its own unique character. There is nothing like it in France or anywhere else,” affirms the Consortium’s Director with missionary zeal. Not as serious and austere as Champagne (nor as expensive), Prosecco has a light-hearted yet refined grace, making it – like Palladio’s masterpieces – one of the perfect expressions of what was once La Serenissima and is now one of the most culturally developed parts of il bel paese. When you pour your next glass of Prosecco DOC, pause a while to watch its fine bubbles rising like Palladian columns in the glass.


An enticing fragrance, that is at once floral and spicy, permeates the air of Langhirano, a little town 22 kilometres from Parma in the Italian Region of Emilia-Romagna. At first I identified it as the scent of golden rod. But there were no golden rods sprouting alongside the tall, narrow-windowed buildings, which loomed behind the row of shops on the main street. Then with one deep breath, I understood: wafting on the fresh summer air was the scent of Parma Ham.

The entire production zone for this delicately-textured raw ham is a small patch located in the Province of Parma. Its boundaries begin five kilometres south of the via Emilia, and run to the shores of the Ena river in the east and to the Sitrone river in the west. The zone’s geography is vital to the development of the product; no chemical compounds or additives are used in the curing process, rather it is a little salt and the constant, soft breezes sweeping across the gentle hills which give Parma Ham its special flavour, quality and purity. Of the 200 three to four-storied curing facilities in the zone, 100 are in Langhirano. All phases of production are strictly controlled, beginning with the raising of the pigs. They must be Large White, Landrance or Duroc breeds, and their cereal diet often includes a dose of calcium-rich whey, a bi-product of cheese-making. Each pig is tattooed with the breeder’s code and the date of its birth.

The hams arrive at the curing houses weighing between 12-14 kilos. After they are analysed to insure that they contain no unnatural chemical substances, the hams are trimmed to maintain the traditional “chicken leg” shape, losing some 24% of their weight in muscle and fat. Each leg is then stamped with the date of its arrival.

Wet salt is applied to the skin of the ham and dry salt to the exposed flesh. The hams are then hung for around a week in a refrigerated chamber, which has a temperature of around 1 C to 4 C and a relative humidity of between 80% – 85%. The salt that has not been absorbed is then brushed off and the hams are given a sensorial analysis by experts trained in detecting off aromas and textures. Each ham will be given a through examination at nine specific points throughout the production process. If the hams pass the first examination, they are ready to be re-salted and put into a second cold storage room where they stay for 15 to 18 days. The temperature is kept at around 54 C. and the relative humidity is around 60%.

The next phase of the curing process is called “resting”. This is carried out in yet another storage room. This one is kept at between 1 C and 5 C with a relative humidity of 75%. During their
seven- to eight-week stay, the salt penetrates more deeply into the meat.

Then the hams are washed with warm (around 38 Cº) water to remove the excess salt. When they have dried thoroughly, they are moved to the curing rooms where they will stay for around 3 months. These rooms, located in the upper floors of the curing houses, are filled with the proscuitto’s sweet, musky fragrance. Here the temperature and humidity is dictated by nature. The only control is offered by the breeze passing through the room’s many windows and by the occasional use of a dehumidifier. Some medium-sized firms employ a person whose sole job consists of opening and closing windows.

The exposed meat is very delicate at this stage and must be covered with suino, a mixture of lard, a little salt and pepper (and sometimes ground rice). This protects the meat from flies and from drying out too rapidly. Suino is applied by specialized workers, who dip their fingers in the lard pot and deftly smear the meat with thumb and forefinger. Troops of independent workers hire themselves out to ham companies to do just this job.

After around seven months the hams are examined again. This time, the controller uses a tool unique to his trade: a long needle carved from a horse’s lower-leg bone. He plunges this into the fleshy part of the ham and sniffs it to determine the ham’s level of maturity and its state of health. The needle is made of horse (and sometimes cow) bone because this material quickly absorbs and releases odours.

The hams are moved to cellars, or at least to rooms with less light, to complete their ageing. After 12 months, they will be tested again, and only then will they be branded with the Ducal Crown, symbol of guaranteed quality. After 14 months they will have lost around 30% of their total weight.

If the Parma ham is left on the bone, it continues to mature and the flesh will be exceptionally soft and delicate. However, for export markets, Parma ham is often de-boned and vacuum-packed. The texture of these latter hams is somewhat coarser. Parma Ham is now used as an ingredient in main courses or as a filling for sandwiches, but its traditional place was as a first-course, often paired with melon or fresh figs. Imagine pink transparent slices of meat fanned out around a soft, plump green and purple fleshed fig on a plain white plate. Alongside it stands a cool glass of golden-tinged Malvasia. Sometimes traditional ways really are best.

200 grams Parma Ham, 4 small melons, 200 grams cheese flakes, 1 tablespoon of coarsely ground pistachio nuts, and a sprinkling of Worcester sauce

Cut the tops off the melons and set them aside. Remove the seeds and filaments, and make small balls with the melon pulp. Finely mince the Parma Ham and gently mix it with the cheese, pistachio nuts and Worcester sauce. Fill the melons with the balls and cover with the cheese-pistachio mixture. Close with the melon tops and keep cool until ready to serve.

Wine Suggestion: Wines made from the Greco variety make fine partners. Greco Sannio from Tenuta Oppida Alinea, Greco from Masseria Di Majo Norante or a Greco di Tufo from any fine Campanian producer.

8 slices of Parma Ham, 4 ears of corn, 250 grams fresh cream, 100 grams Gorgonzola (or any mild blue cheese), and a sparkling of cognac.

Boil the ears of corn until well done; drain and keep warm. In a saucepan melt the gorgonzola with the cream, add salt and pepper to taste. Lay the corn on a platter and arrange the Parma ham slices around the edge of the platter. Serve with the hot cheese sauce on the side.

Wine Suggestion: Any lightly-barriqued Chardonnay or a good Verdicchio, such as Villa Bucci Riserva.

150 grams of Parma Ham (all in one piece), 100 grams of sliced Parma Ham, 250 grams ricotta, 150 grams mascarpone, a small handful of chervil and sweet marjoram, and some pink pepper corns.

Mix the cheese and the finely chopped herbs. Divide into three parts, then add the diced Parma ham to one of these, and the pink pepper corks to the two remaining parts. Line a spring-form pan with a sheet of transparent film and spread the bottom with a layer of pink pepper cheese, then make a second layer with the Parma Ham cheese. Continue to alternate the cheese until all the ingredients are used. Cover the cake with a sheet of transparent fill and put it in the fridge for two hours. Before serving, remove the transparent film and garnish with Parma Ham slices.

Wine Suggestion: A crispy Pinot Bianco or an aromatic white, such as a Riesling. A Vintage Tunina would also be a fine partner.


Italians take their pizza seriously, even going so far as to name one after one of their first Queens, Margherita. The sovereign had her first nibble of the simple folk’s repast in 1889. Soon upper crust Italians were dining on such favourites as lard pizza and the ever popular Margherita (made with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil). Not long after, the passion for pizza spread to America. The first pizzeria opened in New York City in 1895, and included among its illustrious clients the King of Tenors, Enrico Caruso, who claimed eating pizza gave his voice its inimitable timbre.

Pizzerias are now found in every part of the world – including tiny villages in Nepal and the Yucatan, and superstar chefs are using the humble bread-dough base as a canvas for their unlimited imagination. Truffles, goat’s cheese, foie gras and caviar – all the international sophisticate’s favourite ingredients – have taken their turn on a pizza crust. Yet, until very recently, the most common partner for pizza – even in Italy – was beer. However, a dedicated band of pizza fanciers has begun to realize that pizza offers the wine lover the opportunity to create the perfect foil for his or her personal favourites.

The strongly-flavoured, fatty cheese such as fontina, tuma piedmontese, ermental and pecorino softens the tannins and rounds out the flavour of full-bodied, moderately alcoholic reds (Barbera, Nebbiolo, Syrah). When stringy, milky cheese such as mozzarella and scamorza are the dominant component, it is best to go with flavourful dry whites (Sauvignon Blanc, un-oaked Chardonnays, Alsace Pinot Blanc, Verdicchio, or Soave Classico Superiore) or supple, zesty reds (Bardolino, Beaujolais, Bourgueil). Aged cheeses with intense and persistent aromas go well with well-structured, tannic and alcoholic reds (Barbaresco, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Taurasi, Californian Cabernet Sauvignon). The soft buttery texture and tangy flavour of aged Gorgonzola can be paired with aged reds (Barolo, Montepulciano, Australian Syrah).

When choosing the ideal pizza for your fine wines, do not underestimate the breadth of textures and flavours offered by mushrooms. Truffles, for example, cry out for mature wines with evolved bouquets (Barolo, barrique-aged Cabernet or Barbera). Aromatic and meaty porcini mushrooms require full-bodied, freshly acidic wines, with decent alcohol and tannin levels (such as Montepulciano d’Abruzzo or Sangiovese di Romagna) or barrique-aged whites (Chardonnay, Semillon).. Chewy, woodsy-scented shiitakes are well suited to mature, firmly structured and zesty reds (mature Cabernet, Chianti Classico or Burgundian Pinot Noirs). With the broad, earthy tones of Champignons choose a sprightly, aromatic white (Sauvignon Blanc) or a young, vibrantly fruity Cabernet Franc (such as a Chinon).

The soft, farinaceous qualities of potatoes bring out the personality of a wine with powerful, evolved fruit, spicy flavours and highish acidity (like Amarone della Valpolicella or Barolo), while fruity, young red (Dolcettos Cabernet Franc, Beaujolais Villages) is a fine match for the sweetish, slightly smoky flavours of grilled peppers, zucchini and aubergines. Asparagus and red and yellow peppers on a cheesy pizza base go well with full-bodied whites (lightly-oaked Chardonnay, Greco di Tufo). The broader tones of aubergine and zucchine can go with either medium-bodied reds (Chianti, Cabernets) or flavourful whites (New World Chardonnays or White Rhones).

Velvety-textured, richly flavoured wines, with persistent fragrances (such as Vino Nobile di Montepulciano or Barolo) can stand up to a good dollop of herbs: oregano, basil, rosemary even sage. These seasonings can also enhance the spicy elements of an oak-aged wine.

The smoky notes of bacon and proscuitto nicely underscore the broad fruit of Barbera d’Alba, a Rosso Conero or a Chilean Cabernet, while the piquant character of sausages suit hearty Primitivo- or Nero d’Avola-based reds, substantial Rhone reds and California Zinfandels.

Pizzas topped with shrimp or lobster may be served with medium to full bodied whites or light reds with crisp acidity (Californian or Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, White Zinfandel, Bardolino, Grignolino). Mussels and clams, too, can be paired with flavourful and zippy whites (unoaked Chardonnay) or firmly-structured rosés (Ciró Rosato, Castel del Monte Rosato, rosés from Provence). For those who simply have to have bubbles, pinot-noir based sparkling wines from Spain, Italy or the New World could also hold their own with seafood pizza.

The slightly salty flavours of anchovies or sardines call for a young, fruity wines, with zesty acidity and a savoury flavour (Côte du Rhone, Provence rosé with good body).

A scattering of fresh rocket, basil or parsley lifts the heavy flavours of fatty cheese and rich meats, and thus widens the range of potential wine partners to include younger, fresher reds and whites (Valpolicella; Cabernet Franc; lightly oaked, cool-climate Chardonnay)

A sprinkling of pine nuts or grated cheeses add a touch of sophistication to a pizza and makes it a better partner for a more complex wine.

For the imaginative connoisseur, pizza offers the personal canvas on which to design the perfect accompaniment for his or her favourite Great Red Wine. So why not unlock the cellar door, blow the dust off some of those cobwebby bottles and invite your wine-loving friends over for the ultimate Pizza Party! After all the best accompaniment for a Great Wine is good company.

Pizza, a Launching Pad for the Stars
L’Oro di Napoli (1954) Vittorio De Sica directed the lush and lovely young Sofia Loren, who plays the ultimate in sexy pizza sellers.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982/88?). The story of pizza-eating California teens, with a cast of future stars: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Judge Reinhold. Note the film debuts of Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards and Nicolas Cage (under his real name Nicolas Coppola).
Mystic Pizza (1988) The film that launched Julia Roberts (who play a pizza waitress). Matt Damon also has a small part.
The Return of the Killer Tomatoes (1988) A pizza delivery man is the only one who can save the world from a mad scientist who is turning people into tomatoes and vice versa. A young George Clooney has a supporting role.

A Perfect Pizza Match
I asked some of Italy’s top wine winemakers and producers – Filippo Mazzei, Aldo Conterno, Piero Mastroberardino Anna Bologna and Franco Giacosa – what type of pizza they would serve with their most important red.

Castello di Fonterutoli’s Chianti Classico Il Castello: A base of four cheeses (buffalo mozzarella, pecorino, parmigianno and scamorza) topped with rocket..

Aldo Conterno’s Barolo Vigna Colonello: Prosciutto, porcini mushrooms and grilled seasonal vegetables seasoned with sage and rosemary

Mastroberardino’s Radici Taurasi: A classic pizza Margherita made with buffalo mozzarella.

Braida’s Bricco Dell’Uccellone Barbera D’Asti: Shavings of white truffle on a cheese base of melted tuma piedmontese, fontina and buffalo mozzarella.

Feudo Principi di Butera’s Deliella: Grilled aubergines, and herbed potatoes, dusted with grated parmesan and pecorino cheese and sprinkled with pine nuts.

Five Emerging and Exciting Wine Zones

1. The Manduria zone is located on Puglia’s Salento Peninsula, the actual “heel” of the Italian boot. This long, narrow, wind-swept area lying between the Adriatic and the Ionian seas offers ideal conditions for grape growing. The constant hot winds help maintain healthy vineyards by preventing the development of mould, and the extreme variation between day and night-time temperatures allows the grapes to ripen more slowly, thus achieving fuller development of aromas and flavours. Primitivo di Manduria is a firmly-structured masterpiece of spicy blackberry fruit flavour. Top Producers: Pervini, Vallone, Leone de Castris, Le Mea, Felline, and Rivera

2. The beautiful Franciacorta zone is located between the city of Brescia and Lake Iseo in central Lombardy, and some of its best vineyards lie on Alpine foothills. The zone is famous for the production of crisp, elegant sparkling wines from Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Nero. This wine has broad floral perfumes, with delicately fruity notes of ripe, soft-fleshed pears, hazelnuts and yeast (often identified as toast or breadcrumbs). On the palate, Franciacorta tend to be soft and inviting, with a well-defined breadth of flavour. The standard bearer of the zone is Satèn (the local name for the Crémant style), whose creamy texture and delicate perlage provide a seductive delight. Top Producers: Bellavista, Fratelli Berlucchi, Ca’ del Bosco, Contadi Castaldi, La Montina, Villa, Barone Pizzini, Cavalleri, Conti Bettoni Cazzago, Conti Terzi, Lo Sparviere, Castelfaglia, Monterossa, Ricci Curbastro and Majolini

3.The vineyards of the Colli Orientali del Friuli zone lie on cool foothills east of the Friulian town of Udine, bordering with Slovenia. The zone excels in the production of zippy, finely structured whites from indigenous varieties (such as Tocai Friulano and Traminer Aromatico) and tightly-knit dry reds (from such grapes as Pignolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Refosco and Schioppettino). It is also the home of the delicious and rare dessert wine, Picolit. Top producers in the zone include: Abbazia di Rosazzo, Ermacora, Collavini, Dal Fari, Ronco delle Betulle, Giorgio Colutta, Conte d’Attimis Maniago, Walter Filiputti, Cantarutti Alfieri and Livio Felluga

4. The Morellino di Scansano zone is a windswept collection of hills in the Tuscan province of Grosseto, between the Ombrone and Albegna rivers. It is a relatively short drive from the Brunello di Montalcino area. Here wines are made from the Morellino grape variety, which is the local name for Sangiovese. Morellino di Scansano is a dry red wine, which is firmly-structured and has enticing cherry-tinged fruit. Top Producers: Morisfarms, Le Pupille, Fattoria Mantellassi, Poliziano, Villa Patrizia, Cantina Cooperativa Marellino di Scansano, Barncini and Poggio Argentiera

5. The Montefalco Sagrantino zone is limited to well-exposed hillsides surrounding the picturesque medieval walled town of Montefalco in Umbria. During the 12th century the town was strictly a religious community, with wine playing an important role in its rites and ceremonies. Tending vineyards and working in the cellars were important duties for the monks and nuns assigned to the local orders. Even the name of the primary grape variety, Sagrantino, most likely stems from the words sagrestia or sacrestia, which meansvestry. Montefalco Sagrantino is dark ruby in colour. It is full-bodied, with a rich, silky, spicy perfume reminiscent of blackberries. On the palate, it has a slight roughness, which I often find in indigenous varieties. This quality only adds to the wine’s charm. Top Producers are Arnaldo Caprai, Adanti, Antonelli San Marco, Bea, Brogal Vini, Colpetrone, Casale Triocco – Spoletoducale, Morettoni, Napolini, Rocca di Fabbri, Ruggeri, and Cantina Terre de’ Trinci


In the last ten years, Italian producers – both large and small – have been tramping the fields and hills of their zones seeking out native vines, and in this way rediscovering lost pieces of their viticultural heritage. Using modern technology, winemakers are now able to fully express the potential of these grapes. The results of their dedicated research are arriving in wine shops around the world, and offer wine lovers a luscious range of flavours and fragrances unavailable from any other country.

When you taste a wine from an Italian variety, I want you to close your eyes, inhale deeply and really think about its fragrance before you take your first mouthful. What are the connections it brings to mind? Perhaps mature Garganega reminds you of ripe pears, or maybe the scent of Alpine flowers emerges from a glass of Nebbiolo-based Carema. Then take a generous amount of wine in your mouth and swish it around, letting it reach every taste bud. Allow yourself to discover the flavours of these original wines: that tangy burst of blueberries in Nero d’Avola, the touch of elder flower which defines a well-made Verdicchio, and the enticing sweetly bitter flavour of the pulp near the cherry stone of young Sangiovese.

What follows is a brief survey of 16 of Italy’s most popular indigenous grape varieties.


AGLIANICO – Settlers from Greece most likely brought Aglianico to Italy during the 6th century BC. The variety is now cultivated mainly in Campania, Puglia, Basilicata and Molise. Wine styles range from rosés to fruity, youthful reds and on to richer structured, velvety and long-lived wines. Generally speaking, wines made from this variety are likely to be full-bodied, with soft tannins and high acidity. On the palate, there is a seductive blend of black cherry and blackberry fruit, with hints of violets and wild strawberries. I also often find red liquorice tones and bitter chocolate and black pepper notes. Perhaps the most famous wines made from this variety are Taurasi (whose vineyards are in the Campanian province of Avellino) and Aglianico del Vulture (from the area around the eponymous volcano in Basilicata). Top Producers of Aglianico-based wines include Feudi di San Gregorio, Mastroberardino, D’Angelo, Paternoster, Villa Matilde, Cantine Grotta del Sole, Di Majo Norante, Ocone, Basilium, Paternoster and De Conciliis.

BARBERA – Barbera is found throughout Italy. In its native Piedmont, it is usually vinified as a single-variety wine, while in other regions it is more often part of a blend. With its medium to high acidity, deep colour and medium to low tannins, it is extremely malleable, and can produce simple, fruity wines, with soft scents of ripe plums, which are carried through on the palate or barriqued versions will be lush and velvety, with warm spicy fruit which gracefully unfolds on the nose and palate. Top Producers include: Bruno Rocca, Braida, Elio Altare, Aldo Vajra, Varaldo, Dezzani, La Stoppa, Cascina La Ghersa, Michele Chiarlo, Vietti, and Di Majo Norante

CORVINA – This is the grape variety that forms the backbone of the Veneto region’s best known reds: Bardolino, Valpolicella and Amarone. These wines vary in style from charming zesty rosès, through medium-bodied reds to the rich, powerful Amarones, made from semi-dried grapes. Corvina-based wines all have a fresh, delicate bitter-cherry note in their perfumes. Top Producers of Corvina-based wines include: Cavalchina, Corte Gardoni, Le Fraghe, Bertaini, Corte Sant’Alda, Stefano Accordini, Bussola, Speri, Allegrini, Romano Dal Forno, Tenuta Sant’Antonio, Masi, Villa Monteleone, Pasqua, Cantina Valpolicella di Negrar and Zenato.

MONTEPULCIANO – Alright, let’s get this out of the way at once: Montepulciano – the grape – has nothing to do with Montepulciano – the Tuscan town. Montepulciano – the grape – is thought to have originated in Abruzzo and by the 19th century spread to Puglia, Marche and Lazio. Wines made from this variety are very deeply coloured, and have scents of cherries, nutmeg/cinnamon and lightly roasted almonds. On the palate, they have soft tannins and are satisfyingly full. Some tasters find hints of plums, blackberries, raspberries, marasca cherries and wild strawberries. The best known wine from this variety is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, although it also plays a significant role in the Marche’s two top reds, Rosso Piceno and Rosso Conero. Top producers include Edoardo Valentini, Gianni Masciarelli, Dino Illuminati, Umani Ronchi, Fazi Battaglia, Terre Cortesi Moncaro, Tenuta De Angelis and Boccadigabbia,

GAGLIOPPO – Gaglioppo is found in limited quantities in the Marche, Campania, Umbria and Sicily. But it is in Calabria that it thrives. It is the most widely planted variety in that region and it is a component in every one of Calabria’s red DOC wines. Gaglioppo most likely arrived on the Ionian coast of Calabria with the first Greek settlers. Its best known DOC is Cirò Rosso, whose production area is centred around the attractive town of Ciró Marina, located on the coast near Punta Alice, a southern promontory on the Gulf of Taranto. This zone’s location between the sea and the Sila Mountains creates extreme differences in day and night-time temperatures, which allows the grapes to ripen more slowly, thus achieving fuller development of aromas and flavours. In Greek times, wines from this area were so greatly appreciated that they were awarded to the winners of Olympic Games. Cirò Rosso is always refreshing on the nose, with an amalgam of scents that include tar, red liquorice and rose hips tea. These sensations are carried through on to the palate. The wine is lightly tannic, with good body and medium to high alcohol. Well-made Cirò Rosato is the colour of blood-orange juice. Its flavours are broad but elegant and on the palate it has minerally notes and hints of frozen strawberries. Top Producers include: Librandi, Fattoria San Francesco and Caparra & Siciliani.

NEBBIOLO – Nebbiolo is Piedmont’s premium red grape variety and is the primary component in four of that region’s DOCG wines (Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara and Ghemme). It is also an important variety in the other northern Italian regions of Valle d’Aosta and Lombardy Don’t expect a ruby or plummy red in these wines: Nebbiolos tend to have garnet to orange overtones. Barolos and Barbarescos should have an exhilarating rush of freshness on the nose, followed immediately by warming broader elements, which can include cherries, plums, strawberries and raspberries. There are also darker tones of chocolate, dried herbs, hazelnuts, liquorice and cinnamon or vanilla. With age, hints of roses, dried violets, tar, freshly ground almonds and hazelnuts emerge on the nose, and the texture on the palate becomes silkier. Nebbiolo-based wines from Alpine zones tend to be suppler with fresh, elegant perfumes, which include violets, alpine flowers, blueberries, brambles, mint, and a touch of tar or black pepper on the palate. Among the many fine producers are: Varaldo, Gaja, Bruno Rocca, Michele Chiarlo, Aldo Conterno, Roberto Voerzio, Domenico Clerico, La Spinetta, Ceretto, Cantina del Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema and Nino Negri.

NERO D’AVOLA – There is a seductive wildness about certain indigenous varieties that renders them infinitely more exciting than their classic counterparts. Their flavours are definite and consistent yet always in transition: suggestions and echoes of flavour overlap and shift on the palate with enticing elegance. Nero d’Avola is one of these varieties. Its fragrance is always refreshing, with blueberry hints melding into brighter tones of wild strawberries and blackberries. Its tannins are soft and wines made from it are therefore supple. Like all fine grape varieties, it has the ability to fulfil the wishes of its winemaker. If he or she wants a satisfying youthful style, then that is what Nero d’ Avola will provide. If he or she dreams of making a graceful wine with ageing potential, Nero d’ Avola will not disappoint. Giacomo Tachis, Italy’s favourite winemaker and a passionate devotee of all things Sicilian, has described Nero d’ Avola at various times as the Baron, the Prince, the King and the Emperor of Sicilian Viticulture. It may be used on its own or in blends. Top Producers: Feudo Principi di Butera, Settesoli, Duca di Salaparuta, Spadafora, Morgante, Carlo Pellegrino, Cusumano and Pasqua-Fazio.

PRIMITIVO – The success of Primitivo in foreign markets has gone a long way in establishing the quality image of Southern Puglia, where the variety thrives. Studies have determined that Primitivo and Zinfandel share the same DNA. As one Puglian producer puts it, “They are like twins separated at birth – one growing up in Manhattan, the other in the Bronx.” Primitivos tend to have a luscious raspberry/fuchsia sheen when young. On the palate, one finds plum jam and blackberry and raspberry notes, along with hints of violets and undertones of hay, tobacco and oriental spices. Top producers include: Rivera, Masseria Pepe, Leone de Castris, Pervini, Felline, Casa Girelli and Academia dei Racemi

SANGIOVESE – Sangiovese, which is believed to have been cultivated since Etruscan times in the area around Florence, is now found throughout Italy and is responsible for some of the country’s finest and most memorable wines. Like Pinot Noir, it is subject to a great deal of clonal variation and as a result its colour and structure vary dramatically. Basically, the different clones fall into two main groups: Sangiovese Grosso and Sangiovese Piccolo. Grosso is lower yielding and has smaller, thicker-skinned berries and, therefore, tends to have darker colour and better ageing potential. In general, Sangiovese’s perfumes should be rich and full. Tasters find hints of leather, tobacco, truffles, figs, mulberries, raspberries, vanilla and cinnamon on the nose. Young Sangiovese has a ripe cherry fruit flavour, with a cherry stone bitterness on the finish. The best known Sangiovese-based wines are Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Morellino di Scansano, but a small number of producers are also making their mark with it in Romagna. There are many excellent producers working with Sangiovese, among them are: Fattoria Zerbina, Drei Donà Tenuta La Palazza,Caatello di Fonterutoli, Isole e Olena, Antinori, Poliziano, Torraccia di Presura, Fattoria dei Barbi,Tenuta Caparzo,Tenuta Col d’Orcia, Ercolani and Bindella.


ALBANA – The Romans most likely brought Albana to Romagna. There are those who believe that the variety takes its name from the Albani hills, south of Rome. For others, the name is derived from the Latin word for white: albana. This variety, a veritable sugar factory, is relatively high in acidity and has unusually high quantities of tannins in the seeds and skins. Wines made from this variety are particularly suitable for wood ageing. Dry Albana has subtle hints of peaches, roses, almond and sage in the fragrance. Semi-dried Albana grapes produce excellently balanced wines. The vest of which are justly compared to first-class Sauternes. In 1987, Albana di Romagna earned the distinction of being the first white wine to be awarded DOCG status. Top Producers: Fattoria Zerbina, Tre Monti, Umberto Cesari, Leone Conti, Celli, Giovanna Madonia, Fattoria Paaradiso, Stefano Ferrucci, Umberto Cesari and Tenuta Uccellina

FRIULANO – Formerly known as Tocai Friulano is grown in the regions of Veneto and Lombardy, but it is in Friuli that the variety is allowed to take centre stage as a 100% varietal wine. Tocai wine is pale yellow gold, and a slight saline note rests amidst subtle scents of wild flowers. Some tasters also find hints of geranium leaf or hay. The wine has a crisp structure and a creamy texture and flavour (similar to crème pâtissière). Some find ghosts of apricots on the palate. Outside of Italy, this variety is most commonly known as Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse.Top Producers include Livio Felluga, Russiz Superiore, Le Vige di Zamó, Collavini, Adriano Gigante, Dal Fari, Petrussa, Ronco del Gnemiz, Ronco delle Betulle, Bastianich, Acquilia del Torre, Marco Felluga, Edi Keber, Scarbolo and La Boatina

GARGANEGA – Garganega is believed to be of Greek origin. While found in isolated pockets throughout Italy, it produces its most memorable results in the Veneto provinces of Vicenza, Padua and Verona. When grown in optimum sites, when yields are kept low and when the grapes are allowed to fully ripen, this variety is capable of producing whites with delicate flavours of pear, pineapple and apricot which become fuller and more luscious as the wines matures. It is the major (sometimes sole) component in Soave. Top Producers: Gini, Pieropan, Inama, Anselmi, Ca’ Rugate, La Cappuccina, Umberto Portinari, Prà, Coffele, Borgoni, Fattoria & Graney, Portinari, Bertani, Terre dei Monti, Vicentini, Zenato, Balestri Valda, Suavia and Zonin.

MOSCATO – The venerable and varied Moscato family includes both white and red varieties, all of which share an attractive, grapey fragrance. The name seems to be derived from muscum or muschio (musk). Moscato Bianco is a major component in DOC wines from Valle d’Aosta to Sicily, and is the primary variety in still, semi-sparkling, fully sparkling, fortified and passito wines. Zibibbo (also known as Moscato di Alessandria) is the variety used to produce the luscious honey-tinged Moscato di Pantelleria. It is the grape variety for two DOCG wines: Moscato d’Asti and Asti Spumante. Top Producers of Moscato wines include Villa Giada, Silvano e Elena Boroli, Braida, Chiarle, Paolo Saracco, Cascina Fonda, Rivera, Marco De Bartoli, Salvatori Murana, and Donna Fugata.

PINOT GRIGIO – Pinot Grigio has become the magic name in Italian restaurants around the world, and its subdued aromas and flavours allow it to move easily from the bar to the table. It is little wonder that it is now the biggest selling Italian white wine in many export markets. Pinot Grigio is a genetic mutation of Pinot Nero, which most likely arrived in Friuli at the end of the 19th century and from there spread throughout the country. Top Producers: Collavini, Vinnaioli Jermann, Walter Filiputti, Tenuta Beltrame, Russiz Superiore, Livio Felluga, Mario Schiopetto, Livon, Villa Russiz, Casa Girelli, Pierpaolo Pecorari and Santa Margherita.

PROSECCO – This variety may have originated around the town of Trieste, which lies on the border between north-eastern Italy and Slovenia. From there it spread to the Veneto. It thrives in the Alpine foothills north of Treviso. Its DOC production zone in this area includes fifteen communes, of which Conegliano and Valdobbiadene are the best known. Prosecco is usually sparkling, and may be brut, dry or extra dry – this last is the most common style. Vineyards in the tiny area of Cartizze (near the town of Valdobbiadene) constitute the premium sub-zone. Prosecco wines are pale greenish straw, with green apple and lightly floral perfumes. The fact they are not bone-dry makes them a very appealing aperitif. Top Producers include Bisol, Bortolotti, Carpenè Malvolti, Ruggeri, Le Colture, Villa Sandi and Sorelle Bronca

VERDICCHIO (known in the Veneto as Trebbiano di Soave or Trebbiano di Lugana) – In Marche the variety is called Verdicchio, a name derived from the greenish (verde) highlights found in the wine. It can attain 13% alcohol with ease, and, when yields are controlled and harvesting is carried out with care, it has good structure, high extract and a luscious strain of apricot-like fruit, which fills out the minerally/salty note that is the hallmark of the variety. It is available in a variety of styles: from dry sparklers, to fresh and zesty quaffing wines, to weightier (at times oaked) versions and even dessert wines. Its two main zones are Jesi and Matelica. Top Producers: Bucci, Garofoli, Stefano Mancinelli, Umani Ronchi, Marotti Campi, La Monesca, and Bellisario

A Synopsis of Italian Viticultural History

Vines were growing in Italy long before the beginning of recorded time. The fossilized remains of prehistoric vine leaves and grape clusters have been found throughout the country. Some vineyard sites date from the Bronze age, leading scientists to believe that Man was already making wine here on a regular basis at that time. Wine was more than a beverage in these early days; it was thought to possess a mystic power and it played an important role in the religious lives of the ancient tribes who inhabited the area.

The Etruscans arrived in Italy from Asia Minor around 800 B.C. Their first colonies were in the Tuscan area of the Maremma. At the peak of their power, in the 6th and 7th centuries B.C., they controlled the whole of northern Italy from the Tiber to the Alps.

The Greeks arrived on Italian shores around 750 BC, establishing the first colonies of Magna Grecia along the coast of the Ionian sea and on the island of Sicily. Along with grape seeds and cultivation and winemaking techniques, they brought the cult of Dionysus, divine son of Zeus and God of Wine and Revelry. These original colonies prospered by trading, among other things, local wine with Greek colonies in Africa and with their mother country.

The Romans based their viticultural techniques on Greek models, sowing Greek grape seeds alongside the many indigenous vines. Virgil declared that there were so many of these local varieties as to render them uncountable:
He who would number them, the same would wish
To tell the tale of sand that Zephyr stirs
On Libya’s waste, or when the East wind drives
Most vehemently on the ships, to know
How many rollers reach the Ionian strand.
Virgil Georgics, Book II Of Trees line 122 – 128 T. F. Royds, Translator

The Romans often planted vineyards and fruit orchards on the same plots of land. Trees were an indispensable part of vine growing in those days, as Virgil’s graphic description of vine husbandry, from planting to the thinning of the first tender leaves, reveals:

When all is safely planted, it remains
To draw the earth about the roots, and ply
Stern hoes; or deeply drive the frequent plough,
And e’en through vineyards guide the straining steer.
Then must you furnish shafts of barkless wand,
Smooth reeds and ashen poles and stalwart forks,
That the young plant, relying on their strength,
May rise to mock the winds, and, climbing higher,
Attain the topmost storey of the elm.
And while sweet childhood’s bloom is on the leaves,
Spare yet their tenderness; while the vine-spray
Leaps blithely into foamless seas of air
Unbridled, unrefrained, no pruner’s blade
May violate the vine; only the leaves
Must with bent finger-tips be nicely thinned.
Virgil Georgics, Book II Of Trees line 424 – 438 T. F. Royds, Translator.

Early winemaking methods were simple but effective: the harvested grapes were piled into a stone or wooden trough. The free-run juice was collected and set aside to be made into the highest quality wine. Then the grapes were trod underfoot to make wine for everyday drinking. Torque presses squeezed out the last few drops of juice. The crusty residue which remained was pressed into blocks and sold to the poor and to slaves who added water to it to make “instant” wine.

A Roman technique which is still used throughout Italy is the semi-drying of grapes before pressing. This procedure is called appassimento and the resulting wines are known as passiti. These tend to be rich, full-bodied and highly alcoholic. In their Southern colonies, the Romans left the ripe grapes to dry on the vine. In cooler, more humid climates, they harvested the fully ripe bunches and left them to dry in well-ventilated lofts. These drying grapes were sometimes braided and hung from the ceiling.

Today, appassimento is used to produce superb dessert wines, such as Torcolato and the Reciotos, Passitos and Vin Santos. This process is also used in the production of rich, dry red wines, of which Amarone is the best known example.

The chaos that emerged from the fragmentation and subsequent collapse of the Roman Empire virtually put an end to what had been a thriving international wine trade. But wine drinking continued apace, at least within the walls of monasteries and in the courts of enlightened Monarchs. Vine growing and wine making was carried out principally by religious orders.

In the 5th century, inhabitants along the coast of what is now the Gulf of Venice fled to a small island in the lagoon to escape the Barbarian invasions. Their collections of huts eventually became the glorious city of Venice. The Venetians earned their reputation as master navigators and traders. By the end of the 6th century, Venice was providing spices, fabrics and other Oriental products to all of Italy.

In 1202 the Venetian armada conquered Constantinople, thereby consolidating their control of all the important trade routes. Thus, they had a virtual international monopoly on wine trading.

The Republic of Venice continued to expand its territory. However, when Venice lost control of Crete, and the sweet wine that island produced, its merchants were forced to seek wine sources closer to home. They developed the areas around Verona and those in the hills south of Padua, encouraging the production of passito wines, which withstood the rigours of transport better than wines made from fresh grapes.

Italy was not yet a united country, and therefore, every major power wanted to stake its claim on the peninsula. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, the House of Savoy and Napoleon all marched troops through the vineyards. With no secure political system in place, trading in wine was difficult.

Cyrus Redding writes in his magnificent book, A History and Description of Modern Wines (published in 1833), “The wines of Italy have not obtained that character which might be expected, if the excellence of the grape, and the congeniality of the climate to the culture of the vine, be duly considered. The wines of modern Italy are all made for home consumption. The interests of commerce, which lead to competition, have not yet interfered to improve them.”

By the 1880s Cabernet and Merlot were already well established in Friuli and the Veneto, from which they spread throughout the country.

During the late nineteenth century wine producers throughout Europe faced a continual crisis as vine diseases followed by ruinous infestation wreaked havoc in the vineyards.

This massive devastation resulted from phylloxera vastatrix, a vine louse whose fiendish lifestyle makes it virtually impossible to arrest. This brazen bug, it has been conjectured, found its way from America to a greenhouse in Hammersmith on the leaves of an ornamental shrub. By 1868 it had infected the vineyards of Bordeaux, by 1884 it had destroyed most of viticultural France and had caused great damage to Austro-Hungary, Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Madeira. Italy sought to profit from France’s woes, and between 1870 and 1890, Italy’s wine production doubled. In 1880, 80% of the population made its living from vine growing, winemaking and trading. The phylloxera scourge continued unabated until the late 1880s when scientists realized that the only way to impede this louse was to graft local vines onto American rootstock. This worked because the American plants had existed for centuries along with phylloxera and had, over time, developed an immunity to it. Grafting and replanting took a tremendous investments of time and money, and the first phylloxera-free vintages did not appear until the 1890s.

The World Wars created a devastation of another sort, virtually bringing vine growing to a standstill in some areas of Italy as vineyards were destroyed and family estates fragmented. A war never neatly ends with the signing of a Peace agreement; the ravages and deprivations can linger for decades. After World War II, there was simply no money to be made in wine, and most fit young people were forced to move to the cities in order find work to support their families. During this period, land in some areas became virtually worthless. Many of these abandoned vineyards and farms were snapped up by businessmen and foreigners who built summer homes on the land. Much of the rest was given over to the production of more profitable crops.

Soldiers returning to the United States took back certain scraps of European culture and lore, among them, the idea that “Soave” was a term for light, dry whites, while “Chianti” was synonymous with cheap, dry red. During the 1950s, one suspects, wines from all over the country and from any manner of grapes were employed in the task of turning out generic red and white to satisfy this new, thirsty market. It has taken the Chianti zone – through consistent and concerted effort – decades to revitalize its wines and its image.

During the 1960s, in an effort to shore up the rapidly declining reputation of Italian wines and bring production regulations into line with European Community standards, the Italian Government set up a system of wine laws, which basically codified the realities of historic production zones with regard to yields, grape varieties and boundaries. As the DOC laws were based on “tradition” – which sometimes stretched no further back than the 1930s, and thus accommodated 20th century mass production practices – the government created DOCG laws, awarding the first DOCG in 1980. The “G” stands for Garantita and is supposed to serve as a guarantee of high quality. To receive the “G” rating, wines from a zone must be submitted to tasting panels and show consistently high standards. It also requires that producers work together and agree on just what those standards should be. This is not an easy task

In the 1980s and 1990s, wishing to attract wider international attention, producers often chose to mask the personality of their local varieties with a dash of Chardonnay or a splash of Cabernet. And because New World wines wrapped in a thick layer of oak were winning awards during this period, many Italians decided to give their wines the same treatment, with wildly varying degrees of success.

The international market’s thirst for Chardonnay and Cabernet has reached saturation point, with “ABC” (Anything But Chardonnay/Cabernet) now being the common battle cry among wine lovers. In this atmosphere of exploration and open-mindedness, Italy has the opportunity to take the wine world by storm, as no other country can offer the same wide variety of flavours and fragrances. Italian producers are now building their future on their unique and age-old viticultural heritage