No Place Like Rome ; The Evolution of Italian Wine

Sangiovese grapes on the vine in the Italian w...

Sangiovese grapes on the vine in the Italian wine region of Chianti (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I’ve been writing about, and drinking an awful lot of, Italian wine. Like many people my diet is dominated by pizzas and pastas and whether white or red; there always seems to be an ideal bottle to complement both my mood and my food.

But to just contemplate Italian wine as the product within the glass is to discount so much. No country in the world, in my opinion, has had such a fanatical relationship with wine. There is a really Mediterranean romance at work here, a combination of high art, sublime civilisation on the one side, but also a starkly impoverished rural population. The two come together in Italian wine like no where else in the world.

Initially, Italy owes much of its wine legacy to its great Classical rival – Greece. Greek settlers introduced the vine to Sicily from where it laced its way through the entire peninsula, delicately embedding itself in the country’s history, culture and cuisine for millennia to come. Some of these Greek introductions have even survived to this day. The lovely light, acidic and obviously named ‘Greco’ grape is a prime example, still flourishing within Puglia in the South. Sangiovese on the other hand, responsible for so many of Italy’s emotive reds including Chianti, was introduced by the Etruscans.

The Roman Empire was the first organisation to truly implement a recognisable vineyard management regime with vast estates worked by slaves from across the Empire. The tools of state were thrown fully behind a complex network of supply and demand which verged on being recognisably industrial. This wasn’t simply mass production however. The vine touched every corner of Roman civilisation. Festivals were held at the time of harvest, God’s were created in it’s honour and reels of poetry written. To the Roman mind wine became the ultimate civiliser – an emblem of culture against the onset of barbarianism.

If the Greeks acted as the initial ‘creators’ of the Italian wine world, it was a positively Darwinian process of evolution which has helped to shape it throughout the following centuries. The idea follows that if a wine manages to bring the best out of your local food, then you are more likely to plant that particular grape. The classically acidic, supply tannic reds of Piemonte or Tuscanny go hand in hand with the tomato rich staples of Italian cooking. Likewise the fabulous wines of Gavi and Soave compliment the local seafood diet. Some Tuscan vineyards have remained the same family ownership for around five hundred years after their creation, producing the same food friendly wines.

Of course Italian unity, as we know it now, is a relatively modern invention. Dating back to the late nineteenth century…

Bottle of the Italian wine Chianti in the trad...

Bottle of the Italian wine Chianti in the traditional fiasco basket (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Following the breakup of the Roman Empire, Italy became a truly fragmented country, based around small centers of administration with a largely rural population. Italy’s political fragmentation into a series of City States and Principalities is one of the key reasons for such dramatically regional modern day wines. It could well be why Italy boasts over a thousand grape species, with around forty of these being of commercial use.

Unlike in France where Haut-cuisine became a product of the rich, intellectual classes – with wines brought in to match both the food and the philosophical insight of the drinker. Italian wine and food has remained resolutely rustic. The big, uncompromising favours of both wine & food are unapologetically blunt.

However, the twentieth century was a difficult time for Italian wine, with poor quality control, mass production and  a large exodus of skilled vintners. Yet, Italian wines are seemed to have turned a corner and are once again starting to really excel through improved viticulture and greater investment from the EU. It’s hard to argue that the pricey wines of Barolo or Brunello di Montelcino still incorporate a kind of rural ideal; but their evolution through landscape and culture ultimately make them the appealing wines they are today, with price tags to match.