Italian viticultural history goes back thousands of years. Fermented grape juice, as wine most primitively is, was evident in the times of the Etruscans, significant to the citizens of Magna Graecia, and ubiquitous in the culture of the Romans. It is logical that with Italian wine’s great history comes strong tradition of diverse winemaking methods which have become hallmarks of various regions and DOCs over the years. Examples of these includes the pergola support systems in Veneto as opposed to the popular French guyot vine training method or the use of the botte, large barrels crafted from Slovenian oak and used for decades, instead of barriques, much smaller barrels made from new French oak high turnover, in Piedmont.
Unique traditional methods of making wines are what has kept vino so popular on the peninsula, but it is also what kept Italian wine from rising to the top until just recently. Within the last 50 years, there has been a surge of quality Italian wine that is considered better than the best of France, and the reason is due to what we like to call I Pionieri, “The Pioneers.” These are the dedicated Italian winemakers, proud of their heritage and their land, who dared to improve the stagnant world of Italian wine while never losing their firm commitment to tradition.
Below we have chosen four of the brightest stars of these Pionieri, offering a quick glimpse into the rich and profound stories behind some of Italy’s most successful winemakers (and you just might be surprised that you know a few).
Antinori: more than just a Chianti
The Antinori family‘s importance to Tuscan wine stretches back 26 generations, when Giovanni di Piero Antinori became a member of Florence’s Guild of Winemakers. Over 100 years ago, Piero Antinori bought vines in the Chianti Classico region, determined to make a high quality wine in a region that had become saturated with less than stellar bottles. Piero’s son Niccolò shocked the region by planting international varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in a region dominated by Sangiovese, and in the years to follow Niccolò experimented with grape growing, harvesting, and winemaking techniques. The breakthrough happened in 1971 when Antinori released Tignanello, a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. The wine was denied the prestigious DOC appellation due to its use of international varieties, but Antinori refused to comprise, convinced he had made a superior wine, and opted for the commonplace IGT labeling instead. His courage and belief in the wine has now made Tignanello, and its sister Super Tuscan sister, Solaia, one of the most recognizable fine wines and Antinori one of the most respected names in the wine world.
Allegrini’s Innovation with Tradition in Valpolicella
The Allegrini family has lead the winemaking scene of the fertile area around Verona for centuries, remaining the prime example of understanding the importance of tradition and innovation. The late Giovanni Allegrini was one of the leading pioneers in cleaning up and making Valpolicella wines which would appeal to the finest of palates, and the family was also one of the first to develop wines from cru vineyards (such as La Poja). Even their flagship wine, Palazzo della Torre, which graces the shelves of wine shops throughout the USA, is a model of the family’s philosophy. Using the traditional Valpolicella grapes of Corvina, Molinara, and Rondinella, some trained on pergolas while others on guyots. After the harvest, 70% of the grapes are vinified in the same technique used to make Valpolicella, while 30% are made just like Amarone in the age-old appassimento process. The two wines are blended to create a wine unlike any other from the region and which the family calls their “Baby Amarone.”
Who needs Champagne when you’ve got Ferrari?
The first Italian sparkling wines that come to mind are more often than not Prosecco. Not wrongly so, as the Glera grape has roots that reach back two thousand years and the sheer production and export of bottles every year continues to grow. Although Prosecco is a stellar wine for a lighthearted aperitivo, it has never come close to battling the seriousness of the great wines of Champagne, whose classic method of production is considerably more labor intensive than Prosecco’s Charmat method of fermentation. However, the fate of Italian sparkling wines was not left to light-hearted summertime bottles, as the courageous Trento native Giulio Ferrari set out to make the first Italian classic method sparkling wines in 1905. Not only did he stray from the beloved charmat method, but he also made his wines as Blanc de Blancs, meaning all Chardonnay grapes. In the 1950’s, void of an heir, Ferrari entrusted his beloved winery and it’s pioneering techniques to the Lunelli family, who has been making Italy’s most celebrated classic method sparkling wines ever since.
Tasca d’Almerita Bottles Sicily
The Tasca d’Almerita family bought their principle estate, Regaleali, back in 1833, and its have been gaining international prestige since the 1950’s for bottles of both indigenous and international varietals. The family’s consistently quality wines are due in large part to their commitment to research: over half of the 55 varietals grown on the 360 hectares of vines at Regaleali are dedicated to research and experimentation projects, several dedicated to the almost extinct indigenous species of Sicilian grapes, in partnership with top Italian universities. In addition, Tasca d’Almerita was the first Italian winery to actively implement the concept of sustainability, arriving recently at a whopping 70% sustainable practices and acting as a shining example for other Italian wineries looking to follow in their footsteps. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who has had an experience at the estates of Tasca, whose pride in the fruits of their land is unparalleled.
Italy often experiences the pull of past with all of its tradition and the need to express novelty, creativity, and innovation; have you seen this in wine or other aspects of the Italian culture?