Vino al vino
"What is a wine without friends? I'll say bread to bread and wine to wine: I'll say a wine without friends is little more than nothing."
At the end of his first of three trips taken between 1968 and 1975 to discover the best, most “genuine” Italian wine, the Italian writer and director Mario Soldati concluded that the only thing that really made any wine worth drinking was the company in which one drank it. His point is well taken, and has the air of a worthy conclusion, but of course Soldati spent another two trips traveling up and down the entire peninsula to get to the bottom of Italian wine. Like Italy itself, Italian wine is somehow warm, inviting, almost magically convivial. Yet, it is also intensely specific and, even after a lifetime of study, utterly impenetrable. Trying to understand it at all might seem like a baffling waste of time, but with a little help you can find something genuinely Italian, and something worth drinking while you're at it.
With perhaps two thousand varietals growing on the peninsula, and often dozens of dialectic names attached to any one of them, just learning to recognize the most common Italian grapes is a heroic task, let alone getting to know the wines they make. Then there’s the issue of parallel naming—like Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, a grape, not to be confused with Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a wine made from another grape, Sangiovese; or Trebbiano di Soave, which is actually Verdicchio, and not the grape known in Italy as Trebbiano and in France as Ugni Blanc. None of this even matters of course, since the best wines in Italy aren't known by their grape, but by their region or simply by a historic name that refers to an area or style of production, as in the case of the two most internationally recognizable Italian wines, Barolo and Brunello. While Barolo refers to an area in Piedmont where wine is made with the Nebbiolo grape, and which includes the town of Barolo but also several other places, Brunello is just the short name for Brunello di Montalcino, a wine made from the Sangiovese grape in the Montalcino area of Tuscany, but known by its historical nickname.
So should you just give up and drown yourself in Campari? No! Or not yet at least. Despite their regional differences and opaque naming practices, there are a few characteristics that tie together all Italian wines, and that give them an appealing familiarity. First, Italian wines tend to be high in acid and tannin, meaning they can be enjoyed on their own but are much, much better in the company of food. Second, Italian wines have a powerful connection to where they’re grown, and what’s in the bottle will be a reflection of the climate, soil and even personality of the area in which it was produced. Finally, Italian wines are usually unpretentious, and winemakers hold this as a point of pride against their more snooty neighbors, often though not always preferring to err on the side of rustic and original rather than “correct.”
Soldati’s three-part voyage to uncover the heart and soul of Italian wine revealed precisely that the genuine was not found in the technical perfection or exotic rarity of a bottle, but in the people and place that produced it. Though forty years later that conclusion might seem equal parts quaint and clever marketing, it was an important point to mark at the time, as a path was drawn from there for the producers who valued what made their wine “genuine,” as opposed to “good.” Today as Italy produces nearly 50 million hectolitres of wine a year, including millions of gallons of swill shipped over to Americans who perhaps can’t tell the difference, that authenticity might yet still be found. Check out, for example, a bottle from Centopassi--a cooperative that takes land confiscated from the mafia and rejuvenates it to produce excellent wine under sustainable conditions--or one from from La Stoppa made by Elena Pantaleone, who started making natural, biodynamic wines long before it was cool. Needless to say, these and any other Italian wines are of course always best enjoyed, as Soldati suggested, in the company of friends.