Italy’s modern prodigious art and craft with wine scarcely begins to tell the story of its people’s perennial links to the wine. The nature of the place – the influence of Mediterranean sunshine and mountain air currents on the hillsides of the elongated peninsula and islands – favors what seems to be an almost spontaneous culture of wine.
Italy’s wine heritage dates back some 4,000 years to when prehistoric peoples pressed wild grapes into juice which, as if by magic, fermented into wine. The ancient Greeks, expanding into Italy’s southern reaches dubbed the colonies Oenotria, the land of wine. Etruscans were subtle and serene practitioners of the art of winemaking in the hills of central Italy, as attested by the art and artifacts left in their spacious tombs. The Romans improved the techniques that the Greeks and Etruscans used.
While wine was popular in Rome it was forbidden by the Islamic Code and consequently the areas under Muslim control Southern Spain to North Africa to North India saw a ceasing of winemaking. Winemaking greatly prospered under the Catholic Church who held widespread influence over Christian Europe. Eventually, winemaking capability and practiced extended to far-flung places like England who enjoyed wine varieties of Sherry, Port, and Madeira.
Demand for wine increased greatly with the population explosion in Rome from 300B.C. to the beginning of the Christian era. It increased to over one million people and, as even the slaves drank wine, much more wine had to be produced.
The Romans loved their wine, drinking it with every meal. However, as the alcohol content was stronger than ours, they mixed it with large quantities of water. They preferred sweet wine and strangely enough, their most prized wine was white. This came from the area that they thought was the best wine-growing region, the Falernian region near Naples.
Unusual flavors were often added to the wine. The Romans liked to mix honey with this drink to make an aperitif called mulsum. They often added herbs and spices but were known to mix wine with salt water which must have given it an extremely bitter taste. Even chalk was sometimes mixed with wine to reduce acidity!
The many contributions the Romans made to the art of wine-growing included using props and trellises, improving the Greek presses used for extracting juice, classifying which grapes grew best in which climate, and increasing the yields.
The Romans exhibited good taste by deciding that aged wines tasted better and preferred wines that were ten to twenty-five years old. They discovered that wines which were kept in tightly closed containers improved with age and became the first to store it in wooden barrels. They may also have been the first to use glass jars and they also used corks.
They exported their excellent wine-growing techniques to other areas of Europe and these were not changed for centuries. But demand for wine decreased with the fall of the Roman Empire.
Christian monks of France and northern Italy kept records of their winemaking practices and grape cultivation. These records helped various regions match themselves with the best variety grape for their soil.
Winemaking in Italy advanced rapidly through the 19th century, as methods of vinification and aging were improved and the use of corks to seal reinforced bottles and flasks permitted orderly shipping of wine worldwide. Such names as Chianti, Barolo and Marsala became known in Europe and beyond.
A century ago several Italian wines were already recognized as among the finest of their type: mainly Piedmont and Tuscan reds from the Nebbiolo and Sangiovese vine varieties, but also white wines, still and sparkling, dry or sweet, merited international respect.
Growers had complemented their local varieties with foreign vines such as Cabernet, Merlot, and the Pinots. There was evidence, then as now, that Italy’s multifarious climates and terrains favored vines of many different types and styles, and consumers elsewhere, in Europe as well as in North America, had come to appreciate these new examples of the class.
Then came phylloxera and other scourges to devastate Europe vineyards around the turn of the century. Italian growers, who had been working with thousands of local vine varieties, were forced to reduce the numbers. Many opted for newly developed, more productive clones of both native and foreign vines. Taking advantage of the long, sunny growing season, they forced yields upward, reasoning that there was usually more profit to be made from quantity than quality.
Through the hard times of wars and depression, Italy became one of the world’s leading purveyors of low-cost wine, often sold in containers of outlandish shapes and sizes. Though such practices were profitable for some, they did little for the image of Italian wines abroad.
For decades responsible producers had been trying to tighten regulations and put the emphasis on premium quality. But it was not until the denominazione d’origine laws were passed in the 1960s that a new climate of dignity and trust was created, providing the basis for what came to know as the “modern renaissance” of Italian wine.
Depending on the vintage, modern Italy is the world’s largest or second-largest wine producer. In 2005, production was about 20% of the global total, second only to France, which produced 22%. In the same year, Italy’s share in dollar value of table wine imports into the U.S. was 32%, Australia’s was 24%, and France’s was 20%. Along with Australia, Italy’s market share has rapidly increased in recent years.
Today, Italy is the largest producer of wine in the world with more vineyards than any other place, including France.
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