An Overview of the Italian Wine Industry

Chianti vineyard in a hilly countrysidePrior to the Romans, Etruscans, as well as Greek settlers, made wine in the area that is now Italy. Currently, Italy is the second-largest producer of wine by value and by volume. Italy overtook France as the number one wine producer by volume in the world as recently as 2008, however, the Italians slipped back to the number two spot the following year. Both countries have a history of wine production dating back to ancient times, both cultivate an incredible variety of native and imported grapes, and both utilize special wine-making techniques particular to their own regions that reflect hundreds, if not thousands, of stylistic preferences. Italy’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry grants “authorized” status to some 350 grape varieties, but more than 500 other documented varieties exist. The most popular reds are Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Aglianico. Widely-used whites include Trebbiano, Pinot Grigio, Verdicchio, and Vernaccia.

Italy produces a staggering 6 billion+ liters of wine annually. For the first time in 2010, wine drinkers outside of Italy spent more on Italian wine than the Italians did. Italy exports to almost every country across five continents. The largest importers of Italian wine are the United States, Germany, the UK, Switzerland, and Canada, in that order — together these five countries account for 70% of Italy’s wine exports. There are 20 wine regions within Italy (which correspond to the country’s 20 political/administrative regions) and over 2,000 different commercial wine labels. Among the larger countries, Italians led the world in per capita wine consumption, at about 54 liters annually.

The top three producing regions by volume are Piedmont, Tuscany, and Veneto. The most sought-after wines primarily come from Tuscany and Piedmont. Since Italy is a peninsula, its extensive shoreline has a moderating effect on climate in coastal regions. Widespread mountains and foothills contribute to what can seem like an endless variety of altitudes, climates, and soil conditions for grape-growing. Grapes are cultivated from such diverse areas as the Alps in the north to the Mediterranean coast in the south. The coolest climates are found in the northeast, in Alto Adige and Fruili. The warmest, sunniest zones are in the south, in and around Campania, Puglia, and Sicily.

When it comes to Italian wines, one can never go wrong pairing them with dishes from the same region of origin. For centuries, Italians have designed their wines to be drunk with the local cuisine. Red wines from Italy are extremely popular worldwide. These tend to be powerful wines that can age for decades. Italian white wines have a reputation for vibrant acidity. Every possible type of wine–red, white, rosé, sparkling (spumante), and dessert–is made in Italy, along with newer specialty styles such as ripasso, which is made with dried grapes. Everything from humble table wines in jugs to the most premium offerings — such as the famous “Killer B’s” (Barolo, Barbaresco, and Brunello di Montalcino) — are widely available.

Photo of Chianti Classico courtesy of the Consorzio del Vino Chianti Classico Gallo Negro.