Among the innumerable verses in praise of wine throughout the millennia there is one by the Greek poet Alcaeus, who lived in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos from about 620 to 580 Before Our Era, in which he opines that wine is the mirror of mankind. The prevailing mythology of his time held wine to be a gift from Zeus and his son Dionysus to all mankind so that mortals might gain deeper understanding of the Divine, but Alcaeus line suggests a more subtle thought, one that we might well apply to our own times: namely, that the countless bottles of wine produced in every corner not only of Italy but the world portray their producers, be these lords and masters of noble estates or wise old peasants, academic oenologists or rolled-up-shirt-sleeves cellar keepers. In Italy hundreds of different wines we can see, as though in a mirror, the traits of the men who made them, of their lands and of their cultural heritages.
Grape vines were first cultivated about four thousand years ago in the Caucasus between the Black and Caspian Seas. Wine, the only Etruscan word to pass into English and all other European languages via Latin vinum, is rooted in Indo-European voin, apparently a term generically denoting any fermented beverage. Why, one may wonder, did the fermented juice of grapes prevail over that of fruits, honey and cereals? Because, suggests French historian Francois Revel, grapes alone could furnish a wide variety of flavours according to the various species and to the soil and climate of the vineyard, and because grape juice’s unique characteristic of improving with age allowed it to be preserved for long periods and transported over great distances . . . and therefore to be spread throughout all antique civilisations. Much of antique daily live revolved around it (see What Does Le Baccanti Mean on this web site) – in Greece it acquired sacred ritual functions and significance because it rendered mortals irrational and seemingly possessed by Dionysus and other supernatural powers for both good and evil. As vineyards spread through the Mediterranean world and into the Balkans and France, many different shoots were grafted to many different stocks to produce hundreds of varieties of wine with certain desirable characteristics. Later, after the fall of Rome in the fifth century and during the ensuing five or six centuries sometimes called the Dark Ages, European agriculture could barely meet crude subsistence levels, to the great but not utter detriment of wine. The Bordeaux and Bourgogne regions of France were for long the vines last stronghold, whilst in Italy such rough wines as there were served mainly as food stuffs. Not until after several exceptionally cruel winters in northern Europe had killed off thousands of vineyards in the early 1200s did the pendulum swing back toward the Mediterranean. Italian wines were thus given a big boost, but as a source of food energy, not as a luxury beverage for the aristocracy – a characteristic that would for centuries distinguish them the French varieties. Really great wines suitable for ageing came abut in Italy only in the late nineteenth century, alas just at a time when much of European and virtually all of Italian viniculture was being destroyed by an invasion of phylloxera, a tiny American insect that feeds on fruit juices and grape vines. The only remedy was to graft native shoots onto stocks imported from America, these being genetically immune to the plague. This altered the genetic pool of Italian grapes, a phenomenon further exacerbated by the importation of French varieties that had long been implanted on American stocks and hence also immune. Then, under dedicated, expert and scientific care since World War Two, Italian wines have been transformed from a species of food adjunct produced in large quantities into complex, varied and internationally hailed pleasures for the palate, mind and spirit.
THOUGHTS ON PRODUCTION
Probably the best way to summarise the many and complex processes is to list some fundamentals of modern oenology. Refined methods, favouring quality over quantity, based on soil analyses, studies of micro-climates and great manual skills, have led to increased sugar contents and aromas of the grapes. The use of only indigenous or autochthonous grapes is a cardinal principle, especially in view of the immense Italian biodiversity in this as in most other areas. Precise timing for the harvest is often a crucial factor, one that can determine the success of the fermentation, especially of red wines. The use of wooden vats could lend certain desirable aromas but requires highly sensitive controls. Italian wine growers have done much to educate a constantly growing class of consumers in what to look for in wine and how to make drinking it one of life’s more satisfying experiences.
Good wines are produced all over Italy. Every region has its own characteristics and its own standards of excellence. Of course some areas are more propitious: Piedmont, home of great, elegant and long-lived reds (among them Barolo); the Friuli and Alto Adage, known for fruity whites like Traminer and Tocai, but also reds like Lagrein; Tuscany, world-famous for the Chiantis, Brunello, the Nobile di Montepulciano and others derived from the autochthonous Sangiovese stock; the Campania, a fine up-and-coming area, thanks much to the whites Fiano, Greco di Tufo and Falanghina, and to the red Aglianico; Sicily, the rising star of Italian oenoculture offering sunny and fruity masterpieces like the Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese and the sweet Passito di Pantelleria.