The History of the Italian Wine Industry

Introduction to Italian Wine

For the perfect fusion of food, wine and culture, there is simply nowhere like Italy. It’s no surprise that wine tours in Italy have grown tremendously in popularity. Beyond wine country there is so much more: the canals of Venice, the leaning tower of Pisa, the Roman Coliseum, the halls of the Vatican or sunny Mediterranean beaches. Every corner of Italy is steeped in history and rich in the treasures of the past, but alive with cutting edge style. A wine getaway in Italy means experiencing la dolce vita – the sweet life.

History of Italian Wine

With a wine history dating back more than 4,000 years and a climate ideally suited to viticulture, Italy is one of the most diverse winemaking countries in the world. By the time the Greeks first came to southern Italy, wine had long been a part of everyday life. Grapes were so easily cultivated they named the country Oenotria, meaning the land of wine.

The Etruscans, followed by the Romans, took a great interest in winemaking skills. The Roman god Bacchus and the wild festivals that celebrated him, Bacchanalia, got so out of hand that they were eventually banned by the Roman Senate.

With the rise of Catholicism and the importance of wine as part of the sacrament, Italy continued to refine winemaking techniques throughout the middle ages, firmly cementing an international reputation for making a wide variety of excellent wines.

In the nineteenth century, along with much of Northern Europe, the vine louse phylloxera took hold and destroyed many of Italy’s vineyards. Replanted vineyards were often designed with maximum quantity, not quality in mind. Italy became a global source of inexpensive table wines. It was not until the 1960s when a series of laws were passed to control wine quality and labeling that the modern era of winemaking began.

Today, Italian wines are more varied and more popular than ever. In spite of losses to phylloxera, hundreds of varietals are planted, many that are grown only in Italy. An astonishing range of red, white and sparkling wines made in every style from traditional to ultra-modern are enjoyed by critics, collectors and consumers throughout the world. Italy’s wine future is just as bright as its storied past.

Italy Wine Production

Second in the world only to France, Italy has consistently been a world leader in wine production. Over its long history, modern Italy evolved from a loose collection of city-states. Today’s twenty wine regions line up with the political borders that grew out of the city-states of the past. Wine is made in all twenty regions and follows the European system of laws based on very specific geographical areas, grape varietals, aging requirements and other winemaking quality controls.

In terms of wine volume, the leading regions are Veneto, Apulia, Sicily and Emilia-Romagna. In terms of the most quality designations, (DOCG or DOC zones), the leading region is Piedmont, followed by Tuscany. But wine laws in Italy are very complex, forcing some of Italy’s most exciting new wines to be lumped in with simple table wines, due to winemaking and labeling restrictions. In 1992, a new classification called IGT was added to allow some stylistic flexibility without decreasing quality.

Today, Italy is most noted for its noble reds such as Chianti Classico, Barbaresco, Barolo and Brunello but a wide array of popular white wines are also produced including Pinot Grigio, Soave and Arneis, as well as sparkling wines such as Asti and Prosecco. The depth and breadth of Italian wine encompasses everything from bone dry to ultra-sweet, red, white, rose, sparkling and fortified. From simple sippers to ultra-premium collectible treasures, Italy has it all.