I was six years old when my parents first dragged me along to a wine tasting. This one was in the Loire Valley, only a few hours drive from our home just west of Paris. I remember little of the experience, but I have a distinct memory of being allowed to try a tiny sip from one of their glasses. Predictably, I hated it. So much so that later that night I couldn’t resist telling my parents all about “how much money I would save later in life from not buying wine.” Let’s just say I missed the mark on that statement by a little.
The truth is, growing up in France means you don’t get much of a choice—love it or hate it, you end up learning a little bit about wine. This was true in my younger years when we lived outside of Paris, and even truer in my early twenties when I moved to the area surrounding Bordeaux. It was the latter experience, however, that really pushed me to learn more about wine and to try as many kinds as possible. Ask the locals, and they would tell you that French wine is the best in the world. There was no better place to start exploring.
However, as I learned more about wine and tried new and interesting things, I started to have a thought. A thought that I couldn’t quite shake, yet one that disturbed me. I started to slowly give in to the idea that maybe, just maybe... French wine wasn’t actually the best. Now, before we all get our pitchforks out, and I get my citizenship revoked, hear me out. I love French wine. From Pomerol, to Nuits-St.-George, to Champagne, and Alsace, some of the finest wine I have ever tried comes from around l’Hexagone. The problem, however, is the cost. To get a really great bottle of French wine has become so cost prohibitive that it rarely happens in my life these days. For the day to day, it just isn’t worth the exorbitant prices being charged.
In the absence of French wine, where then do I turn? Well, if it was unconstitutional to claim that French wine is not actually the “best”, then it is likely considered treasonous to admit that—in most situations—I prefer Italian wine.
How does this happen, a Frenchman admitting in an open forum that Italy is doing a better job at winemaking? The answer is both straightforward and highly nuanced. Simply put, Italian winemakers have stayed true to their roots—literally. France has many native grape varietals being planted, many of which are some of the most commonly planted in the world. However, only 20 unique varietals make up a staggering 90% of their planted vines. Italy—in contrast—has roughly 350 recognized native grape varietals and an estimated 500 further unofficial varieties that have also been documented.
Why are there so many more kinds of grapes being planted in Italy? Well, the answer is not so simple, but it can be broken down into two major reasons. For one, many vineyards in Italy are family run, artisanal operations, and have been so for a very long time. These smaller vineyards have continued to plant the grapes that they have always planted, and they do so with great success. Tradition, passed on through generations, drives the present day variety that is available. The second reason, which is perhaps not celebrated enough, is that Italian winemakers have mastered the ability to identify what will grow best with the terroir they are given.
Now, for the uninitiated, terroir describes all of the environmental factors that go into the growing of wine. This includes some more technical details such as soil composition, regional humidity, sunlight exposure, shifts in temperature from day to night, proximity to bodies of water, and the list goes on. Long story short, if you plant the same grape in two totally different environments, you will get two totally different wines. It follows, then, that some grapes will do better in certain environments. Italian winemakers have mastered the ability to grow the correct grapes for the terroir that they are working with. This is the key to their excellence.
That is not to say that other great wine countries do not do this. Indeed, almost all famous regions are obsessed with understanding their terroir. Bordeaux is famous for growing mostly Cabernet Sauvignon on its Left Bank—where the soil is mostly gravel and clay—and Merlot on its Right Bank—where the soil is sandier and has a high limestone content. What makes Italy different, however, is their attention to these details on a microcosmic level. It is not unusual to see side by side plots of land with totally different grape varietals being grown in them due to small variations in the soil composition or a greater degree of sunlight exposure.
The commitment to correct use of terroir is perhaps never more evident than in the production of Super Tuscans. Traditionally, Italian wine regions will grow grapes that are native to the area. For example, the rolling hills of Tuscany are well known for their Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. Both of these are primarily made from the famous Sangiovese, a grape varietal native to Central Italy. In the early 1970s, however, a group of winemakers began to experiment and found that—despite originating from the southwest of France—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah all grew exceptionally well in the Tuscan terroir.
Italian lawmakers were initially reluctant to accept the reality that these French grapes were being grown with such success, and refused to grant them an official designation. The winemakers pushed ahead anyways. They abandoned the DOC designation that belongs to officially recognized types of wine, and created the very first Super Tuscan—Tignanello—made from a blend of french grapes and Sangiovese. Today, some of the most famous Italian wines belong in this category: Solaia, Sassicaia, and Ornellaia.
This is just one story of many that highlight the dedication and knowledge of Italian winemakers. Of course, like with high quality French wines, the price tag of upper end Italian wines are also beyond the reach of most buyers. However, the mastery and skill that goes into the big wines is also going into the smaller, lesser known ones. Moreover, there is so much to choose from! If the bold structure of Sangiovese based wines is not your thing, try some Barbera d’Alba or Nero D’Avola from Sicily. Looking for something earthy with a big backbone? Try some Nebbiolo—the main grape of Barolo and Barbaresco. Like wines with more fruit? Primitivo from Puglia or Cannonau from Sardinia are good bets. This list doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.
For me, there is so much range and versatility in Italian wines that I feel I never get bored. I will never say no to trying other things. I have love for both the Old World—France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria—and the New World—Australia, California, Argentina, Chile, South Africa—but, if I am reaching for a bottle to open on a more casual night, I’ll usually be taking a quick trip to Italy in the bottom of my glass. Just don’t tell the French.
-Marc McGuire (@markymarc1994)