Just a quick note to say that the next update of the Drake Vine will be published on Saturday 6 July. We'll be looking at the wines and wine production regions of South Africa, as well as the dessert wine Vin de Constance and South Africa's signature grape variety Pinotage.
Italian wine is the stuff of myths and legends (as well as the occasional horror story). Sometimes described as the “Jurassic Park of viticulture”, Italy’s grape varieties are among the oldest in existence. Winemaking is believed to been prevalent in Italy as early as 800 BC, brought to the region by early Greek settlers. In addition to introducing grapes such as Aglianico, the Greeks gave Italy the name Oenotria (“Land of the Vine”).
According to legend, the iconic Sangiovese, which is Italy’s most widely-planted grape variety - accounting for 10% of all vineyard plantings - was named after Jove or Jupiter, the king of the Roman gods. Sangiovese (sanguis Jovis) literally means “blood of Jove”, a reference to the colour of the wine made by the Romans from Sangiovese grapes.
Although Sangiovese was cultivated in Italy for centuries, it was not until the 18th century that it became one of the most widely planted grapes in Tuscany. In the wines of Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (see Making section of website), Sangiovese grew in popularity during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, Chianti wines are among Italy’s most widely-exported, a statistic which hides the huge variations of quality that exist among Chianti wines.
Together with France, Italy is the world’s largest producer of wine, having more than one million vineyards under cultivation. However, this has been both a blessing and a curse, with the widespread availability of relatively cheap, mass-produced wines having contributed to a negative perception of Italian wine in international markets (how many of us have experienced disappointment in the presence of watery Italian white or an excessively acidic red?). In contrast to these negative experiences, the variety and quality of wines produced in Italy is truly extensive. However, many of the best wines don't even make it out of the country.
This week I’ve updated the various pages of the Drake Vine to look at the grapes, wines and wine-producing regions of Italy. The Drinking and Pairing sections of the website put Sangiovese and Nebbiolo in the spotlight. Meanwhile, the Growing section of the website explores key production regions such as Piedmont and Veneto in northern Italy, Tuscany in central Italy and Puglia and Sicily in the south.
Although hundreds of different grape varieties are grown across Italy, a handful of varieties stand out as being popular and/or commercially significant. These include the white grapes such as Pinot Grigio, Cortese and Garganega (the latter two being respectively used to produce Gavi and Soave) and red grapes such as Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Corvina (respectively used to make Chianti, Barolo and Valpolicella). In recent years, grapes from southern Italy such as Puglia's Primitivo and Sicily's Nero d'Avola have also been gaining popularity and commercial reputation.
I hope you enjoy this week's trek through Italy. Next week we're leaving the so-called "Old World" wine regions of Europe and heading to the first of the "New World" regions, South Africa.
When asked to name a Portuguese wine too many people still automatically think of port. Port-drinking became popular in England during the 18th century wars with France. Because war deprived the English of access to French wine, fortifying Portuguese wine became the only way of ensuring it would survive the longer shipping journey to England. It was through this fortification process that port was created.
No longer a wartime tipple, these days the English are more likely to see port as a popular last minute Christmas gift, to be ordered online along with slabs of stilton cheese.
However, Portuguese wine is about much more than port. Although Portugal has produced dry red and white wines for centuries, it is only recently that the country’s intenational reputation for dry wines has started to eclipse that of port. Portugal is currently benefiting from a modernisation program which has encouraged the adoption of modern grape cultivation and winemaking techniques – including gentle crushing, stalk removal and temperature control. Portugal’s “Viticultural Strategy for the Future” is also overseeing the reorganisation of thousands of tiny vineyards into larger estates and Quintas (boutique wineries). In addition to making Portugal’s wine industry less labour intensive, these reforms are enabling winemakers to produce sustainable quantities of quality wines.
Since joining the European Union in 1986, Portugal’s wine industry has also benefited from substantial foreign investment, especially from the EU but also from private investors. One of these investors, the English performer Cliff Richard (pictured), inadvertently became a winemaker after setting out on a summer holiday to the Algarve in southern Portugal. While there, he bought a 28-acre Quinta and later began producing award-winning wines under the Vida Nova, “new life” label.
Portugal has developed a reputation for making wines made from indigenous grape varieties, and the country has largely resisted the trend elsewhere to replace local varieties with international ones such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. The poster child of Portuguese wine, Touriga Nacional, continues to be one of the main grapes used in the production of port. However, in some regions – especially the Douro and Dão – Touriga Nacional is also used to produce some of the dry red wines for which Portugal is gaining such great recognition.
Other wines for which Portugal is acquiring growing renown include the "peanut wine" Fernão Pires and the crisp white wine blends from the Vinho Verde region which often include local grape varieties such as Loureiro and Arinto (see Growing and Making sections of the website for more information). Remember that to check out these and other sections of this website, you need to scroll to the top of this page and click on the Growing, Making, Drinking and Pairing tabs.
Along with its wine, Portugal’s importance on the global wine map is influenced by its role as major producer of cork, used for bottling wine. Made from the bark of cork trees (pictured), Portugal is responsible for over 60% of the global cork harvest.
I hope you enjoy this week’s visit to the winelands of Portugal. Next week we’re in Italy!