You Can’t Really Think About Italy Without Thinking About Wine
By Alexandra Ruth
It is nearly impossible to think about Italy and its wonderful, vast culture without thinking about wine, and vice versa. However, to fully appreciate the boundless vineyards, the images of rolling Italian countrysides, and little wine bars and tastings, one should understand the history and the importance of wine in Italy.
It may not be surprising to hear that Italy is the world’s largest supplier of wine and has some of the oldest wine regions in the world. Around twelve to thirteen million gallons of wine are produced every year in Italy. So if you can’t find a wine you like, you either aren’t looking hard enough, or you just don’t like wine (which is fine, but don’t say that to an Italian!). For a quick history of Italian wine: Greek colonization was what finally made wine-making popular around 800 BC, and it seemed to specifically branch out from Sicily. Vineyards ended up spreading too far and taking over too much land, and around 92 AD Emperor Domitian had to destroy vineyards throughout the country to ensure there would be enough land for food production. Viticulture, or winemaking, was actually illegal outside of Italy during this time of Roman rule. Exports of wine were used for trading, especially with slaves. Like many areas around the world, wine (or alcoholic drinks specific to each nation), were popular to drink over water due to health benefit beliefs, and it was common for young people to drink as well.
It wasn’t until 1963 that Italy came up with an official system to classify wines. Of course changes have been made, and continue to be made, with the latest being in 2010. The lowest category of wine is Vini (generic wines), then Vini Varietali (varietal wines), next is Vini IGP (wines with geographical indication), and the top category is Vini DOP (wines with protected designation of origin). It is stressed that these wine categories do not mean lower qualities. Like many sommeliers will argue, you can have a fantastic fourteen dollar bottle of wine next to a fantastic hundred dollar bottle of wine, and people won’t be able to tell the difference. Of course, there are wines that are better than others, but if you are enjoying a nice glass of wine with dinner, it should always come down to personal taste, and there is plenty to choose from! Italy has twenty wine regions from the very North of the country to the very South. Some regions include Lombardy, Veneto, Tuscany, Abruzzo, Campania, Calabria, and of course Sicily.
The history and background of wines in Italy can be discussed and read about for hours, but for the purpose of telling a story from the perspective of a study-abroad student, I will specifically talk about one region and winery that we as a class were lucky enough to visit: Fattoria del Colle winery in Tuscany. The beautiful winery and inn property was lost and eventually returned to Donatella Cinelli Colombini’s family in 1919 after three hundred years. In 1998 Donatella recreated the giant 370-hectare estate (16 of which are taken up by vineyards), including the fantastic Brunello Winery and the even more fantastic all women staff. While we were on a tour of the grounds and the winery, we were told that Donatella was looking into students and workers for her winery and she was told that she would have to wait months to get a good student, since they were so hard to come by. Donatella specified she wanted a female student to come work for her and learned that there were many to choose from because wineries would hardly ever hire female students. Soon Donatella had an all women staff, and became Italy’s first women-run winery. She even created the Prime Donne selection which is a wine selection chosen every year by an all-women tasting panel. Pretty awesome, if you ask me.
While visiting the lovely estate and winery we got to have a lovely pasta making class, which was followed by a tour of the grounds, a wine tasting of two wines, and finally a lunch where we got to enjoy two more wines. Tuscan pasta is quite different than other pastas: it has more oil and flour and only one egg. Our pasta class was lead by a lovely Italian women who scolded and encouraged us all in Italian. She was the perfect vision of an Italian grandmother. I got to personally knead the pasta dough, and then watched my classmates roll all of the pasta noodles by hand. During our wine tour, we learned that this winery has a unique cellar with French oak casks, then undergo aging in bottles within a controlled environment. During our tasting we got to have a 2016 Chianti Superiore, which was the first wine we tried as a group followed by the 2014 Brunello di Montalcino. As a group of college students that do not know a lot about wine, it was fascinating listening to what makes the wine different, the specific tastes, and who all liked which one more. I take after my mom and I’m more a Brunello fan, but both were fantastic. During a lovely four course meal consisting of bruschetta, two pasta dishes, and a nice dessert, we got to taste two other lovely wines. A 2017 Rosso di Montalcino and finally a 2016 Dragoele Colombe. Each wine in their own right was crafted exquisitely and each had a beautiful label that I made sure to take a picture to put in my wine app for momento’s sake. A great souvenir that many of my classmates are taking home is one of the amazing bottles of wine we got to experience. The bottles average around thirty euros and are shipped worldwide, allowing anyone the opportunity to experience these fine wines.
Something so incredible about being in a country where wine is such a major part of its culture, is that it is always available. Walking around and exploring the city will have you stumbling upon wine bars and restaurants with house wines that are served in a large pitcher for the table. It is also (depending on the bottle), more affordable to drink in Italy with really nice wines costing only four euros in the grocery store versus a cheap eight dollar bottle in a liquor store in the United States that won’t be anywhere near the same quality. A major difference in the drinking culture as well is the idea along with slow-food and social drinking. Having a glass or two with dinner over the course of a few hours is normal, instead of drinking just to drink, they drink to savor both the wine itself and the food. The culture surrounding the drink and the process it goes through is cherished.
I love wine and will forever remember many of my wine experiences in Italy, but the beautiful part in my opinion is not being able to tell what many of those wines were. Instead of trying to figure out what the house wine was, or where I could find a bottle of this or that, I got to just sit and enjoy some lovely wine with friends while either having a beautiful pasta dinner overlooking the rolling Italian hills, looking down a crowded street of shoppers or tourists, or having a girls night in the apartment.
About The Author
Alexandra Ruth is a senior at Colorado State University majoring in Theater Performance with a double major in Communications Studies and a minor in Leadership Styles. She chose this incredible Italy study abroad program for her Communications major, and she is so incredibly happy that she did. Julia and Carl, the amazing professors of this program, taught Alexandra a lot and really encouraged her to dive deep, learn, and get as much out of this experience as she possibly could. She can’t wait to come back to Italy someday! She wants to thank her parents for making this journey possible for her and encouraging her along the way. Ciao! Thanks for reading!
“History – Cinelli Colombini”. Cinelli Colombini, 2019, https://www.cinellicolombini.it/en/about-us/history/. Accessed 29 July 2019.
Scammell, Rosie. “Italy’s First All-Woman Vineyard”. The Guardian, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2016/mar/08/italy-first-all-woman-vineyard. Accessed 29 July 2019.
“Wine and Rime”. Penelope.uchicago.edu. Retrieved 29 July 2019.