Italy's modern prodigiousness with wine scarcely begins to tell the story of its people's perennial links to the vine. The nature of the place - the influence of Mediterranean sunshine and mountain air currents on the hillsides of the elongated peninsula and islands - favors what seems to be an almost spontaneous culture of wine.
Italy's wine heritage dates back some 4,000 years to when prehistoric peoples pressed wild grapes into juice which, as if by magic, fermented into wine. The ancient Greeks, expanding into Italy's southern reaches dubbed the colonies Oenotria, the land of wine. Etruscans were subtle and serene practitioners of the art of winemaking in the hills of central Italy, as attested by the art and artifacts left in their spacious tombs.
The Romans propagated the cult of Bacchus to all corners of the empire, developing a flourishing trade in wine throughout the Mediterranean lands and beyond. So sophisticated was their knowledge of viticulture and enology that their techniques were not equaled again until the 17th or 18th centuries, when Italians and other Europeans began to regard the making of wine as science rather than mystique.
inemaking in Italy advanced rapidly through the 19th century, as methods of vinification and aging were improved and the use of corks to seal reinforced bottles and flasks permitted orderly shipping of wine worldwide. Such names as Chianti, Barolo and Marsala became known in Europe and beyond.
A century ago several Italian wines were already recognized as among the finest of their type: mainly Piedmontese and Tuscan reds from the Nebbiolo and Sangiovese vine varieties, but also white wines, still and sparkling, dry or sweet, merited international respect.
Growers had complemented their local varieties with foreign vines such as Cabernet, Merlot and the Pinots. There was evidence, then as now, that Italy's multifarious climates and terrains favored vines of many different types and styles, and consumers elsewhere, in Europe as well as in North America, had come to appreciate these new examples of class.
Then came phylloxera and other scourges to devastate Europe vineyards around the turn of the century. Italian growers, who had been working with thousands of local vine varieties, were forced to reduce the numbers. Many opted for newly developed, more productive clones of both native and foreign vines. Taking advantage of the long, sunny growing season, they forced yields upward, reasoning that there was usually more profit to be made from quantity than quality.
hrough the hard times of wars and depression, Italy became one of the world's leading purveyors of low cost wine, often sold in containers of outlandish shapes and sizes.
Though such practices were profitable for some, they did little for the image of Italian wines abroad.
For decades responsible producers had been trying to tighten regulations and put the emphasis on premium quality. But it was a not until the denominazione d'origine laws were passed in the 1960s that a new climate of dignity and trust was created, providing the basis for what came to known as the "modern renaissance" of Italian wine.
Since Vernaccia di San Gimignano became the first DOC in 1966, the list has grown to include nearly 300 zones, delimited geographically, within which a multitude of wines are controlled for authenticity. (For more detailed information about the Denominazione di Origine Controllata classification system see the sections Appellations and Quality Laws & Labels).
DOC/DOCG wines represent less than 20 percent of the total. Beyond them come a growing number of wines that qualify under the recently introduced category of Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT). The typical category applies to wines that range from locally admired to to internationally acclaimed.
Despite the reduction through this century, Italy still has more types of vines planted than any other country, including natives and a virtually complete range of the so-called international varieties.
The number of officially approved Vitis Vinifera vines runs well into the hundreds and there are even a few non-vinifera vines and hybrids used here and there by the nation's countless do-it-yourself winemakers.
This heritage of vines permits Italy to produce a greater range of distinctive wines than any other nation. Though Italy is most noted for its noble reds for aging, trends also favor more immediate types of rosso, including the vini novelli to be drunk within months of the harvest.
Italy is also a major producer of white wines, ranging in style from light and fruity to oak-aged versions of impressive substance and depth. Some regions are noted for bubbly wines, whether the lightiy fizzy frizzante or the fully sparkling spumante made by either the sealed tank charmat or bottle-fermented classico or tradizionale method.
Without staking claims to supremacy, it seems fair to submit that numerous Italian wines stand with the international elite. But what is perhaps most encouraging is that Italy's premium production continues to expand and improve. Italians have become increasingly committed to meeting the growing demand for wines of quality and character at every level of price.