Italy produces more wine than any country in the world, but many of its grapes and wine styles are not well known here. On a recent trip to VinItaly, the largest wine trade show in the world held annually in Verona, it struck me how many fantastic wines are from little-known regions and just how many varietals and blends are available.
North of Venice, up against the Dolomites, a section of the Alps, lies the enchanting region of Trentino-Alto Adige. Its vineyards are punctuated by soaring palm trees against a background of solid rock rising more than 9,000 feet. The northernmost Italian wine-producing area, it has been cultivated since the Great Roman Empire. The region's winemakers produce a wide variety of wines from a dizzying array of grapes, including Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Pinot Bianca and Traminer in the white range, and Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Lagrein, and Merlot for red. Wines labeled Lambrusco (not to be confused with the sweet juice from New York State that was widely available 20 years ago), Sauvignon Blanc, Müller-Thurgau and Vino Santo are just a few of the other offerings from the region.
The vineyards of Trentino-Alto Adige are aided by plentiful sunlight and warm Adriatic breezes. Cooler evenings, normal for mountainous areas, mean the grapes not only ripen during the day, but also develop crisp, delicious acid structures. The area's Pinot Grigio is particularly worth trying, especially with seafood.
Many wine drinkers are familiar with the region of Tuscany, but it has much more to offer than young, rough Chianti. Better Chiantis often bear the designation "classico" or "riserva."
Tuscany, however, is full of surprises. Many Americans are willing to pay Bordeaux-like prices for a relatively new (1970s) wine category known as Super Tuscans, a term coined by Robert Parker. Many of these young wines came from the vineyards of families that had been making wine for six centuries. They blend Tuscany's mainstay grape, Sangiovese, with classic varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and sometimes Syrah. Originally, the blends did not fit any of the country's classifications, so they received lower ones.
In another area in Tuscany, just 10 miles outside Florence, wine laws dating from the 19th century allowed blending of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and other local varieties such as Canaiolo, Mammolo and Colorino. Sometimes white grapes like Trebbiano and Malvasia are used. These little known wines were actually the first Super Tuscans.
The wines of Carmignano are lush and present an entirely different bouquet and flavor profile than other Tuscan wines. Their bright fruit is reminiscent of New World wines, yet offer the distinct nuances of their region.
The coastal area near Maremma in southeastern Tuscany was historically little inhabited because of its marshes and swamps. Since the marshes were drained more than 60 years ago, the area has developed vineyards and even resorts. Perhaps the hottest wine/varietal to come out of there is Maremma di Scansano, made with the region's version of the Sangiovese grape, the Morellino. By law, Morellino di Scansano must contain at least 85 percent of the Sangiovese grape from the defined areas, but other blending grapes are acceptable for the remaining percentage. The wines are soft, with low tannins, and do not require aging in wood. Some are released within eight months of harvest, providing a clean, fresh flavor. Wines denoted "riserva" must be aged two years, with at least one in wood. It's the latest Super Tuscan, showing how Italian winemakers continue to innovate and produce exciting new wines.