I understand that this might sound like a pun, but if there is anything that defines the true core of the Italian spirit it is its wine culture. This diverse yet cohesive viticulture mirrors a complex yet harmonious country whose apparent diversity hides, in all reality, a common soul. Whilst the country is divided into different regions – all celebrated here on Italy Segreta – there is a fil rouge that unifies them all. One of the strings of this invisible wire is the Italian wine business, a flagship of the Nation and a genuine trademark.
In viticulture, this aspect of united heterogeneity is well-rooted in several winemaking practices. The sacred respect for the seasonal phenomena, different in every region, the care for the diverse soils, the local varieties of grapes, and the complex techniques each represent the uniqueness of the Bel Paese wine culture. Whilst other countries, such as France and the US, have a clear and branded wine culture, delivered over the decades of international trading, Italy finds its wine culture in this heterogeneity, making it unique and not always easily approachable to foreigners.
Over the summer of 2021, I decided to travel the Peninsula in search of the best wines and the best expressions of the complex terroirs wet by the Mediterranean seas. At the end of July, again on my loyal 90s Fiat Punto, I drove on the highways of Italy, from Piedmont to Puglia and back, to find out what makes this viticulture so special, literally drinking my way through Italy.
In Piedmont, where I am from, I opened a delicious bottle of Nebbiolo by La Spinetta (2018) to make my mind clear on what to see and drink. So, pen in hand, sipping this lovely wine, I drew a line on the booted-map, starting from Langhe to Puglia, via Liguria, Tuscany, Umbria, Basilicata and back via Emilia Romagna. I thought that drinking my way through these regions, watching nature changing its shapes and tasting the fruit of the lands, would have made me taste the flavour of this unique land.
La Spinetta Nebbiolo is an expressive wine of the Langhe sub-region, with a bouquet of rose petals, lilacs and berries. The elegant body reflects the neat and immaculate vineyards that pamper the hills in Barbaresco and Neive, while the well-balanced tannins of the wine display the rich history of the Piemontese terroir. Langhe was once part of the Med, and over the millennia, has layered levels of limestone, sand and fossils, creating the perfect condition for a truly remarkable terroir.
I soon realised that this bottle represented a pretty high benchmark to start my little journey, but I was confident that I would have found the famous pane per i miei denti (biting off more than I can chew) on my way to the South.
In Genoa, the second stop of the trip, I drank the brilliant Rossese di Dolceacqua Testalonga (2019) by Antonio Perrino. Until a few years ago, the grape was little known, but in recent years, thanks to a crew of fierce winemakers, it has made its comeback. Testalonga is a spicy, rustic and lush wine, capable of expressing the scents of the Mediterranean bushes, with hints of olives, black pepper and dark cherries. Producing wine on the Ligurian coast is not an easy task, with its vineyards planted on terraces, often on steep slopes and with virtually no space between the mountains and the sea. Kudos to these young winemakers! Their passion for the grapes, their capability of expressing the land in such a remarkable way, have definitely left an imprint on the wine scene of Italy. “Sincerity” and “cleanness” are words that I wrote down in my notebook during the taste of such beauty, overlooking the dramatic Ligurian coasts on a night at the end of July.
The next step of my boozy wandering was the beloved Lucca, perhaps the heaven of every wine aficionado just like me. Lucca is well-known for its outstanding churches, it is, in fact, called the city of the 100 churches, but I would say that what pulled me there were the bottles of wine, perhaps we should rename it the city of the 100 bottles.
I will never forget the number of bottles of wine I saw (sadly not drunk) at the superb Enoteca Vanni in Piazza San Salvatore. The walls of the enoteca are dated to around 1200, and the business has been owned by the Vanni family since 1965. It is inside this amusement park for my taste buds that I lost myself amongst bottles of wine, cellars, little doors and great labels. The choice was obviously difficult (it is still Tuscany, after all), as the selection of wines at the Enoteca Vanni is enormous. I wanted to leave my comfort zone, and not drink the usual big Tuscan names. I, therefore, opted for a bottle of Linchetto (2020) by Valle del Sole. This blend of Sangiovese (50%) and local Lucchese local varieties (50% of Moscato Rosso, Aleatico, Ciliegiolo and Colorino) is a fun wine to drink, with a happy and joyful body and a lively persistence on the palate. Definitely a summer wine.
Leaving Tuscany can often be a real shock for any tourist, but not if you pass to Umbria, another Italian region blessed with great wine. Umbria is one of the prettiest regions of Italy, with marvellous hills, lavish vegetation and opulent forests. The excellence of the landscape is only outclassed by the perfection of the art (Giotto and Cimabue at Assisi, c’mon!) and by the power of the wines. Sagrantino di Montefalco by Perticaia (2015) is one of the bold, austere red wines of Italy. Not easy to decipher, this high-tannin wine has gained its reputation for the last 30 years among the best Italian reds. The colour is dark ruby red, on the nose it offers persistent perfume and a complex aroma of sour cherries, vanilla, and black pepper. On the palate it is well-balanced, decisive, almost astringent, not an everyday glou-glou wine, but a meditative one, for the great occasions I would say.
The next stop literally blew my mind. Basilicata is a small region, predominantly mountainous and hilly, with a Mediterranean climate made of hot and dry summers, and in some parts, cold and wet winters. This climate structure provides the ideal environment for Aglianico Del Vulture and the Aglianico variety, which express this climate contrast throughout a bold and decisive taste. My drink of choice was Aglianico del Vulture “Il Repertorio” (2017) by Cantine Del Notaio that represents the region at its best: a big, elegant and rich red wine, with hints of candied prunes on the nose, and a touch of oak on the palate. This is clearly a wine with ageing potential, able to develop tertiary notes on the sweetest side (still remaining a dry red). Driving Basilicata coast to coast [cit.] is one those “once-in-a-lifetime” experiences, as the region is a natural canvas, covered in yellow wheat, above which the bright blue Italian sky rises. Cities carved into rocks literally pop up from mountains, conveying a sense of mystical charm. The feeling of driving through an ancient land was tangible and real, as Basilicata reconnects its tourists with a bygone past, made with history and esoterism.
The cassette on my car radio was loudly playing some Black Flag tunes when I crossed the border between Basilicata and Puglia. Henry Rollins’ voice was taking me into the mythical realm of Puglia, a region that I note in my diary as ‘punk rock’. It might have been because of its constant buzz, or because of the coolness of the locals, but Puglia was indeed a blast! Lecce, Bari, Otranto, Ostuni, Lororotondo, Alberobello were the playfields of my intense quench. If there is a region in Italy that is experimenting with wine, that is Puglia. Skin contacts, macerations, unorthodox varieties and funky winemaking techniques are just some examples of what is happening in that corner of the world. During my stay, I was lucky enough to discover great natural wine bars (I have to mention Organic Vinivini and Mostofiore, both in Bari) and brilliant wines. It is not an easy task to name just one bottle amongst the many I had, but the Rosato (2019) by Cristiano Guttarolo was an absolute banger! Made with Primitivo grapes (with a touch of Susumaniello) that sit on skins for only two days, and then aged in porcelain amphora, this wine is definitely your choice during the hot and dry Puglian summers. The fruit is vibrant, with raspberry and red berries notes on the nose, the palate is crisp, crunchy and pure fun. What about white wines? Puglia offers great choices too. I was djing at La Restuccia, near Lecce, for a weekend, where I indulged – also thanks to a wonderful queer atmosphere – with too many glasses of Calcarius by the superstar Valentina Passalacqua, a fresh, easy-drinking, fruity summer white.
“Everything’s ending here” sings Stephen Malkmus of the Pavement on my little car radio. Everything comes to an end, yes, and my Puglian adventure was no different, but, luckily, I had one more stop on my schedule on the way back: Emilia Romagna. I could write 1,000 lines here on how and why Emilia Romagna is the coolest place on earth, but this is not the right time and space. Instead, I am just going to casually drop the landmark of the local winemaking, and that should be enough: Cantina Paltrinieri. Their wines represent everything great in the wine world of Italy, and their Lambrusco di Sorbara ‘Radici’ (2020) is a fizzy, fresh, pink pale delicacy from the region. Fermented in the bottle with indigenous yeasts, this wine shows cherry fruit notes on the nose, and sharp edges on the palate. Respect for the land, conscious farming and very little intervention on the winemaking process make this Cantina a name to follow.
After all the driving and the drinking around (rigorously in this order, I promise), I came to the end of my boozy trip around Italy with a big smile on my face. The quality of wine in our country is outstanding, the biodiversity of the regions and the different environments offer so many complex combinations of flavours that make the Italian wine culture unique and different from the other counterparts. Perhaps what makes this business so special is the attitude of the winemakers, real people with genuine interest, with an ethical vision of the terroirs and a true respect for this beautiful land. One thing I know for sure: I cannot possibly wait to jump in the car again and have a drink in all the other regions of Italy. See you in summer 2022!
- Nebbiolo (2018) by La Spinetta
- Rossese di Dolceacqua Testalonga (2019) by Antonio Perrino
- Linchetto (2020) by Valle del Sole
- Sagrantino di Montefalco (2018) by Perticaia
- Aglianico del Vulture “Il Repertorio” (2017) by Cantine Del Notaio
- Amphora Rosato (2019) by Cristiano Guttarolo
- Lambrusco di Sorbara ‘Radici’ (2020) by Cantina Paltrinieri