‘It’s time we judged Italian wine on its own terms’

Sarah Heller MW argues that Italian wine is done a disservice when its appreciation is based on Bordeaux or Burgundian reference points

Words by Sarah Heller MW

Sarah Heller illustration in color
Illustration by Stuart Patience

For many years, the wine world has had an Italian problem. In an ecosystem where most wine countries, particularly outside Europe, have modelled themselves to a greater or lesser degree on France, Italian wine sticks out like a jackal at a dog show. Other than Super-Tuscans – those doyennes of the mid-20th century, self-consciously crafted to seduce the Bordeaux collector – Italian wines, and the native grapes from which they’re made, largely fail to conform to the wine world’s tacitly accepted norms.

In Italy, texture often trumps flavour: white wines can be oily and tannic and aren’t often highly aromatic; perfumed, sheer reds resembling Pinot Noir can pack the tannic heft of Cabernet Sauvignon. And virtually everything comes in red: sparkling wine, sweet wine and even aromatic varieties such as Ruchè or Lacrima that have as much aromatic throw-weight as Gewürztraminer or Muscat. A newcomer to Italian wine can feel like they’ve landed in an earlier phase of oenological evolution where all the oddities that died off or never took root elsewhere are still alive and flourishing.

A map charting Italy's native grape varieties - Italian wine
The resurgence of Italy's many indigenous grape varieties is among the trends fuelling the country's thriving wine scene. Illustration by Noma Bar

Yet this very nearly didn’t happen. As Italian native grape authority Ian D’Agata writes in the new issue of Club Oenologique, by the latter half of the 20th century, many of the varieties most cherished by today’s wine hipsterdom were down to their last dozen-odd vines (or, in at least one case, a single specimen). The so-called international grape varieties – vines of French origin – were in vogue, and even the greatest natives, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, were either being massaged into resembling these or covertly adulterated with them.

It’s hard to know exactly who to credit with the resurgence of natives in Italy. Increasingly visible wine influencers – be they sommeliers, writers, bloggers or members of the trade – many bored with the monotony of international varieties, shone a light on the work of producers evangelising native grapes. The formalisation of that geekery into rigorous educational programmes like the Vinitaly International Academy (VIA), which I helped develop, has probably bolstered the effect. External factors such as the rise in popularity, and then price, of Burgundy – a wine that shares some traits with various Italian natives – probably also helped (as Walter Speller discusses in his piece on Nebbiolo in the new issue).

The challenge remains that most wine lovers come to Italian wine relatively late. Some become veritable believers (no zealot like a convert, and so on), but many continue to judge even the greatest Italian wines not on their own terms but using values imported from France or perhaps California. To understand the difference this makes, witness the contortions Italian wine undergoes to appease unsympathetic palates – for example, Puglian Primitivo, an Italian progenitor of California’s Zinfandel, fattened up, oak-laden and sometimes even marketed as Zinfandel.

Bitterness, a taste traditionally considered a wine fault, provides the key to balance in Italian wine

As long as Barolo or Etna remain ‘the Burgundy of Italy’, they will never be the pinnacle of anywhere. I would prefer that Italian producers proactively export their own wine values or else forever remain an eccentric country cousin to France (and wouldn’t Caesar find that ironic?) This thinking underlies the tasting system we developed for VIA, where tannin texture and level in both red and white wines are treated as principal metrics for assessment. To reflect many Italian wines’ savoury mien, our tasting vocabulary emphasises woods, herbs, spices and earthy aromas rather than the usual fruit salad. We recognise that bitterness, a taste traditionally considered a wine fault, actually provides the key to balance in Italian wine (and cuisine and coffee).

Nebbiolo growing in Italy's Piedmont - Italian wine
The increased profile of Nebbiolo – seen here in Barolo – is linked to the rise in popularity of Burgundy. Photo by Stefano Scatà

Other mindset shifts include abandoning the oak-equals-quality assumption, especially for whites. For reds, one must learn to appreciate ‘sheerness’ or translucency, even when structure is Herculean, an amalgam that fits poorly in a Bordeaux/Burgundy world. And determinations of age-worthiness should also not be based on Bordeaux or Burgundy, where concentrated youthful fruit flavours are deemed necessary for longevity; many great Italian reds and, particularly, whites can be virtually mute early in life.

As somebody who started her wine adventure with Italian offerings, it actually took me some time to adjust my palate to international wines, in which I found the ‘butter popcorn’ of oak sickeningly ubiquitous and the obsession with fruit deleterious. Thus, I can empathise with those who simply feel out of sync with the raspy, cerebral acquired taste that Italian wine can present. But I promise that if you can make it to the other side with your taste buds intact, you will never feel the need to leave.

Club Oenologique Issue 7 cover
Sarah Heller MW’s column is taken from the spring 2021 issue of
Club Oenologique, which takes Italy as one of its themes. You can purchase a copy or subscribe to the magazine here.