Italian wine has a special place in the hearts of many enthusiasts. Mostly famed for its reds, such as the famous Chianti and the legendary Barolo, Italy’s winemakers have nonetheless brought a wide range of whites and other varieties, such as Vin Santo, Prosecco and Franciacorta to the table. Italian history has long been intertwined with the vine, and the country is frequently considered the birthplace of modern viniculture.
Hobbyists frequently take wine tours in order to get a feel for the grapes and techniques of a certain area, but first, take a quick tour of the history of this beautiful drink in Italy.
From the Bronze Age to the Roman Empire
The earliest evidence for intentional fermentation of grapes leads us to the Middle East. Historians believe that wine was first made in Mesopotamia, around 3,000-4,000 BC. It was then adopted by the Greeks, who eventually brought it to Italy. For some time the practice was confined to Sicily and the south of Italy, before the Etruscans, arriving from Asia Minor, brought this beverage to central Italy.
While it was the Greeks who were responsible for the first European vintages, it was the Romans who modified the process to something akin to what you might see on your wine tours today. They would plant vineyards in amongst fruit orchards, and upon harvesting the grapes would first pour them all into a trough. The juice from the very ripest, tenderest grapes would run off without any active squeezing and would be used to make a premium product. After this, the grapes would then be trod, before the final extraction with a torque press.
Interestingly, the dregs left after this process were pressed and sold by the brick as a sort of concentrate for making a cheap, rehydrated drink.
As the Roman Empire grew, so did the vintner’s trade. Persistent though the image of wealthy, reclining Romans quaffing goblets of red may be, white was, in fact, the preferred drink, with the Falernian region (located close to Naples) being the most popular region. The wine was drunk at any time of day, often diluted (particularly when drunk with earlier meals), and frequently made much stronger than what is typically available today. The first recorded observations of the benefits of aging are also attributed to the Romans.
The Collapse of the Empire and the Renaissance
After the Roman Empire collapsed, the drink’s popularity in Italy decreased. However, Italians never quite stopped making it, with viniculture remaining especially common as a monastic tradition. The Republic of Venice took control of much of the global grape trade in 1202, but when it lost Crete (a prized region), the Venetians developed planted vineyards and developed the practice in other regions. With the Renaissance came a renewal of vigour in the industry, and the beverage began to make a comeback.
After the Renaissance
In the 19th century, Phylloxera vastatrix – a highly damaging vine louse accidentally imported from America – swept across Europe and caused enormous devastation to vineyards across the continent. France was hit especially hard, prompting Italy to step up its own production to take over the former’s lost market share.
Production took another hit with the World Wars, and in the post-war period Italian produce began to plummet in quality. It was then that the labels familiar to modern consumers came about: DOC and DOCG laws were established by the Italian government in order to safeguard the quality of the product. To this day, some of the world’s finest vintages are produced (and drunk) in Italy.