With 20 different wine regions spread from Alto Adige, on the border with Switzerland, to the Mediterranean islands of Sicily and Sardinia, the wines of Italy are some of the most historical and unique wines, as well as the most premium.
While wine did not originate on Italian territory, the Greek and Roman Empires at the time were surely known for helping to spread its consumption. With a history dating back 4,000 years, and such an important role in winemaking, it should come as no surprise that there are a lot of fun facts about Italian wines.
Because I am a bit of a Trivia addict and love to learn interesting facts about pretty much anything, and especially wine, I will be exploring some of the most interesting Italian wine facts in this article.
1. Italy was historically called “The land of wine”
As it turns out Italians were big wine producers and drinkers before anyone else and the territory was set for wine success millennia ago. When the Ancient Greeks arrived in Italy in the 8th century BC they already saw the potential for grapes and named the land Oenotria, “The land of wine”.
No doubt, wine production and consumption flourished during the Roman Empire, and its interest expanded to far away lands across the Empire. But when it collapsed in the 5th century BC, with it went the love for wine, which was confined to national production and pretty much to the monasteries as sacramental wine during the Middle Ages. Even in Spain, monks brought back wine for consumption at religious events and masses and were the main owners of vineyards and vines.
2. Italy is the world’s largest wine producer
While Spain has the most surface of planted vineyards with 2.9 million hectares, Italy produces the most wine with 39 million hectoliters, followed by France with 3 million fewer.
While the top three producers are in a similar range, we see a large dip when we hit the fourth producer onward.
Despite being the largest producer, Italy is not the largest consumer as a lot of wines are exported.
3. There are over 400 wine appellations in Italy
Italy, like most other wine producing countries in the Old World, regulates wine production to guarantee its quality standards.
There are 408 Protected Designations of Origin as per the European Union’s categorization and this includes 74 of the highest quality Denominazione d’Origine Controllata e Garantita regions and 334 Denominazione d’Origine Controllata, the second highest level of quality. This is more than any other country in Europe, testifying to the great variety and uniqueness of the many Italian wine regions.
Despite the wide range of regions, a lot of them are very small, and the number-one wine province of Veneto, where Venice is, produces almost a third of the country’s wine.
4. The widest range of grape varieties in the world
One of the most interesting Italian wine facts is the wide range of options. According to the reference book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, there are over 2,000 grape varietals cultivated in Italy of which 440 are registered for commercial wine production. This makes Italy home to a quarter of the world’s native grapes.
Many of these are indigenous, ancient and endemic grapes grown for centuries and brought by Greek, Spanish, Etruscan and other prehistoric peoples who landed on Italian soil. It also means that a lot of these grapes cannot be found elsewhere. Italy also grows some of the better-known international grapes, like Merlot or Chardonnay, with great results. In fact, Chardonnay and Merlot are two of the top-10 most planted grapes in Italy.
Almost all of the internationally renowned Italian wines are made with local grapes not used elsewhere. For example, some well-known Italian grapes, like Trebbiano or Montepulciano, are almost exclusively grown in Italy.
With so much variety in grapes and such a range of options, Italy is no doubt the testbed for lots of innovation and unique wines. You could drink a different Italian wine every day of the year and not run out of options. Challenge accepted?
5. Some Italian grapes have interesting names
On top of having the most variety of grapes, Italy also has some of the most interesting ones, named after places, people and other fun things.
In Sardinia, you can find Monica grapes, of Spanish origin. In the province of Le Marche you can find a wine called Lacrima di Morro d’Alba, or “tear of Morro d’Alba,” the name of a village nearby. Other grapes include Uva Rara, or “the rare grape”, named as such due to the fact that the grape bunch is quiet sparse, meaning there is a lot of space between the grapes., There is also Cortese, meaning “courteous” and a grape called “Grillo” or cricket in English.
Using the name of the village where a grape grows to refer to it is another common way to name grapes in Italy and when you see the names containing “di” or “d’” you can almost guarantee it refers to the place where the grapes are grown. How is that for a fun wine fact?
6. There are many types of Italian sparkling wines
Prosecco is the name of a town in the north of Italy and of Italy’s most famous sparkling wine, made with Glera grapes. It is not the only sparkling wine in Italy: there are several other types.
Sparkling, in Italian, is called spumante, that just means fizzy and does not speak to the kind of fizz, the amount, the taste or the level of sweetness. There are several production methods for Italian spumante among them being Charmat, Metodo Classico, Metodo Ancestrale and Carbonatione. Each of them is made differently and comes in varying degrees of sweetness and even color (some of them are pink, some are red).
Contrary to champagne or cava, Italian sparkling wines can differ significantly depending on the method used. Metodo classico wines are made in the same way as champagne or cava, where the second fermentation that produces bubbles happening directly in the bottle. Many examples of these use Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the same grape varietals as in Champagne.
Lambrusco is both the name of a red sparkling wine and a region in the province of Emilia Romagna. Asti Spumante is generally made in a sweet style from the Moscato grape and enjoyed as dessert or aperitif.
So next time you are thinking of an Italian sparkling wine, consider trying a different one.
7. Prosecco hills are UNESCO candidates
The beautiful and ancient hills of the Prosecco region where the grapes are grown are so stunning and have such a rich heritage, dating back to the 1700s, that they were submitted to UNESCO as a tentative addition to the list of protected sites in 2010 under the cultural category.
It was not only the appearance of the landscapes and the undulating hills against the Alps, but also the historical link between the vineyards and man that promoted the submission.
8. Italy has some of the most interesting wines
I spoke about the variety of grapes, the large production, the many appellations and the ancient grape varietals, so you could almost guess my next fun fact about Italian wines: some of the wines made in Italy are very interesting and pretty unique.
With so many regions, and so many producers using so many unique varietals, the chances of something amazing happening are high. There are wines made with dried out, almost raisin-like grapes and others aged under the sea. There are also wines with such small production, getting your hands on them is almost impossible.
Using dried grapes is a common practice used to produce several Italian wines, and they are not just late-harvest sweet wines. The premium, generally aged, red Amarone della Valpolicella wines are made with grapes that are left to partially dry for several months, traditionally on straw mats, until they resemble raisins.
Because the yeast feasts on the sugar of these grapes, the alcohol percentage of the wine can be well above 15%. These are not your typical dessert wines but rather wines paired with red meats. Because of its long production time, low yields and longer aging, Amarone wines are some of the most expensive Italian wines.
Dried out grapes are also used to make Vin Santo, another type of sweet, late-harvest wine produced in Tuscany, drunk as dessert and made of grapes that are generally hung to dry inside (although not always) and then aged 7 years in small casks. The name of this wine comes from its original use during mass service by priests, and its name translates to Holy Wine.
9. Volcanic Wines are a thing
Volcanic wines have been making the rounds among wine experts in recent years and, while not exclusive to Italy, Italy has a few wine-growing volcanic locations which are notable and becoming the next “it” thing for wine experts looking for something more interesting.
In Sicily, Mount Etna has favorable soil for growing grapes and produces very interesting wines with a smoky and very unique taste. There is a restaurant near my house carrying the same name as the volcano, which has some of Sicily’s and Mount Etna’s wines available. Nothing is better than a meal of their homemade dishes paired with their very particular wines for a virtual trip to Sicily and a very special wine experience.
10. The legend of the black rooster
I always tell this medieval legend because I find it very quaint, interesting and fascinating. It is also a homage to a wine region, and country, with a very long tradition of wine making.
Did you ever notice that the Chianti Classico wines have a rooster seal?
Chianti Classico wines are easily picked from the rest because of this seal, a unique sign of authenticity. The legend talks about a territorial dispute between the villages of Siena and Florence over the Chianti region.
To solve it, both villages agreed to a horse race. Two knights were to leave their villages at the crack of dawn, as soon as the rooster would sing. Wherever the two would meet determined the line that would mark the border between Siena and Florence.
While the rooster from Florence was kept in a cage and hungry for a few days before the race, the Siena one was not. On the day, the Florence rooster, angry and hungry, was released in the middle of the night and sang much earlier than sunrise. So, Florence’s knight left earlier and managed to ride farther than the Siena knight, defining the new border between the two villages much closer to Siena’s walls and making Florence’s territory much larger.
Learn more about the wines of Italy in the Italian Trade Commission website