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“Italy is the maestro of the modern wine world,” says Iris Rowlee, the wine director of Perbacco in San Francisco. “Incredible diversity, ridiculously good value, and charming people aside, Italian wine is of excellent quality and only has upward momentum right now.” Indeed, Italy is one of the most exciting wine regions today, offering more appellations and local grape varieties and styles than any other country. Italy also produces the largest volume of wine in the world, and its vineyards span every one of its 20 regions. From millennia of winemaking history to modern innovations and a new exhilaration among vintners, this is the story of how Italian wine has reached new heights—and why it is poised to continue its soaring trajectory.
Shaped by History
Wine is an intrinsic part of Italian culture, and the country’s offerings are gaining increasing attention around the world. But it’s important to remember that today’s Italian wines have been shaped by thousands of years of history. “Italian winemakers have a historic tradition of grape cultivation and winemaking that’s unparalleled by most countries,” says Maurizio Forte, a trade commissioner with the Italian Trade Agency. “Today’s wineries benefit both from inherited and learned experience that span the ancient, medieval, Renaissance, and industrial-era periods. Combine ancestral knowledge with the most cutting-edge technologies, in which Italy is a leader, and you have quality of the highest level.”
Wine has been made in Italy for at least 4,000 years, from the time of prehistoric people who worked with wild grapes to the Greeks, who named the country Oenotria, or “the land of wine,” when they arrived in Italy in the 8th century B.C. The Romans established a vibrant wine trade throughout the their empire, influencing wine culture not only in Italy but elsewhere in Europe as well. Even during the Dark and Middle Ages, European monks and the Catholic Church maintained the tradition of winemaking. The first imprint of one of Italy’s most famous regions, Chianti, emerged as early as the 16th century, and the regions Barolo and Marsala were known throughout Europe as early as the 19th century, when advances like bottling and the use of corks allowed Italian wines to be shipped.
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Italy didn’t become a unified country until 1861, so each of its regions maintains a distinctive identity to this day, which is why some Italian varieties have numerous monikers. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the implementation of the DOC and DOCG appellation system―both were introduced in 1963, though the first DOCG was not awarded until 1980―marked Italy’s modern quality renaissance.
These days, 334 DOCs and 74 DOCGs produce wine across the country, from the cool northern reaches of Piedmont and Alto Adige to the sunbaked southern regions of Puglia, Calabria, and Sicily. “Italian wines have never been better,” Forte says. “Our producers work within strict regulations that govern quality and are making wines at the highest level of quality in their history.”
The range of diversity in Italian wine is also broader than ever, as winemakers rediscover ancient, nearly forgotten grape varieties and work to revive, preserve, and share these indigenous grapes with the world. Today, 590 native grape varieties have been identified and documented—more than anywhere else in the world—with hundreds more yet to be cataloged. As winemakers embrace these local varieties, the world of Italian flavors becomes more robust and intricate, enticing wine professionals and consumers alike. Says Rowlee, “One could dedicate a lifetime to studying the diverse terroirs and bountiful varieties found in Italy.”
Why Americans Favor Italian Wine
There’s no better place—outside of Italy—to enjoy this golden age of Italian wine than the U.S. In the early 2000s, Italy was exporting 160 million liters of wine to the U.S. annually. As of 2017, that number has more than doubled, to 334 million liters, or 23.5 percent of total production, making the U.S. Italy’s top export market for wine. While much of that wine comprises high-quality, value-oriented options from well-known regions―the Italian Trade Agency notes that 82 percent of Italian wine exported to the U.S. comes from just four regions―increasingly, the U.S. is becoming a strategic market for Italy’s premium wines. American wine buyers and sommeliers are now gaining access to a greater variety of Italian wines at a wider range of price points.
When Lance Montalto began working with Italian wines at The Wine House in Los Angeles in 1996, the shop featured about 200 SKUs from Italy, primarily from classic regions such as Chianti and Barolo. Today, Montalto, who is the shop’s Italian wine buyer, stocks over 1,300 SKUs that come from every corner of Italy, making Italian wine the Wine House’s fastest-growing department. “There isn’t a region in Italy that doesn’t have some representation now,” Montalto says, noting that even regions like Lombardy, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Alto Adige, and Sicily have made it onto the shelves.
For many reasons, American consumers are primed to soak up this bounty of Italian wine. For one, a renewed penchant for discovery, particularly among millennials, has created an atmosphere that encourages the exploration of Italy’s numerous grapes, regions, and styles. “With almost 600 documented varieties and over 400 denominations,” Forte says, “younger [consumers] can try a new Italian wine every day for a year and still find wines they have yet to explore.” Tourism to Italy is up as well, not only to regularly frequented destinations like Rome and Venice but to off-the-beaten-path areas like Puglia and Umbria. “People are traveling to new places, like Sicily,” Montalto says, “and they come back and want to drink [wines from the places they’ve visited].”
Montalto also points out that many of the high-end restaurants that have opened in the U.S. over the past 10 to 15 years are focused on Italian cuisine—and therefore Italian wine. Two examples, he notes, are Bestia in Los Angeles and Maialino in New York. This makes the average consumer more comfortable and familiar with Italian wine, even expensive bottles. “The rising prices at restaurants,” says Montalto, also make “people feel like they’re getting a deal when they can purchase the same wine for less at a retail shop.”
Building Opportunities for Buyers
When presented with an Italian-focused wine list, some consumers may still need guidance, but that can be an opportunity for the restaurant to build a connection with guests. “People still find comfort with ordering or discussing French and American wines, far more than Italian bottlings.” says Casper Rice, the corporate wine director for Fabio Trabocchi Restaurants. He notes that most guests are compelled to order Italian because of his restaurants’ Italian cuisine. The sommeliers at the Fabio Trabocchi restaurants often make suggestions based on guest preferences, which leads to sales not only of the classics―Barolo, Barbaresco, Amarone della Valpolicella, and Super Tuscans―but of out-of-the-ordinary wines like Gattinara, Faro, and Morellino di Scansano.
At Allora in Sacramento, the sommelier and partner Elizabeth-Rose Mandalou was inspired by the restaurant’s modern Italian seafood to concentrate on Italian wines, along with Californian versions of Italian grapes. “I was really nervous to focus my list on only Italy at the beginning,” she says, noting that her selection of Italian bottles ranges from $38 to $665. But locals have embraced the array of grape varieties offered—and they tend to get excited by the more unusual grapes. “I didn’t expect to sell more Verdicchio than Sauvignon Blanc, or Schiava than Pinot Nero,” she says, “but we have.”
It doesn’t hurt that Italy is also home to some of the finest versions of international grape varieties. “I do have Sauvignon Blanc by the bottle, predominantly from Alto Adige or Friuli,” says Mandalou, “as well as Chardonnay from Tuscany or Friuli, for those guests who want something that they can more easily understand.”
Even at small, neighborhood wine shops, a strong selection of Italian wines is a necessity. “To not include Italian wine,” says Jesse Warner-Levine, the owner of Convive Wine & Spirits in Manhattan, “is to miss so much of what makes wine exciting.” While Sangiovese, particularly from Chianti, always sells well at Convive, quirky options like natural, earthy Lambrusco have also become popular in recent years. Montalto recommends that wine shops looking to boost online sales seize the opportunity offered by Italy’s depth of diverse wine options. “You can offer lesser-known styles and varieties,” he says, “and they sell well online.”
Italy’s top-dollar selections are additionally a draw for high-end wine buyers, which can be a huge retail category for sales. “Collectors have the opportunity to purchase some of the most storied, age-worthy wines of the world,” Warner-Levine notes, “at a much more reasonable price point.” Adds Montalto, “These longtime collectors of Burgundy are now transitioning into high-end Barolo, and [none of them] flinches at $1,200 a bottle.”
In American restaurants and retail shops, Italian wine has slowly become part of the culture. Beyond the wide range of options and high quality that the country offers, Italy has that special something that’s essential to the American concept of hospitality. “So much of positive hospitality depends on feeling taken care of,” says Rowlee. “The culture of Italy is just so good at imparting that feeling.”
Discover more about Italian wine.
With at least 4,000 years of winemaking history, Italy is a cornerstone of the wine world. Today the country’s 20 regions, more than 400 appellations, and nearly 600 grape varieties are undergoing a true renaissance.