Among the great wine countries of the world, Italy is one of the most diverse. The sheer variety of grapes and styles offered within the country’s 20 regions can seem intimidating at first to those looking to master its nuances, but it’s also the reason why somms are continually intrigued by Italy’s wines.
We asked some of the country’s top wine professionals what they love about Italian wine and why. The question was met with long, complex responses. Answers touched on the sense of place offered in favorite regions and grape varieties, the longevity of structure, and the wines’ incredible affinity for food. It’s clear that Italian wine has stolen the hearts – and palates – of top somms everywhere.
“Italian wine is beloved by sommeliers because no other wine nation in the world has such viticultural diversity. There are grape varieties specific to single provinces, even single towns! In terms of exploration – which is what being a sommelier is all about – nothing compares to Italy. Moreover, the overall quality level of the wines continues to rise; they’re not just good because they’re weird, they’re good because they’re good!” – David Lynch, Editorial Director, SommSelect
“Italy has many grape varieties that are both traditional and obscure at the same time, which keeps sommeliers engaged. Through my travels of the countryside, particularly through Piedmont, I’ve learned to trust the quality of even the vino da tavola!” – Vahan Petrossian, Beverage Manager, Cleo (Los Angeles)
“I love Italian wine! Although the amount of indigenous varietals and specific appellations might be cumbersome to dig into, there is great reward once one is able to spend time unpacking all that is Italian wine. The diversity of styles coming from continental to Mediterranean climates, all the way from the Alps in the north, to not too far from the shores of Africa in the southern islands, make Italy a place where one can find a wine to pair with almost anything.” – Jack Mason, Master Sommelier, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse (Houston)
“What I love most about Italian wines is that, though Italians have been making wine for thousands of years, Italian producers aren’t shackled by their history. Italian winemakers are constantly trying to find rare indigenous grapes and long-forgotten regions to make wines from, which contributes to a huge variety of delicious and unique flavors. They are also some of the most progressive winemakers in the world and frequently push the boundaries for what is possible in wine. Plus, you can get better wine, dollar for dollar, in Italy than in most places around the world.” – Joe Campanale, Owner and Beverage Director, Fausto (NYC)
“Italian wine, while extremely food-friendly, usually has enough of a certain character to be enjoyed on its own as well. Typically, there’s so much acidity and warm fruit present that you don’t have to worry about a certain dish priming the palate, or vice versa. Italian wine also ages well because there’s often a lot of tannin, fruit, and acidity involved, providing a good backbone for aging. Over a certain period of time, those components will soften or commingle in transformative ways to make secondary flavors that can only come with the passage of time.” – Chris Graeff, Beverage Director, Lumière (Boston)
“Anyone can find something they love in Italy. It is impossible to separate culture, cuisine, and wine… In Italy, every region makes wine, often from grapes found nowhere else in Europe, in a range of styles. And it’s intrinsically tied to the food served in that region.” – Jerome Noël, Wine Director, Bellemore (Chicago)
“What stands out to me is the incredible diversity of indigenous varieties, terroirs, production styles, and points of access for the curious and thirsty consumer. It seems like great wine can be found for every palate and budget, and I think that is what makes it a region that so many people feel comfortable with. I love spicy, juicy, salty white wines from the Ligurian and Campanian coasts; the aromatic, powerful reds from Etna in Sicily; the noble tradition of Barolo and Barbaresco in the north – I could go on and on.” – Natalie Johnson, Beverage Director, Loring Place (NYC)
“Having lived in northern Italy, the wines of this country start with the people. The stewards of the land and vines care in a way that I have never seen before; the vines are part of the family fabric. I love Italian wine because it speaks a language of its own, with varieties and tastes that you cannot repeat or duplicate in any other area of the world. Italian grapes and the wines they produce bring back beautiful memories every time I drink them – and I drink a lot of them!”– Jon McDaniel, Sommelier and CEO, Second City Soil (Chicago)
“The subtleties of Nebbiolo keep me wanting more. While I often know all there is to know about a modern-style wine after a few sips, traditional Nebbiolo wines evolve for hours, if not days. Traditional Italian reds, such as Chianti and Barolo, have tons of acidity, so they are extremely versatile with food and can age seamlessly for decades.” – Steven Washuta, Wine Director, Felidia (NYC)
“The truth is that every Italian region has unique grapes and incredible wines yet a commonality shared for enjoying wine with ingredient-driven, traditional food. But when asked for favorite regions to visit, I like to recommend less-traveled regions like Le Marche or Sicily or recommend ‘when in Rome’ to take a 30-minute train ride to Frascati, Cori, or Olevano. Visitors can discover some ancient grapes and beautiful stories about how wine is integrated with the culture, and the quality of these areas are showing wines as imagined during their glory days of the Roman Empire and before.” – Shelley Lindgren, Partner and Wine Director, SPQR and A16 (San Francisco)