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Steve Delaney
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Exploring some of Italy’s lesser-known wines

There’s nothing new about drinking wine from Italy, but there’s still plenty to explore and learn about this leading wine-producing nation.

Wine cork — Photo by Thinkstock.com

Depending on the success of each harvest, Italy and France are usually vying for the title of world’s biggest wine producer and world’s biggest wine exporter. In recent years Italy seems to be claiming these titles more frequently.

Italy’s wine tradition goes back millennia, pre-dating the Roman Empire to the early Greek colonies and the Etruscans.

Wine production flourished during the Roman era and was spread to other parts of the Empire, notably the regions which became France and Spain in our times.

As one of the natal areas for the development of wine production in western Europe, Italy is naturally home to nearly a thousand grape varieties suitable for making wine. We know most of the widely available ones such as Sangiovese, Trebbiano, Nebbiolo, Montepulciano, and Barbera.

There are perhaps a few dozen that we see regularly on local shelves.

 Other varieties are far less common, even in their own country. Some, such as Pecorino, have recently been rescued from obscurity and extinction.

Such varieties, even though they may possess quality characteristics, have fallen by the wayside due to the whims of the market, and the forces of disease, war, and political disruption.

 In the case of Pecorino, a single vine was discovered in an abandoned vineyard in Ascoli Piceno province in the 1980s. Although the grape had been well known for centuries, it probably fell out of favour due to its naturally low yields. The grape does offer, however, a complex and interesting aromatic profile that has given it new life in today’s market.

I have enjoyed an aged Pecorino wine that reminded me of old white Graves.

Another such variety which might have disappeared is the Vernaccia di San Gimignano. It is grown only on the slopes of the hill town of San Gimignano in Tuscany in central Italy (the place famous for its many towers). Production comes from less than 2,000 hectares of vineyards.

(Analysis of grape vine DNA has recently shown that this Vernaccia is identical to the Bervedino grape of another Italian region, although it is not common there, either.)

In this case the revival of the grape seems to correspond with its status as the first declared DOC wine of the Italian wine quality system which was introduced in 1966.

The wine has since moved up to DOCG status, and this quality label has helped retain interest in the variety.

Just like Pecorino, it would have been a shame to lose this grape and the wine it makes. My recent sample, the newly listed Bartalli Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2012 (NLC $15.99), had a light aroma which combined some citrus with touches of floral and nutty elements.

It was also light in the mouth, but with fresh acidity. Although subtle, this wine had more going for it than many Italian whites of little character. Score:14.5/Good.

Organizations: Roman Empire

Geographic location: Italy, France, Spain Europe Ascoli Piceno Tuscany

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