By all accounts, wine has been produced for at least 6,000 years and the fermentation of grapes may have begun as early as the eighth century BC. Even though this dates back to the Stone Age, early farmers realized the value of cultivating grapes.
Growing grapes followed the rise of western civilization through the Mediterranean and in each new region where planted, the grapes slowly evolved and adapted to their unique environments. This slow divergence over thousands of years has led to the incredible diversity of over the 1,300 identified wine varieties that we have today.
Diversity is important in wine; in part, it provides defenses against disease, reducing the need for pesticides. Additionally, different grapes thrive in different conditions, which greatly increases the number of climates where wine grapes are grown. Unfortunately, demand for popular grapes threatens to reduce the amount of natural diversity in wine around the world. More and more places pull out their native varieties in favor of well-known grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In fact, just 50 grapes make up three quarters of the world’s wine grape plantings. Some varieties are so rare that they are nearly extinct.
Italy stands in direct contrast to this world-wide trend. As a country, it has a greater diversity in wine than any nation in the world with an astounding 377 different wine varieties. That is more than the next three most diverse countries combined. In addition, Italy’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MIPAAF), has documented over 350 grapes and granted them authorized status, but what is even more astounding is that there are more than 500 other varieties of grapes grown in the country as well. The actual number of different grape varieties is believed to exceed 1,000. To those who seek to master its nuances, the sheer variety of grapes and styles offered within the country’s 20 regions can seem intimidating at first, but it is also the reason why aficionados are continually intrigued by Italian wines.
There are grape varieties specific not only to single provinces, but even individual towns. In terms of viniculture exploration, nothing compares to Italy. Remarkably, the overall quality level of the wines has continued to rise. The diversity of styles ranges from the Alps in the north, to the south in Sicily and everywhere in between. This makes Italy a place where one can find a wine to pair with almost anything.
Italian winemakers are constantly trying to find rare indigenous grapes and will seek out long-forgotten areas to cultivate vines. This contributes to the 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. As stewards of the land, such care is given that the vines become part of the family fabric. It is evident on the palate – Italian wine speaks a language of its own, with varieties and tastes that cannot be duplicated in any other area of the world. Additionally, you will get better wine, dollar for dollar, in Italy than any place around the world.
If you love wine, be sure make to make an effort to seek out new varieties from Italy. It promises to be a joyful and never ending journey.