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Italy is home to hundreds of different grape varieties spread out over 20 wine regions, yet for a long time, it was the same familiar ones that tended to take up the most space on retail shelves and restaurant wine lists. Things are thankfully changing, and a wider range of Italian wines are available on this side of the Atlantic than ever before. At the 2022 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, renowned wine expert Anthony Giglio highlighted just how far the American market for Italian wine has come in his presentation on "The Wine Less Traveled: Discovering Italy's Hidden Gems."
It's a chicken-and-egg type of situation: The American wine-drinking public has become more open to experiencing the full breadth of all that Italy has to offer, and wine professionals from importers and distributors to retailers and sommeliers are making more and more types of Italian wine available. It's what might be called a vinous virtuous cycle, and one that leans heavily on the work of pros like Giglio to help make sense of it all.
"My approach has always been to talk to consumers about grapes first, then regions," Giglio explained. "I say this because, in my experience, most Americans, as residents of the New World, where we name wines by their (majority) grape variety, understand wine by the grapes they're made with rather than where they're from; even when we're talking about Barolo, Brunello, Taurausi, for example — all of these are regional names for wines that are widely known, but there are plenty of people who think the grape of Barolo is Barolo, instead of Nebbiolo."
He continued: "The next hurdle is to draw parallels between grapes that are familiar, like Chardonnay, Cabernet, Pinot Noir, etc., and where they come from and where they are also grown. Most grapes that are familiar to Americans lead to France. Italy is home to hundreds of grapes, most of them unfamiliar to all but the geekiest of wine geeks."
Fortunately, experts like Giglio are there to light the way, and to use their own passion for lesser-known Italian wine regions to instill the same excitement. "This is personal, of course, but I'm still excited about Sicily (and it's been a few years!) — especially wines from Mt. Etna, where the grapes are relatable: Nerello Mascalese shares similarities with Pinot Noir; Carricante shares qualities of Chardonnay, specifically crisp, minerally, oak-free Chardonnay like Chablis (which opens the door to talk about Chardonnay's birth place in Burgundy, and the tradition of oak-free Chardonnay in the village of Chabils)," he noted.
Interestingly, though Italy isn't that large a country — it takes less than two hours to fly from Milan to Sicily, for example — it's home to a stunning range of soil types, micro-climates, altitudes, and more. Add that to the fact that it's been home to a thriving wine industry for thousands of years (this land wasn't called Enotria for nothing) and you have the perfect recipe for a wine culture as varied and rich as any in the world.
Giglio demonstrated that in fascinating ways in Aspen when he featured wines like the Borgogno Derthona Timorasso Colli Tortonesi, which is from a familiar region (Piedmont) but is a rarely seen grape variety. Other wines that were poured for guests of Giglio's presentation were unfamiliar in terms of both where they're from and their main grape varieties. The Argiolas Korem 'Bovale' Isola dei Nuraghi Rosso IGT, for example, hails from Sardinia and is crafted from the Bovale Sardo grape, as well as Carignano and Cannonau. Unfamiliar, to be sure, but fantastically delicious, with aromas of "star anise, sage, and dried thyme," Giglio noted. "On the palate, it's tight and mildly tannic, but opens beautifully with a little bit of time and a great piece of Pecorino Sardo." And the J. Hofstatter Kolbenhof Gewurztraminer, from Trentino-Alto Adige, showcased a grape variety that's far more famous in its German incarnation, though northeastern Italy is home to some of the best in the world, as this stellar bottle proved.
That, as Giglio's presentation at the 2022 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen showed, is the key to making the most out of the world of Italian wine: Keeping an open mind, popping corks from as many regions as possible — even, or especially, the less-familiar ones — and enjoying the complex and endlessly riveting offerings from Italy in all their diversity and excitement. "There's a huge world of wine out there," he said, adding: "I think there's endless conversations here."