As anybody who has ever tried a truly great Italian wine will be able to tell you, the country produces some of the best wine known to man. Today there are literally hundreds of winemakers dotted around the country, from those who are just starting out and bringing their innovative techniques to a wider audience, through to those who have been established for centuries and continue to create some of the classic wines that so many people enjoy.
With that in mind we thought we would take a look at the history of wine in Italy and how it came to be one of the most important commodities produced by the country.
There has been some debate about how the winemaking tradition got started in Italy, but most scholars tend to point towards the Greeks as playing a major part in establishing the first vineyards in the country, thus putting it on the path to have its potential recognised.
The Ancient Greeks occupied a number of areas of what would become Italy during their time, at one point taking up residence in what is now Sicily and southern Italy. It was here that the Greeks recognised that the land they were on was particularly lush and fertile, leading them to import a number of vines from their native lands and grant the area the name of Oenotria, which literally translates into “land of wine”.
However, it wasn’t just the Greeks who recognised Italy’s potential. During the period where they occupied mid-Italy, the Etruscans also took advantage of the fertile land. They took the vines that had been introduced by the Greeks and applied their own winemaking techniques, creating the famed Tuscan wine industry in the process. In fact, it is believed that the Etruscans were using temperature-controlled fermentation in their winemaking long before it became a ‘revolutionary’ technique in the 20th century, though their methods were different due to the technology available at the time.
The Romans Arrive
Though both the Greeks and the Etruscans made enormous strides in both starting and establishing the Italian wine industry, it was not until the Romans arrived in the area that the industry truly began to grow into something similar to what it is today.
Much like the Greeks, the Roman Empire also had its own god of wine, so it is perhaps no surprise that demand for the drink began to increase as their influence in the region spread. With such fertile land in practically every region of what would become Italy, it was not too difficult for supply to keep up with demand and the Romans soon found themselves basking in a host of glorious wines, all of which offered differences based on the region in which they were created.
Despite this essentially being the genesis of the Italian wine industry, it should be remembered that Roman wine was still very different to what we know today. The Roman’s preferred a lower alcohol content and sweet wines, which led them to add water, honey and other ingredients that modern winemakers wouldn’t dream of tainting their wines with.
Regardless, they still had a huge influence on production techniques, as they improved on the Greek wine presses of old in addition to introducing the use of trellises for their vines. Furthermore, they were also far better than those that came before in terms of finding out which grapes suited which areas, which acted as the genesis of the wine regions that we know today.
Perhaps their most important innovations came in their realisation that some wines improved with age, so they invented wooden barrels to store wine for upwards of a decade to improve on their quality.
All of this led to a full blown industry developing around the wines that the Romans produced, and they ended up exporting many different varieties to regions around Europe. Many of the techniques that they created were thus adopted by other winemaking nations, once again demonstrating the influence of Italy on the industry at large.
The Middle Ages
The boom period was not to last though, as the Middle Ages signalled a dark time for the industry. With the fall of the Roman Empire came to fall of the wine industry that it championed, and Italy’s wines soon fell out of favour.
For a number of years, wines were generally only created by Roman Catholic monks, with some local varieties also created by locals but never reaching outside of families and small communities.
Happily, this trend was reversed with the birth of the Renaissance, and wine once again became a pivotal part of Italian life. It was during this period where the industry that we know today really began to take form, as many important figures of the era espoused the virtues of the drinks they most enjoyed and the creation and exporting of wines once again became commonplace. Some of the most famous winemakers of the current era, such as the Antinori family, came into prominence during this era.
Since then, the industry has only grown from strength to strength. Italian wine’s reputation has continued to grow, both domestically and internationally, and wines from all over the country can now be exported and delivered to regions that would otherwise have not experienced them.
The rise of modern delivery methods, such as vehicles and planes, has helped enormously with this, making it easier than ever to get various wines to the places that they need to go. Furthermore, the rise of the internet now makes such vintages more accessible than ever before.
No longer do wine fans need to wait for their local provider to import a wine that they want to try, as practically every major winemaker maintains a web presence and has agreements in place with various distributors to extend their reach. The current industry produces as many as 8 billion bottles of wine every single year and only continues to grow as their reach extends beyond the more traditional markers and into brand new territories.