White wines are important to Lombardy, whose greatest contribution to Italy's infinite range of wines is Franciacorta, a Champagne-method sparkling wine that is arguably the finest made outside Champagne. Valtellina, in the hilly, alpine north of Lombardy near Switzerland, makes a rather austere, high-acid Nebbiolo in a climate that can be too extreme for this variety in some years.
Italy, like France, offers a world of wine styles within a single country: dry Italian white wines ranging from lively and minerally to powerful and full-bodied; cheap and cheerful Italian red wines in both a cooler, northern style and a richer, warmer southern style; structured, powerful reds capable of long aging in bottle; sparkling wines; sweet wines and dessert wines.
Most of Italy enjoys a relatively warm climate, and the southern portion of the country can be particularly hot in the summer months. However, Italy's Apennine mountain chain, which traverses the country from north to south, provides an almost infinite number of soil types and exposures, as well as favored hillside sites in virtually every region, where vines can be cultivated at higher, cooler altitudes. Mountainous terrain has also resulted in the segregation of many small wine regions, enabling dozens of indigenous grape varieties to survive in near isolation. Here, Italy markedly differs from most of the wine world, which is becoming increasingly international in nature.
But Italian wine, as most North Americans know it, is a fairly recent phenomenon. Prior to the 1950s, only a tiny proportion of Italy's wines were even bottled by the farmer who grew the grapes. Most Italian wine was consumed by the local market. The Italian government's DOC system (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), created in the 1960s, imposed more explicit standards and thereby improved Italian wine quality while at the same clarifying the labeling of wines and thus making it far easier for Italian producers to ship their wines abroad. (Today DOCG -- Controllata e Garantita -- is theoretically the highest level in the quality pyramid of Italian wine, with this special status more recently granted to such historically important Italian wine areas as Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino and others: areas that had previously enjoyed DOC status for at least five years.)
Of course, some of the most innovative Italian wine makers quickly began to look for ways to escape the restrictions of this system. They believed that DOC laws actually prevented them from making the best possible wines -- for example, by proscribing the use of certain grape varieties or by requiring them to age their wines in wood barrels longer than they believed was beneficial in some years. Those with a more independent bent essentially opted out of the system, instead producing wines that were simply classified as Vini da Tavola (table wines) but that in a number of cases surpassed the "official" best Italian wines in quality and price. (A new law passed in 1992 created the IGT category, or Indicazione Geografica Tipica, for the innovative Vini da Tavola for which DOCs were not yet created.) These trailblazers have revolutionized Italian wine over a period in which French wines have merely "evolutionized."
Big, bold, tannic red wines
Grilled meats and stews; dry, aged cheeses
Nebbiolo based wines made outside the Langhe hills are often lost in the commotion over Barolo and Barbaresco. The provinces of Vercelli and Novarra in the northern reaches of the Piedmont area are home to wines like Carema, Ghemme, and Gattinara. The latter two wines are mostly Nebbiolo, which as traditionally been blended with small percentages of other grapes native to this cool, mountainous region. (Nebbiolo is generally called Spanna in Ghemme and Gattinara). Gattinara in particular has a long history of producing high-quality Nebbiolo wines. The wines here tend to be lighter and more graceful than their cousins to the south, though seldom displaying the complexity or concentration of flavor achieved in the Langhe. But fans of traditional Piedmont wines that are free of modern artifice and new oak notes will find plenty of interest in these often gripping and very food-friendly wines. Note that vintages here to not exactly track those of the Langhe. In a hot summer like 2003, when Nebbiolo in Barolo and Barbaresco often lost some of its verve and spine as acidity levels plunged, many vineyards in the hillier northern reaches of Northwest Italy achieved near-perfect ripeness, providing fuller wines than usual without loss of balance or backbone.
Relatively unknown to North Americans are the wines of Valtellina, in the far north of Lombardy, at the foot of the Alps near the Swiss border. These steeply sloped, terraced vineyards were originally home to a host of indigenous varieties but today the wines made here are almost universally based on Nebbiolo (called Chiavennasca here). As might be expected from a relatively cool area, the wines are brighter and more vivacious than their Piedmont counterparts, with less weight and alcoholic richness. Sfursat is a wine made in Valtellina from dried Nebbiolo grapes, a la Amarone.
Of course, some of the best Nebbiolo's come from the Alba area. These Nebbiolo wines may be partly or entirely declassified Barolo and Barbaresco (i.e., juice from young vines or lots that are not up to the producer's standards for its flagship bottlings), or they may come from vineyards outside the closely delimited Barolo and Barbaresco zones. In either case, those Nebbiolo wines are bottled and released much earlier and are suitable for drinking young. Consistently good and often surprisingly affordable Nebbiolo's come from producers like Elio Altare, Aldo Conterno, Paolo Conterno, Bruno Giacosa, Elio Grasso, Prunotto and Produttori del Barbaresco, just to name a few.