WASHINGTON — Without a doubt, the most exciting thing about the Italian wine industry is its diversity. It can be argued that the country of Italy has the most diverse vineyards in the world.
Coupled with more than 350 grape varietals (and those are just the ones the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has cataloged), it produces a greater assortment of wines than any other country.
But for many years, Italy was not known for making great wine. Much of the wine grape harvest was sold to large co-ops that were focused on quantity, not quality. It wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s when a generational change in Italian winemaking began to evolve and a culture of mass production started to give way to a culture of artisanship.
A new generation of farmers and winemakers began replanting vineyards and adopting new vinification techniques. This change marked a shift away from a bulk wine philosophy and ushered in an era that stared to embrace the production high-end wines by young artisans under their own labels.
Today, Italian winemakers are producing cleaner, more nuanced wines than ever before. For example, about 25 percent of all wines currently made in Italy are now classified with a DOC designation, compared to just 5 percent a few decades ago.
That is a vast improvement on a very large scale. And while a DOC designation is not always a guarantee of quality, it is very good indication that the odds are in your favor of getting a decent bottle of wine.
In Sicily, once a bastion of cheap bulk-wine, farmers have been ripping up grapes vines typically dedicated to producing large quantities of fruit and replanting their vineyards with nero d’avola, a native red grape, along with other varietals such as cabernet sauvignon and syrah.
Puglia has also benefited from this change in attitude, thanks in large part to the native primitivo grape’s popularity, a kissing cousin of America’s zinfandel.
Last week, I had the pleasure of teaching a class about Italian wines on a cruise ship as it made its way down the Amalfi Coast from Rome and back up the Adriatic to Venice. One class featured wines from regions we would be visiting along our route. In teaching the class, I learned that there is much more to Italian wines than just the varietal of the grape in the bottle. There is a sense of culture, climate and history that can be cherished from every region in the country.
Here are a few examples of wines we sampled along the way:
Even though we ended our journey in Venice, it only makes sense to start off with a sparkling wine, and the Veneto region is famous for the sparkling wine prosecco. The Nonvintage Col di Rocca prosecco is made from 100 percent glera. It is a full-flavored prosecco, packed with classic notes of honeysuckle, ripe pear and white peach. The mousse is delicate and frothy, and there’s just an enjoyable touch of sweetness on the bright finish. $16
While most people might think that Sicily would produce more red wine than white, just the opposite is true. About 60 percent of this large island’s wine is devoted to white wine. In addition, the Grillo varietal has gained significant popularity lately, outstripping its old reputation of Marsala, and climbing to new heights. The 2015 Caruso and Minini Grillo is an excellent example of how good this grape can be. Intense aromas of white flower and honeydew melon are prevalent on the nose while the bright, juicy palate offers up flavors of guava, kiwi and ripe peach. A briny, mineral-like note adds a nice accent on the finish. $16
It could be argued that Puglia is the mass-production wine region of Italy, but Puglia is a great region to scour for everyday values, particularly deep, savory, well-priced reds from the local primitivo grape. The 2015 Masseria Cicella Primitivo is a very pretty wine with a deep ruby color. Its red fruit-forward bouquet of plum and cherry are charming and somewhat reminiscent of California zinfandel. The wine is medium-bodied and dry, with flavors of raspberry, plum, blackberry, cherry, spice and light tannins that add balance. $13
Basilicata is one of Italy’s smallest regions, but it has one big thing going for it: Aglianico del Vulture, what many consider to be the new generation of collectible wines from Italy. The Aglianico grape becomes supercharged in the volcanic soils of the Del Vulture appellation. The 2014 Tenuta del Portale Aglianico del Vulture Riserva might be hard to find, but it will be worth the hunt. The ample bouquet offers up scents of dark cherry, candied fruit, and aromatic herbs. The flavor has an exceptional and powerful personality, marked by flavors of dark cassis and black plum with warm and stylish undertones of spices. This is a wine with marked minerality and flavor that give it a wonderful combination of balance and drinkability. $20