With near 50 million hectoliters of wine per year Italy is, nowadays, the largest wine producer in the world, followed by France and Spain. It is also the region with the longest connection to viticulture and one of the most interesting on the planet due to the variety of its wines.
Wine is cultivated in all 20 regions of Italy, though most wine comes from the regions of Apulia, Sicily, Venetio and Lazio. These are simple table wines, which extensive production has a direct effect on the extension of quality wine cultivation areas. The quality legislations are quite tough and rigid and, as a result, many produces degrade their wines to “Vini da Tavola” (table wine) to have more space for experimentation.
To find the beginning of the history of Italian winegrowing, we need to go back to the 10th century BC. As the Greeks were exploring the Mediterranean, they started planting vines in the countries they conquered. They established trade bases in Sicily and Calabria, from where the vines spread slowly towards the north. The Etruscans, a powerful civilization located in what is now Tuscany, produced a traded wine since (at least) the 7th century. They were assimilated into the Roman Republic in the late 4th century BC and, when Hannibal and the Carthaginian army attacked Rome, roughly a century later, the whole of Southern Italy was already cultivated with vines.
By the 2nd century BC, wine and its cultivation had already become an extended subject of study, with scholars discussing vine varieties, climatic and soil conditions and the right wine-making process. Over the 1st century BC, there was a considerable increase of winegrowing, as the market and the number of exports grew. Rome wine needs increased too, with rich aristocrats recognizing the potential wine had and investing in new vineyards all around the city. This situation continued after the conquest of Gaul, which strengthened the Roman wines status, with top wines such as Falner (Campania), Taranto (Tuscany) and the sweet white wines from Alba and Velletri. These were scarce and expensive wines for privileged people.
These top wines went down with the Roman Empire in the 5th century. The downfall of the West-Roman Empire prompted the collapse of Italy’s economy, with business, science, literature and viticulture (amongst others) coming to a standstill. It was only once Charlemagne conquered extensive areas of Italy and revived the Roman empire that the Italian economy began to flourish. And then, during the 6th century and with the invasion of the Goths and Langobards, the economy (and winegrowing) collapsed once again.
Many decades later, during the Renaissance, Italy regained its place at the center of Europe’s economic power, and rich merchant families such as Antinori and Frescobaldi were fully dedicated to viticulture, creating large wine houses. And, once again, closer to the end of this period and after the collapse of the Medici regime, winegrowing fell again. By the 19th century, regional markets started to grow, to not great avail, and Italian viticulture would only really recover starting 1960.
Designation of Origin
The current quality labels in Italy are quite young. After the new European wine market regulation from 2009, the old appellations Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC, 1964) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG, 1983) have been replaced for Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (DOP), which marks the highest quality level. Similarly, the appellation Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT, 1997), a denomination for regional wines, has been replaced by Indicazione Geografica Protetta (IGP). Finally, we have the denomination Vino da Tavola (VdT), which defines table wines with the least qualitative requirements, only demanding for the wines to be unspoilt and suitable for consumption.