Everything You Learned About Italian Wine Has Changed

Posted July 31, 2013

Well, not everything. But if you spent a lot of time studying Italian wine in the past—for a certification, perhaps—you might need to hit the books again. A great many of the wine laws changed in 2011 (see related article), and most reference sources have not yet caught up. And the whole playing field has changed over the last decade, so if your knowledge of Italian wine has been resting on its laurels, it’s time for a refresher.

The changes in Italian wine are largely a result of two macro trends, one political, the other cultural. The political trend is the slow metamorphosis of Europe from a collection of fragmented, often warring, nations into a unified bloc of cooperating Euro-citizens ready to challenge for superpower status. To make this happen, laws and procedures have to be relatively standardized through the European Union—quite a task given the centuries of independent development in the various countries, sometimes with the express purpose of ensuring that one country was clearly different from its neighbors.

One segment of international economic activity that needed to be synchronized was agriculture, of which wine is a significant part. In general, winemaking in Europe had always been focused on sating the appetites of each nation or even each region separately, with maybe some left over to export and make money. Wine laws were written to codify the way the national wine market had evolved, and considerable rivalry and competition developed among the large wine-producing countries. In pan-European terms, all this was counterproductive, of course. The wine laws needed to be standardized to simplify intra-European trade, and the EU member states needed to cooperate, not compete, in exporting wine to the rest of the world.

At this point, the cultural trend became significant—namely, the growing disparity between the amount of wine produced and the amount consumed in Europe. In the latter half of the 20th century, new technologies allowed increased wine production, while people started drinking less and less wine—due to increased consumption of other beverages, health and safety concerns, and the gradual disappearance of the two-hour lunch with a bottle of wine. The surplus of wine grew in Europe, and the export market brought no relief as New World countries like Australia and the United States were boosting their own production and exports.

The EU’s response to this overproduction of wine was to focus on eliminating poor quality wines and ever-enlarging vineyard acreage. A significant percentage of the wine being made in Europe was mediocre stuff that had little appeal on the market and seemed to have little purpose other than to soak up government agricultural subsidies and then be sold for distillation. Over several years, the EU forced national governments to eliminate subsidies for underperforming vineyards and to reduce their total vineyard acreage by “grubbing up” vines of marginal quality.

The EU also established a Common Market Organization for wine in 2008—phased in over several years—to standardize wine laws and policies throughout the union. Under this new regime, the national governments would lose ultimate control over the way wine regions were created and run; that control would rest with the EU administrators in Brussels. The member states had a few years to bring their laws into alignment with the EU framework and to finalize the rules for all the appellations they were handing over to Brussels’ management.

Thus, what has taken place in Italy (and throughout Europe) in the last decade has been a decided shift toward quality, with the removal of thousands of acres of unsuitable vineyards, the tightening up of standards in many wine regions, and a greater emphasis on making wines that can take on the increasing number of competitors on the world market. As a result, areas of Italy that were dismissed as uninteresting or were unknown to most wine consumers—such as Etna in Sicily, areas of Puglia, Sardinia, Calabria, and even venerable wine regions in Veneto and Piedmont—are emerging as exciting new sources of excellent wine. And if some wines you thought you were familiar with taste a little different, review the denomination’s rules—you may well find that the blend has changed from what it used to be.

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