Wine Education Wednesday - Italia!

Sipping wine on the Amalfi Coast  photo credit

In Italy, wine is as essential to life as baths, friendship, or cellphones.  Since it has a perfect climate for growing grapes, Italians have been making and drinking their wine for thousands of years. Ancient people in the region now known as Italy made wine from the wild vitis vinifera grapes native to the area. The ancient Greeks and Etruscans improved on and increased the popularity of viniculture and the varieties of grapes used Italy when they arrived in the region. 

However, the Romans can be credited for spreading it throughout the country and improving on the techniques already in place.  It's easy to see why wine plays a prominent roll in the New Testament; Roman citizens, slaves, and pretty much everyone else in the empire drank wine with every meal. The Romans even worshiped a god of wine and intoxication- Bacchus. Under Roman rule, Italy emerged as a wine-making workhorse that kept their thirst sated. 

It should be noted that today, we modern people need to appreciate the amazing quality of even our most inexpensive wines, compared to what it was like for wine drinkers 3,000 years ago. The processes by which we filter, age, store, and bottle wine has greatly improved with the technology of the last few hundred years. In ancient Italy/Rome, people mixed in honey, as well as weirder ingredients like salt, chalk, lead, marble dust, and strong herbs to keep it from spoiling and/or make it taste less horrible. The alcohol content of ancient Itanlian wine was also much higher than it is today, and so extra water was added to make it suitable for copious consumption.. The struggle was real. However, the Romans discovered wine was better and mellower when aged in wooden barrels and stored in glass bottles with cork. The taste continued to improve as vinification technology improved. 

Wine is extremely important to Catholic rituals; red wine is used to represent the blood of Jesus, and essentially life its self. None of the funky, salty, herb-infused wine would do for this purpose, however. According to the official Code of Cannon Law for the Roman Catholic Church states that the wine used for communion must be "natural, made from grapes of the vine, and not corrupt." As winemaking technology improved, people began to have much higher standards for the wines they consumed. (There is a lot involved with the symbolism in using only "grapes of the vine" for Communion, but let's not get too far off on a tangent here.) After Rome fell, the Catholic monasteries kept the ancient wine making traditions alive though the Dark ages until it flourished again during the Renaissance, and some are still in existence, producing excellent wines today.  

Sadly, the quality of Italian wine had gone downhill quite a bit by the early 20th century, so in the 1960s, the government stepped in to create regulations on labeling  and levels of quality to bring Italian wines back to their former glory. In the 1990's, additional quality level was introduced, and today Italian wines are once again among the best in the world. Today there are 20 Italian wine regions and 350 "authorized" Italian grape varieties. Although France arguably still reigns as top dog in both wine quantity and quality, Italian wine is getting bigger and better each year, and Italian wine makers are building on many millennia of art, science, and history.