Ever since I can remember tasting wine (4-years-old and counting) I have known Italian wines to be either Chianti (Sangiovese grape) or Barolo/Barbaresco (Nebbiolo grape) and that was satisfactory until I started digging deeper into this vast wine barrel of Italy, with 20 regions from Sicily in the south to Trentino-Alto Adige in the north.Italy has passed France to become the biggest wine exporter in the world. The quality has increased dramatically with more than 60 percent of the wines made being awarded Italy’s top designation of DOC or DOCG, a government measurement of comparative quality to its highest standards.
The roots of Italian wines go back to biblical times with the ancient Greeks and Etruscans many thousands of years ago, who brought vines to the peninsula. Later the Romans did the same thing when they marched into other European lands, including Gaul, which became what we now know as France. This is a point not lost with Italians who look at French wines as their legacy.
What shaped Italian wines into the powerful force that they are in the world of wine are the unique climate and terrain: sun, soil, air and rain. An added blessing is the fine food, valued by Italians as essential to fine wine and the Italian way of life.
With more than 2,000 different varieties of Italian wine grown in Italy, something no other country even comes close to, the urge to explore beyond Tuscany with its Sangiovese and Piedmont with its Nebbiolo, is enticing.
My last wine trip to Italy last year, I vowed to take the road less traveled in my search for extraordinary wines off the radar. I had met recently in San Francisco and spoken to Italian “Consorzios” (Associations) that represented Veneto (Venetian) wines and learned about Amorone and Prosecco. I also spent time with winemakers of Montepulciano and tasted their Montepulciano di Abruzzo and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. But the natural forces that exponentially would make for rich and powerful reds had eluded me up to this last trip … the volcanic wines of Italy, around the base of Mt. Vesuvius near Naples, and Mt. Aetna, the largest active volcano in Europe, on the island of Sicily. Both locations are easily accessible as port stops on a number of cruise routes.
Sicily is that hybrid island of such strategic importance in the Mediterranean that it has been governed by more foreign powers than any other land mass. It has been only since 1948 that the Italian government declared Sicily as a autonomous region of Italy, with powers of self government.
Between jokes about Rome governing, the Sicilians are proudest of their Mt. Aetna and its fertile, volcanic soils. It sits between Messina and Taormina on the eastern coast, and its worst eruption was when it buried the nearby city of Catania, killing 15,000 in 1169 A.D.
Aetna’s 11,000 feet is often capped with snow and frequently has minor eruptions, the last one being March of this year. The wines there are dominated by the native Nero D’Avola, which the world is just now noticing. These are sumptuous, bold wines with ripe fruit flavors, unlike the mainland wines that are earthy and mineralized.
Another grape to look for is Nerello Mascalese, grown higher on the slopes, where winemakers brave the rumblings and eruptions at over 3,300 feet. The mountain has erupted some 200 times as the oldest active volcano in the world. Planeta is a name to know. The winery has six large vineyards in Sicily including one on Mr. Aetna, and another south of the volcano at Noto. The island has more terrain under vine that any other winemaking region in Italy.
My other “volcanic wine” stop was in the Campania district at the historically more famous Mt. Vesuvius. It infamously gained fame when it flattened the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 A.D. It menacingly overlooks the city of Naples and last erupted in 1944 during World War II, destroying allied planes at a nearby airbase.
The Aglianico grape is the basis for Campania’s 100,000 acres under vine. Compare this to the largest wine district in California, Paso Robles, with just 26,000 acres.
The wine Taurasi, made from the ancient Aglianico, is the only one with the highest DOCG status. It has the capacity to age and become full bodied and rich in pleasurable flavor, shedding its youthful, tannic taste. The finest examples of this grape are on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius.
Maurizio Russo is the owner and winemaker at Cantina Del Vesuvio, with acreage high on the western side of the volcano. His wines benefit from the enriched soil, so his wines are bottled and sold now from the 2010 harvest. Soil characteristics include calcium, iron, nitrogen and potassium, ingredients that Russo says “make my vines of fire strong and productive.”
Russo, an unusually large, tall man was ever the congenial host as he sat us down to taste his family of wines over farm-fresh tomato sauce in a bed of home-made pasta, freshly picked mushrooms and zucchini. The always-present baked bread with sesame crust was brought out as fast as the select Aglianico reds from the ’09 harvest that sold for 10 Euro (about $13).
Farming generally in Italy is very difficult due to limestone formations in the bedrock producing poor soil, except for the volcanic areas around Mt. Vesuvius. This is due to the eruptions some 35,000 and 12,000 years ago enriching the soil with nutrients. It’s not unusual to see a vineyard with wine grapes, mixed in with fava beans, cauliflower, onions, orange and lemon trees, herbs and flowers. Look a little more and you will see huge tomatoes being grown.
While the winemakers and farmers thank the heavens and their volcanic mountain for this bonanza, they also cast a wary eye at the hissing peak, wondering when the next disastrous eruption is coming.
Rossi’s Pizza & Italian Restaurant in San Marcos is having a Tolosa Wine Dinner at 6:30 p.m. July 14. A gourmet four-course dinner will feature Chicken Parmesan and five glasses of Tolosa wine for just $40, normally a $60 value. Tolosa of Edna Valley is a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir specialist. For an RSVP, call (760) 727-4747 or (760) 533-4486.
Tommy V’s in Carlsbad at Bressi Ranch has a special wine dinner with Monte Olimpo Luxus Five wines from Sicily at 6:30 p.m. July 14. RSVP at (760) 602-1949. Cost is $75 per person.
San Antonio Winery downtown Los Angeles presents a four-course lunch and wine seminar Understanding Classic Grape Varietals with Michael Papalia from1 to 4 p.m. July 15. Cost is $58 per person. Reserve at (888) 223-1401.
The Grand Resort Del Mar opens a Summer Five Star Soundtrack eight-concert series, opening with Hiroshima Fusion Jazz on July 15. Show times are at 7 p.m. General seating is $65, VIP is $95. Call (800) 820-9884 for details.
Mille Fleurs brings Jazz on the Patio to Rancho Santa Fe Tuesday through Sunday starting July 17 from 6 to 9 p.m. Enjoy a drink or dinner with sax music from Chicago. No RSVP needed.
Bastille Day is the wine and dinner theme at Europa Village Winery in Temecula from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. July 18 and July 19. French music and fun throughout. Cost is $85 each. Club members are $76.50. Call to RSVP at (951) 216-3380.
Kenny G, the premier Jazz Saxman has been added to the Thornton Winery Champagne Jazz Series with a concert at 5 p.m. July 22, along with Earl Klugh. Order tickets at (951) 699-0099 or champagnejazz.com.