How you think about Italy and its wines depends upon how you approach them. Herewith are brief reviews of two recent books that take very different viewpoints.
Italian Wine Unplugged 2.0 by Stevie Kim, Attilio Scienza, et. al. Mamma Jumbo Shrimp, December 2022.
Italian Wine Unplugged 2.0 is a key part of Vinitaly International Academy’s program to draw attention to Italian wine’s wonders through education. As Stevie Kim writes in the Foreword, the idea is to take wine enthusiasts and help them become experts and, I think, also ambassadors for Italian wine to the world.
It is a big job and so this is a big book. More than half the 450+ pages are devoted to “must-know” profiles of the wine grape varieties native or traditional to Italy. We begin with the most well-known families of grapes and move to important regional varieties and, finally to brief profiles of lesser-known grape varieties from Abrostine and Abrusco to Wildbacher and rare varieties from Abbuoto to Zanelo There is a lot of fascinating information here. Not as comprehensive as Ian D’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy, but clear, useful, and complete
A smaller section provides overviews of each region, linking denominations with associated grape varieties. A section titled “Science” features a major essay by Professor Attilio Scienza on the origins and evolution of Italian wine grapes. Prof. Scienza’s analysis is noteworthy for its interdisciplinary approach, blending DNA data, for example, with information distilled from ancient myths. It is a detailed study — you’ll need to put your smartphone away and concentrate — but very interesting.
I especially enjoyed reading Sarah Heller MW’s brief essay on “How to Taste Italian Wine.” Heller argues that Italian wines are misunderstood or underrated because they are simply different from the wines of Bordeaux and the Napa and Barossa Valleys that have shaped wine-tasting standards and expectations.
“This state of affairs is largely the result of the global hegemony of two wine value systems that poorly suit Italian wine.” One system is based upon the virtues British critics see in the best Bordeaux wines. The other derives more from characteristics of New World wines (I suppose we might associate this with Robert Parker’s influence, but I think it is more than that).
Italian wines are easy to overlook because they don’t fit either of these taste profiles. Italy is an exception and Heller proposes that “Italian Exceptionalism” be embraced and promoted by focusing on an appropriate value system. Fascinating.
Rick Steves Italy for Food Lovers by Rich Steves and Fred Plotkin. Avalon Travel Books, January 2023.
Italy for Food Lovers is also Italy for Wine Lovers. Why? Well, it is hard to think of Italy or Italian food without the wine that naturally goes with it. Wine is food in Italy, don’t you think?
But there is also this: the core of this book, co-authored by Rick Steves and Fred Plotkin, is Plotkin’s classic 700+ page guide to Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, which takes Italian food and wine very seriously indeed.
The idea is to take Plotkin’s book, first published in 1997, which has not been revised in almost a decade, and both update and streamline it for today’s Italy-loving audience. Plotkin knows Italian food and wine like the back of his hand. Rick Steves knows Italy, too, offering his list of 100 favorite restaurants alongside Plotkin’s list of fifty. Steves is especially good at helping people take the first step, gaining confidence along the way so that they can learn and love the journey.
Wine is pretty much everywhere here. There’s a chapter on wine, of course, and major sections on local wines in each of the regional profiles. The treatment is not nearly as comprehensive as in Plotkin’s classic guide or — obviously — as Italian Wine Unplugged 2.0. But that’s not what this volume is about. This book is all about getting started in some cases or taking the next step in others. It will help travelers to Italy embrace local wines with unfamiliar names and appreciate the whole experience.
If you already know the wines of Italy very well, you might not learn much here, but you will probably still find it interesting. If you don’t know Italian wines, well here’s a fun place to start. Either way, this is a good gift idea if you have family or friends heading off to Italy for the first time.