Italian Wine History


By Carol Ware Duff 

Fossils of grape vines have been found that date to 60 million years ago, but actual grape cultivation and the consumption of wines started as early as 6,000 to 4,000 BC. The actual recipe for making wine at this early stage has never been found, but pots have been discovered with waste from grapes and decayed flies in them. Fermented drinks were preferred over water as water was generally considered unsafe for consumption. Someone discovered that more juice could be obtained if the grapes were pressed.

In the Middle East wine press mats, with skins, seeds, and stems, have been found that date to 7,000 years ago. It is thought that the Phoenicians may have been the first to make wine as they were dependent on it for trade. The Etruscans north of Rome had been making wine before the Romans started to dabble in wine production. Grapes and the ability to make wines were brought to Italy by the Greeks around 1,600 BC. They called Italy “Enotria” or Land of Wine.

Wine was an important item for Greek commerce and Homer writes about wine in both the Iliad and the Odyssey The Greeks may have brought grapes and wine production to Italy, but the Romans were responsible for major contributions made about 1,000 BC. By this time the particulars for wine production has been established. They classified grape varietals and colors, identified diseases, observed and charted ripening characteristics, and recognized soil preferences. The Romans developed skills at pruning and developed irrigation methods and techniques for fertilization.

As Rome expanded its Empire it expanded wine production to these outreaching areas as well. Eventually all of the wine producing areas of Western Europe were established by the Romans. Wine was needed for the Roman legions, which were all over the empire, and in some areas the soldiers were used to plant and tend vines. With the production and eventually trading of/ and shipping of wine, other technologies were born. Bottles and barrels were used by the Romans for the first time.

Amphora and barrels were necessary for the shipping and storage of wines. Rome exported its wine and sent tuns (very large barrels) to Gaul. The Romans developed a system of rating wines as some of the regions that made good wines gained reputations. At this time the Romans preferred to drink mead and beer and the wine consumption was only for the slaves or natives of the areas they conquered.

The Phoenicians, who had relocated to North Africa and were now called the Carthaginians, wrote the first known book about agriculture and wine making. When the Romans sacked Carthage during the final Punic War, they captured the book and the Senate decreed that it should be translated and made available for general consumption.

This book is the source of all subsequent writings on viticulture. In one hundred years of Roman wine making, Falernian became the wine that everyone lusted after. Even the Romans had environmental issues that affected them. The Legendary Caecuban wine was wiped out when a public works project, ordered by Nero, destroyed the vineyards of Mamertine, Statanian, Calenian, Surrentine, Seting, Rhaetic, and Massic. These were wines fit to be in the wine cellars of the rich.

As early as 100 BC the Romans had started to prefer wine to mead and beer. By the second century AD the Roman per capita consumption of wine was 250 liters and Rome had become the major importer or wine. Even the poor received their wine, which was cheap wine and honey (muslum), and was dispensed free at games, theaters, and political rallies.

Politicians were prone to give this drink to those from whom they wanted to gain a vote for the next election. The population of the city of Rome was over a million strong. Wine was used for religious purposes at cemeteries and temples.

Graveside feasts always included wine where the living shared wine with the dead. Wine was poured into openings in Tombs so the dead would be able to still enjoy the juice of the vine. Roman wine making spans more than eight centuries and ranges from the middle reaches of the Nile to southern Scotland.

Wine is a window into Roman and later Italian life as the changing nature of trade in wine was strongly connected to Roman politics and wine consumption served as a reminder of the social division of the poor from the rich. When the Roman Empire fell in 500 AD the church, mainly the monasteries, took over grape growing and wine making and used the wines for sacramental purposes.

Italy consumes and produced more wine than any other country in the world. The per capita consumption is 26 gallons per person per year. There are 1.2 million wine growers in Italy and Italian wines make up 60 percent of wine imported into the United States. Italy has four major regions for growing 2,000 grape varieties for wines. These main regions are the Northwest, Northeast, Central Italy, and finally the Islands and South.



The sub-regions of the Northwest are Aosta Valley, Piedmont, Liguria, Lombardy, and Emilia-Romagna. The wines in the Northwestern section of Italy vary, and this is due to the extremes of the region that extends from the Alps and Apennines along the Po and eastwardly through the Po valley that flows to the Adriatic.

In the mountainous areas vineyards are smaller, due to the terrain and price of land, and this makes winemaking of this area a more serious business. The Italian vintner in these limited areas must find rewards from his product that leads to profit or the pride of growing a great vintage from his limited vineyards. These five regions produce only 20 percent of Italy’s wines but have more than one quarter of the DOC.

Even though France is in close proximity to this area and French wines are welcomed into Italy, the growers in the Liguria, Piedmont, and Valle d’Aosta prefer their own grapes and make wine in their own style.

Aosta Valley

The smallest of the regions in the Northwestern section is the Aosta Valley which shares borders with France and Switzerland. Due to the extremely rocky and isolated terraces, the wines made here are quite different from those anywhere else in Italy and in fact also distinct from its neighbors of Switzerland and France. It is thought that the Salassi, who lived in this area before the Romans, were making wines from grapes cultivated in the Aosta Valley. In 23 BC the Romans conquered the previous inhabitants and were enjoying the wine as booty.

The mountains tend to deflect the harsh winds and allow the vines to flourish. The reputation for the Aosta Valley wines was clearly established in the middle Ages when these wines were used in the rite of exorcism. During the second part of the 19th century the vines were stuck by phylloxera which devastated the vineyards but did not totally destroy them. There was a loss of some varieties of vines but even with this setback the Donnaz was to receive recognition in 1971 as the valley’s first DOC wine. By 1985 a plan had been worked out that places all wines of the best quality under the common denomination of Valle d’ Aosta-Vallee d’ Aosta. The regional indication if followed by the name of the involved variety or of the restricted production area.


The Piedmont is Italy’s westernmost region for wine. Its name means foot of the mountain and it deserves such a description as this area rests below the Alps and Apennines. Production is small in this region but this does not alter the fact that it has the most DOC- DOCG (Vino di origine controllata e garantita, or wines of controlled and guaranteed origin which is the top category of Italian wines of which there are 14 wines) zones with the largest percentage of its wines classified.

When it comes to devotion to native vines and tradition, the Piedmontese have no rivals in all of Italy. The Piedmont area has distinct seasons which seem to only enhance grape growth and variety. On the Tanaro River site of Alba, there lies the center for production of great wine. The Barolo or “king of wines and wine of the kings” is produced here. The Barbaresco is also produced from this area and both of these wines have developed a cult following although some define them as too elaborate for modern palates.

The Alba area is also famous for its Dolcetto, Nebbiolo and white Arneis. Some aged Barberas can now be compared to the Nebbiolo reds and people in this area repeatedly drink more reds than whites and half of the red is Barbera which can also arrive in bubbly and fruity versions.

Piedmont is the leading producer of the dry sparkling wines by both the classical and charmat methods. Of course, the leading product is Asti which is known world wide for its bubbly sweetness. The demand for Asti is so great that there is a shortage of Moscato di Canelli grapes from which this favorite vintage is made.

The Piedmontese experimented with Cabernet and Pinots in the early 19th century but those have fallen from favor as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Bianco, Nero, and Chardonnay have shown some promise. As a point in fact, the Pedmonte DOC applies in part to the sparkling wines from the Chardonnay, Pinots and other varieties of grapes.


Along the seaside can be found the Liguria wines, of which the most notable is Cinque Terre, which is a white. Most of the Cinque Terre is dry but the sweet Sciacchetra is sought after by those who seek a sweeter taste. Vines for this wine have been planted since ancient times on terraced areas that are barely accessible. Some of the vineyards are so close to the Ligurian Sea that they catch the sea spray. Most of Liguria’s commercial wine production is along the Ponente Coast to the Southwest. Many of the Ligurian wines can be specialized and the local whites and reds usually taste best when they are consumed close to their production and at a young age.


The inhabitants of the Lombardy region, which has a climate that is more temperate due to its surrounding lakes, are better know as consumers than producers of wines. Those who choose to make wine have excellent products. The Milanese will pass up a local wine for the Venezie white (Veneto, Trentina, and Friuli) and the Tuscan and Piedmont reds. The bottles of Nebbiolo reds which are produced here are taken by the Swiss, apparently before the Italians have a chance to get them.


In the Emilia-Romangna region the primary wine is Lambrusco which comes mainly from grapes grown on the flatlands that lie south of the Po. Most of the Lambrusco that is shipped is sweet but that which is consumed near where it is produced is dry and often DOC. The two distinct co-regions meet at the capital of Bologna. The dry is said to match with the region’s rich cooking.

A favorite of the Romagnans is Sangiovee which is usually red and charming with its fruity flavors. The producers of the Sangiovese are making vintages that have the ability to age gracefully and to develop both a deeper bouquet and flavor.


The Tre Venezie or Venezie are the three northeastern regions. Together they have more than a third of the DOC (controlled origin) and even though they have less than a sixth of the total Italian production they produce more classified wine than any other section. Overall, the technology of winemaking is more sophisticated and better organized in this region than any other and this is due to its proximity to Germany, Switzerland, and Austria and the far reaching markets of the United States and United Kingdom. The subregions of the Northeast are Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia.


Venice’s region has become Italy’s largest producer of wine with Verona’s trio of Soave, Valpolocella and Bardolino leading the production. The production for this area is in the hills between Lake Garda and Soave, in the provinces of Vicenza, Padova, and Treviso, and the eastern plains of Piave and Tagliamento river basins which empty into the Adriatic coast northeast of Venice.

Soave, which is the most popular of the Italian dry wines, ranks third among classified wines in volume only after Chianti and Asti. Valpolicella is a red which should be drunk young, but grapes from its vineyards north of Verona can be partly dried and made into the dry, rich Amarone della Valpolicella, one of the great wines for aging, or the luxuriously sweet Recioto della Valpolicella. Other wines, from the usually sparkling dry white Lessini Durello are produced from this region to the reds to the blended Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Savignon which are aged in small oak barrels.

Trentino-Alto Adige

Italy’s northernmost region is Trentino-Alto Adige which is surrounded by the Dolomites and the Rhaetian Alps and borders on Switzerland and Austria. Again due to the steep hillsides and the difficulty in growing grapes quality is emphasized over quantity. A full three- quarter of wine production is DOC and most of this is exported.

This region is divided into two distinct provinces, the first is Trentino, near the city of Trento or Trent which is Italian in its culture and language and the city of Bozen to the north is known as the Sudtirol which has a German-speaking population.

Historically the South Tyrol is part of Austria and both German and Italian are spoken there. This Alpine region favors grapes used for perfumed white wines but two-thirds of the grape production is in reds or more descriptively German favored light, bright reds such as the Alto Adige (Schiava) or Vernatsch.

The best know of these wines is the Caldaro or Kalterersee produced around the lake of the same name. Both of these provinces have devoted more space to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlots and they also produce some of the finest roses’ in Italy of which the Lagrein Kretzer is the finest. Aromatic whites such as Veltliner, Sylvaner, Gewurztraminer, Muller Thurgau, and white Moscato are also grown as they do well in the heights.

Trentino has the largest production of Chardonnay and is also a leader in the production of sparkling wines, much of which falls under the Trento DOC, by the classical method. The Trentino-Alto Adige wines, especially the whites, although traditionally consumed by the German-speaking countries to the north, are finding homes in Italy, United Kingdom, and the United States.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia

On the northern Adriatic Sea, bordering Austria and Slovenia, the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region can be found. This area is noted for lovely reds and distinctive whites. The air currents between the Alps and the Adriatic create a very favorable place for the terraced vines on the ronchi slopes. Small wineries of white wines make world renowned qualities. The area is increasing its sparkling wine production with the use of Chardonnay and Pinot grapes and also Ribollo which produces a fine spumante by either the classical or charmat method



The most Italian of wines comes from the Tuscan region with Florence’s region remaining the leading producer of premium wines. Although the region’s wine production started in Chianti which is in the hills around Florence and Siena, it has spread to a strip along the Mediterranean Coast.

The variations in climate and soil of the eight zones that cover the territory of central Tuscany give individuality to each of the authentic estate wines. The original core is the Chianti Classico but the variations create slightly different products that can be fresh and easy to drink to elaborate and capable of aristocracy with age. Most Chianti can be identified by a sub district, of which Classico is most prominent. The black rooster symbolizes this consortium.

In a border dispute between Florence and Sienna two riders were to ride out at first cock crow and where they met the border would be established. The Rooster in Florence has been starved and thus awakened early and gave the advantage to the rider from Florence. Estates will also advertise the name of a special vineyard as a distinctive factor. As is the case of all the traditional red wines in Tuscany, the major grape is Sangiovese. Although in the past varieties were blended, today the product relies on Sangiovese or Sangioveto which should be ranked with Italy’s and the world’s best vines.

The Tuscan Brunello di Montalcino, which is a DOCG from a fortress town which lies south of Siena occupies the greatest stature and can be costly. Carmignano was given protection by the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1716 and today this very rare red, made from Sangiovese and Cabernet, ranks as DOCG.


In the heart of Italy, Umbria has been long known for its white wine due to the prominence of Orvieto which was the most favored of whites with its semisweet or abboccato wine. Orvieto won the praise of popes, painters, and princes who came to visit the hill town of Orvieto.

Now the modern Orvieto has become Italy’s best-selling DOC white and has also been enjoyed abroad. Some wine producers have concentrated on lower yields and have instead become more selective and have let the grape skins remain in contact with the juice for a period of time before fermentation.

Orvieto’s amabile and abboccato have recently made a comeback as dessert wines. Another favored Umbrian wine is the red Torgiano Rosso riserva which has special status as DOCG. The Sagrantino is an ancient variety that grows only near the hill town of Montefalco and makes both a sweet and dry wine that are very grand. Few of the local Umbria varieties ever leave the region.


The Adriatic region of Verdicchio no longer has a total devotion to whites. In the region of Marches, the Verdicchio di Matelica is grown in very limited quantities in a mountainous zone and can have more strength and body than wines from Jesi. Sparkling wines from the Verdicchio are made by the closed tank fermentation method but also occasionally by the closed bottle or classical method. West of the port of Ancona is the home of the Verdicchio, the Castelli di Jesi, which was shipped abroad in green amphora bottles.

Now producers have tried a new image of white wine of special character that is now placed in standard bottles. The Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico has become the wine to serve with fish and has helped the Verdicchio to become ranked among the noblest of white wine varieties in Italy. As for reds from the Marches region, Sangiovese and Multepulciano may or may not be blended.


The wine region around Rome has usually been linked to white wines but even though the ancient Romans drink white wines, they seemed to prefer the red Falernian and Caecuban which grew along the coast in southern Latium and Campania. White wines seem to grow very well in the sunny volcanic soil. These wines were for everyday use, did not overpower food, and were not meant to last long.


Latium’s DOC reds vary in what comprises them. The area that was once the Pontine Marshes produces Sangiovese and Merlot. Combinations of Merlot and Cabernet produce reds
of Latium that prove that white is not the only color for enjoyable wine.


The Abruzzi region is one-third hills and two-thirds mountains and seems to have favorable conditions for vine growth for both table grapes and bulk growth for wines. The native Montepulciano grape has been impressing wine consumers outside of Italy. In the northern province of Teramo, this grape can be made into a full-bodied red which can be aged or drinkable even when young.


In 1980 the region of Molise, which has been a part of Abruzzi, received its official status with the DOCs pf Biferno and Pentro di Isernia. The vines love the hillsides that are bathed in sun and lie between the Apennines and the Adriatic and have produced enough quality grapes to produce wines even on a small scale.

Wines of the Southern and Island Regions


The region of Campania, which lies along the coast north of Naples, was admired by the ancient Romans. This is the area where Falernian was grown and considered the most valuable wine of the Roman Empire. The Greeks had planted vines in what is today Aglianico, Greco, and Falanghia. As of now Campania is attempting a revival to improve quality of its wines.

Modern wine making techniques have been introduced even as producers strive to maintain native vines which of course date back to very ancient times. Campania’s region also contains the islands of Ischia and Capri, and the sea side vineyards of Penisola, Sorrentina, Costa d’ Amalfi.


Apulia used to be called “Europe’s Wine Cellar” as it surpassed the output of Veneto and Sicily. Wines of this region seem to have more appeal abroad than in Italy. The northern part of the region is temperate with rolling hills and the southern portion The Castel del Monte DOC of this region still enjoys world status with a rose and a full-bodied red with most emphasis on reds.


The southern regions between the Brindisi and the Tarento line is the home to Salento which is on a peninsula surrounded by the Adriatic and Ionian Seas which keeps the area from being very hot. The growers in this area have put an emphasis on quality and have produced good to excellent wines of dry, balanced reds, whites, sweet wines, and rose’s from selections of grape varieties that are both domestic and foreign.


The arid, mountainous region of Basilicata (Lucania) can be very cold for such a southern area. The lower temperatures tend to give the grapes of this region wonderful flavors and aromas. The Greeks brought viticulture to this region during the 6th or 7th century BC when they introduced the Aglianico vine to the volcanic slopes of Monte Vulture. This wine can age and improve for many years. The DOC in Aglianico del Vulture is one of southern Italy’s best red wines.


The Calabria region is in the toe of the boot and has a climate that ranges from the costal hills along the Ionian and Tyrrhenian seas which is sunny and the colder heights of the Aspromonte and Sila massifs. There are two grape varieties of Greek origin.

The Gaglioppo forms red wines and the Greco produces whites. The best known wine of the region is Ciro and as the locals will tell you, is the wine that the Calabrian athletes drank to celebrate an early Olympiad victory. Ciro grows along the Ionian coast, in low hills, between the ancient Greek cities of Sybaris (Sibari) and Kroton (Crotone.)

In modern times temperature controlled winemaking and vine training have diminished the amount of alcohol and the tendency to oxidize to produce a wine that is fresher in bouquet and rounder in fruit. The area also produces other reds, whites and an amber wine that is sherry-like and has the hints of almond and citrus.


The ancient Island of Sicily has one of Italy’s most progressive wine industries and has switched its emphasis from Moscato and the sweet, amber Marsala to the fruitier, lighter wines of mainly white but also some reds. This island has more vineyards than any other Italian wine-producing region. As the emphasis has moved from quantity to quality, wine production has diminished.

Two hundred years ago English merchant traders developed Marsala. Although it has been used for cooking or the flavoring of syrups and sweeteners it is developing a comeback with those who enjoy the Superiore Riserva and the Marsala Vergine. Although there has been some experimenting with none native varieties, the best of the island’s wines come from its native varieties which are Nero d’Avola (Calabrese), Nerello Mascalese, and Perricone (Pignatello) for the reds and Inzolia and Greccanico for the whites.

Sicily seems to be determined to take the lead in wine making in the modern south.


The wine region of Sardinia has reduced vineyards and volume of wine production and has improved the quality of their wines. The most productive area for vineyards is the Campidano, which is located in the rolling hills northwest of the capital of Cagliari. In the DOC list white wines have surpassed reds nearly two to one. The northern Gallura peninsula with its wooded slopes and the northwestern coastal area near Sassari and Alghero are noted for their great white wines. The grapes for the Vernaccia di Oristano are grown in the sandy, flat river basin near Oristano.

These grapes are turned into a Sherry-like amber wine which produces an array of subtleties in flavor and bouquet. The Nuragus, brought by the Phoenicians, is the most popular white variety, and produces a wine that is dry, white, crisp, and clean, but bland in flavor.

The red varieties are the Cannonau, which is a relative of the Spanish brought Granacha, the Carignano, and the Spanish Monica. Vineyards on the rugged eastern coast are located around Nuoro and are noted for the red, rich Cannonau. Cannonau can remind the drinker of Port.

This Spanish influenced island possesses 20 wines of DOC and DOCG and 16 IGTs which is the most of any other Italian region and is becoming the rising star in reds. The Italian wines of these vast vine growing regions represent a range of international varieties of grapes as well as those that are native to Italy. Italian wines offer nearly every color, style, and flavor that one can imagine. The authentic Italian grapes of ancient Italy are enhanced and formed into modern wines which can lead the Italian wine drinker to a seemingly limitless journey of taste and enjoyment.



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Carol graduated from Riverside White Cross School of Nursing in Columbus, Ohio and received her diploma as a registered nurse. She attended Bowling Green State University where she received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and Literature. She attended the University of Toledo, College of Nursing, and received a Master's of Nursing Science Degree as an Educator. She has traveled extensively, is a photographer, and writes on medical issues. Carol has three children RJ, Katherine, and Stephen - one daughter-in-law; Katie - two granddaughters; Isabella Marianna and Zoe Olivia - and one grandson, Alexander Paul. She also shares her life with her husband Gordon Duff, many cats, and two rescues.