It may seem like one nation to us, but Italy views itself differently. At least many of its citizens do.
Culturally and in some cases politically, its 20 regions are as autonomous as regions come. It's like a country made up of 20 Quebecs, only without the glory of poutine.
I can remember attending, during my youth in Toronto, Italian wedding ceremonies jokingly referred to by some in attendance as "mixed marriages" because, say, a Venetian bride had tied the knot with a Calabrese groom.
The thickest imaginary border, of course, has always been between the north and the south, between the industrialized haves and the agrarian have-nots, both of which steadfastly claim Rome, smack in the centre, as theirs.
For the longest time, wine snobs saw the country in a similar way. In their view, the place effectively ended at Tuscany. Virtually all of the "classy" wines came from there (such as Brunello di Montalcino) or provinces to the north, most notably Piedmont (home of Barolo) and Veneto (the land of Amarone).
Mercifully, times change. Italy is growing into a more tolerant and united place. And oenologically the world is discovering that the south is a booming source of fascinating grapes and flavours. Most southern wines are based on indigenous grapes, with names that would perplex the average "I'll-have-a-glass-of-chardonnay" drinker.
Ever sipped a greco? You should. It may be Italy's best white grape, a specialty of the Campania region that surrounds Naples.
An ancient Greek import (hence the name), greco can taste a little like the French viognier, often with a silky texture and inviting aromatic quality that can suggest peaches, blossoms and herbs. For the record, there's a red variety called greco, but it's not as distinguished.
As part of a spotlight on central and southern Italy starting today, Vintages stores in Ontario are featuring a remarkable bargain, Cantine Manimurci Impeto Greco di Tufo 2009 ($13.95, product No. 180752). Medium-bodied, with a soft texture, the wine has a lemony flavour and hint of stone, with a pleasantly bitter, long finish. Perfect for grilled fish.
Technology has delivered a boon to the hot, sunny south, especially in the case of fresh white wines like greco. Before the days of temperature-controlled fermentation tanks, it was tough to keep juice cool in the winery - essential for white winemaking. If many of the reds tasted pruny, the whites often were best reserved for the braising pot.
Another new white star of the Campania region is falanghina (fah-lan-GEE-na), a fruity wine sometimes redolent of bananas and almonds. It, too, is splendid with grilled fish, especially shellfish. In British Columbia, look for Feudi di San Gregorio Falanghina 2007 ($27.99, No. 634907).
Aglianico, Campania's red glory, can produce cellar-worthy wines that rival the best Chiantis from Tuscany. The producer Mastroberardino, just east of Naples, is a master, though the wines are expensive and tough to find. The winery's flagship Radici Taurasi, made with aglianico, may be the south's most acclaimed red, available in British Columbia for $54.99 (No. 238188).
Incidentally, Mastroberardino is widely credited with rescuing such varieties as aglianico and greco from obscurity after the Second World War, which devastated vineyards and forced many growers to flee to city jobs.
Sicily's nero d'Avola, often priced at less than $15, gets my nod as one of the best red-wine bargains on the planet - though in the hands of quality-minded growers, and at $30 or $40, it can be a serious mouthful to impress connoisseurs at your dinner table. Widely available in Ontario at a stunningly low price is Cusumano Nero d'Avola 2008 ($9.95, No. 143164) from one of Sicily's thoroughly modern-minded and most reliable producers. Planeta and Donnafugata are two other widely distributed and reliable Sicilian names.
Few wines selling for under $10 deliver this much honest character (as opposed to manufactured smoothness). Juicy and spicy, it's full-bodied, with a hint of bitter chocolate and firm grip on the finish. It would be splendid with grilled sausages, even pizza. Unfortunately, B.C. buyers must shell out almost twice the Ontario price for the same wine ($17.99, No. 143610). For a ritzier take on the same grape, look for Cusumano Sagana ($41.99 in B.C., No. 640862; $34.25 in Quebec, No. 11292580).
Some would argue that Sicily's greatest strength is nerello mascalese, an indigenous variety that tends to produce crisp, medium-bodied reds. It's sometimes referred to as Sicily's, even Italy's, answer to pinot noir, the noble grape used in red Burgundy.
Among the best nerello producers is Benanti, located at the base of Mount Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe. Its reds, some from pre-war vines growing on the hardened-lava soil of the volcano's slopes, tend to sell for $40 to $55 in this market. More affordable, though, is a wine released today through Vintages in Ontario, Murgo Etna Rosso 2008 ($13.95, No. 180208), another volcano vino. A blend of mostly nerello mascalese with 15-per-cent nerello mantellato, it's medium-bodied, with notes of berry, spice and earth and a gritty, dry texture. It's a good choice for dishes involving tomato sauce.
Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot, has burst onto the bargain shelves in recent years with two grapes in particular, primitivo and negroamaro. Primitivo is the Italian name for zinfandel, which paradoxically has enjoyed a longer history in California than Puglia. The grape can taste syrupy and too raisin-like in the case of bargain-oriented brands, I find. I think negroamaro, almost inevitably drier and with a satisfying bitter edge, is Puglia's greater strength.
You can get a good sense of its fetching character in Apollonio Copertino Rosso 2004, just released in Ontario ($16.95, No. 23226). It's a blend of 70-per-cent negroamaro with three other southern grapes: montepulciano, malvasia nera di Lecce and malvasia nera di Brindisi. Lots of luscious wine in the bottle here, with a soft texture and slightly Port-like quality that finishes dry.
And then there's Sardinia, the second-largest Italian island after Sicily and culturally more a part of the south than the north. Certainly in terms of food and wine it shares more of that southern, vegetable-and-fish-heavy Mediterranean diet.
Writer-adventurer Dan Buettner, a specialist in the intersection of human longevity with geography, has referred to Sardinia as one of the world's few "blue zones" - places where the odds of living beyond 100 are significantly higher than in the rest of the world. The Japanese island of Okinawa is another. We don't know all the reasons why. DNA no doubt plays a huge role (you can't beat islands for keeping out the genetic riff-raff) and then there's all those fresh vegetables. I'd like to say red wine plays a big part, but I can't.
But if you want to absorb some Sardinian wine, anyway, I'd recommend cannonau. That's the local name for the grape known as garnacha in Spain and grenache in France. One huge bargain released today in Ontario is Santa Maria La Palma Villassunta Cannonau di Sardegna 2008 ($11.95, No. 180299). Medium-bodied and brimming with notes of cherry, currant, earth and herbs, it is terrific with vegetarian fare, including tomato-based pasta dishes.
Sardinian winemakers may live to a ripe old age, but none is getting rich charging prices like this.