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There's a lot more to Italian wines than just Chianti and Pinot Grigio. Italy is the second largest producer of wines in the world, has the largest world grape production and grows an enormous amount of its own native grapes.
Pinot Grigio is deliciously clean and crisp and makes a great aperitif. Chianti, on the other hand, is a true gem of a red wine and makes Central Italy's greatest export. Dark tannic Barolo, made from the black grape Nebbiolo, is among the finest of all Italian wines and can command very high prices.
In the same way that Spain isn't just about Rioja, there is a lot more to Italian wine than might first be thought. Italy offers a diverse range of wine, not restricted to the varieties we may be familiar with. With over 1000 different varieties grown, many of them native, there is a never-ending range of wines for you to try. It wouldn't be possible to name them all here, but for starters, look out for reds including Nebbiolo, Barbaresco, Montepulciano and Barbera, and whites including super-fresh Trebbiano, slightly sparkling Moscato, the famous Gavi, made from Cortese, and Verdicchio.
Italy, like other wine growing countries, produces its own sparkling wines. If you like a dry sparkler, look out for Prosecco, while if a sweeter sparkler is more your thing, go for Moscato d'Asti.
Italian wine is very much intertwined with Italian cuisine. Wines produced regionally tend to match the types of food eaten in that area. It therefore really is no coincidence that Chianti matches brilliantly with rich pasta and roasted vegetable based dishes, which are the staple of the Tuscan diet, while white wines of the North East such as Soave, taste divine with fish. Some Italian wines may taste a little acidic on their own, but when drunk with the food, such as acidic tomato-based dishes, are delicious.
As well as native grapes, Italy produces a number of International varieties too. These include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay and Riesling, especially in the Fruili-Venezia region in the North East, where the climate is cooler.
There are 20 Italian wine producing regions, each having a certain degree of autonomy, and there are thousands of often-tiny vineyards right across the country. Partly because the climate and soil is so varied, and because Italy is so mountainous there are over 1000 grape varieties to be found. Many of these are native to Italy, and some are only found in one specific region, on one patch of one slope!
The general rule though is wines that are produced in the north of Italy are lighter and more elegant due to the cooler climate, while in areas in the South such as Puglia and Sicily you will generally find richer and fuller wines, with more pronounced flavours. There will not generally be a lot of variation between vintages of wines produced in the south, whereas in the North, the taste of a wine may vary a lot from year to year.