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Italy – the home of Moscato, Chianti, Amarone and Prosecco – has a rich and diverse wine heritage dating back more than two thousand years. Famous for its bewildering diversity of both grape varieties and wine styles, Italy is also significant for the sheer volume of wine it produces: just over 40 million hl in 2012, from 800,000 ha of vineyards. It is rivalled in this regard only by France and Spain.
Managing and marketing such a vast wine portfolio is no easy task, particularly in today's highly competitive wine market. The Italian government's system of wine classification and labelling uses a four-tier quality hierarchy made up of more than 500 DOCG, DOC and IGT titles. Italy is divided into 20 administrative regions, all of which produce wine to some extent, and all of which contain various wine regions. The most significant, when both quality and quantity are taken into consideration, are Tuscany, Piedmont and Veneto.
region has its flagship wine styles. Some are famous because they are produced in large volumes and can be found all over the world, others because of their consistently high quality. Tuscany is known for its Chianti, of course, but among devoted wine aficionados its Brunello and Vino Nobile are even more highly regarded. Likewise, Piedmont's most famous wine is now Moscato d'Asti (following a recent and meteoric rise in popularity), but the region is most respected for its Barolo and Barbaresco. Veneto's vast output of Prosecco, Soave and varietal Pinot Grigio does little to boost its reputation as a fine wine region, and yet it produces one of the world's richest, finest wines: Amarone della Valpolicella.
Italy's vineyards are home to more than 2000 grape varieties, many of which are on the brink of extinction. The safest and best-known Italian grapes are Sangiovese, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Montepulciano and Pinot Grigio (although technically the latter is more French than Italian). These varieties cover many thousands of acres of vineyard, and can be found in various regions. At the other end of the scale are such little-known rarities as Centesimino and Dorona, which are found in tiny numbers in just one or two places.
All of Italy's grape varieties, famous or not, face serious competition from better-known French varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. These internationally popular grapes are being planted in ever-increasing numbers all over Italy, and with high success rates. Some of Italy's finest and most expensive wines are made from these "foreign" varieties. An obvious example is the Super Tuscan Sassicaia from Bolgheri, which is a predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon with a hint of Cabernet Franc.
Italy is unmistakable on the map, with its iconic, boot-like shape. Effectively one vast peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean, the country runs NW–SE for 700 miles (1,130km) along a strong, steep spine formed by the Apennine Mountains. On its western side, in the Tyrrhenian Sea, lie its two island regions, Sicily and Sardinia.
It is hard to summarize in any useful way the climate of such a long and topographically varied country. Vineyards here are planted anywhere from sea-level in eastern Emilia-Romagna to around 4200ft (1300m) in the alpine Aosta Valley. Latitude is also a key factor here; at 46°N, the northern Alto Adige region lies a full 11 degrees north of Pantelleria, leaving it some 680 miles further from the warmth of the equator.