Few activities reveal the soul of Italy better than an intimate wine tasting in the Italian countryside.
As it is frequently noted, Italians have a firm sense of identity that is rooted in their home province, and wine — often made with indigenous grapes that express a local character — is the perfect vehicle for revealing the complexity of this story. Combine this with a natural aptitude for hospitality and graciousness among your hosts, and you have a recipe for an unforgettable visit.
If you are used to wine-tasting in the United States, Australia, New Zealand or South America, you might notice that it is a little different in Italy. Here, we outline a few of these key differences and provide some tips for making the most of your Italian wine country vacation.
Make an Appointment
First thing is first: Some wineries have tasting-room hours, but many are by appointment only. Even if they have tasting room hours, it is always advised to call ahead and establish an appointment. By doing so, winery staff can know how many people to accommodate, and how to customize your experience ahead of time, especially if you would like a cellar or vineyard tour.
Note: Appointments are essential during the harvest season, which runs from late August through October, depending on where you are in Italy.
Don’t Expect the “Napa Tasting Room Experience”
If you are expecting a Napa-like experience in the Italian countryside — complete with an expansive tasting bar, winery merchandise and hospitality staff — you may be surprised.
While some Italian wineries have taken selective cues about the visitor experience from their contemporaries in California, by and large, the experience is intimate. Tasting rooms are often retrofitted into historic buildings — not by design, but by necessity. This creates an ambiance that is unique to each estate. You are also more likely to have the tasting seated around a table than at a bar, especially at smaller family wineries.
Taste Within the Context of Cuisine
In Italian culture, wine and food are inseparable. To prove this point, many top wineries — such as Feudi di San Gregorio and Poggio dei Gorleri — have added a restaurant to their facilities so that you can complete the circle and taste their wines within the context of local cuisine. Some also offer local food pairings during the tasting.
With all due respect to New World wineries, but if you have seen one tank room, you have pretty much seen them all. However, in Italy — where winemaking usually spans at least three or four generations within one facility (and sometimes up to 15) — wine cellars take on an added significance. You might be touring the cellar of a medieval castle, or squeezing through subterranean tunnels that were used as shelters during the World Wars. Even the old wood casks used to age wine — some stretching back for 60 straight vintages — carry the promise of untold stories. Each cellar tour is a surprise on its own.
Beautiful Art & Architecture
While wineries around the world often celebrate art and architecture in their tasting rooms, Italians give the experience their own unique twist. After all, when you can incorporate 3,000 years of local history and some of Europe’s most remarkable scenery, you’d be remiss to not make a statement!
For a decidedly modern celebration of art and architecture, head to Piedmont. There, the Ceretto family has infused modern art into the deconsecrated Brunate Chapel (located next to the famed Barolo vineyard of the same name) and with the glass-cube atrium of their hillside winery. In nearby Nizza, Michele Chiarlo’s estate is famed for the Art Park La Court, Italy’s first open-air art museum set within vineyards.