In a couple of days I shall be wending my way slowly by car to Italy. I've been doing this for thirty years or so and the route is now well-implanted in my memory. The wine part of the route takes me firstly through the Champagne, then through the Burgundy, and then after a left turn at Macon and over the border into Italy, through the vineyards of the Aosta Valley and Piedmont. After that come the vineyards of Tuscany, then those of Frascati outside Rome, and finally, as we near our destination, the vineyards belonging to my various cousins in the Comino Valley.
Even as a small boy travelling this route with my parents, the hills of vines held a deep fascination for me. I didn't know then that of all cultivated land in the world, vineyards make up nearly one percent. That same statistic applies to people as well, one percent of humanity is involved with growing grapes, making wine or trading it. When you think of all the countries in the world where there is no tradition of drinking wine, then you can see what an enormous part of our economies and society the grape has defined in the countries where it is grown.
A thousand years before Christ the Greeks called Italy 'The Land of Vines' in much the same way that the Vikings called America 'Vinland' for the same reason - the abundance of indigenous vines. By the Roman era the industry was well established, with vineyards stretching from the north near Genoa, all the way down the peninsula and into Sicily. Some of these, like the Falernian, were celebrated by the poets and writers of the day, even Virgil wrote instructions for wine-making. It seems probable that the Romans drank wine much as they do in present day Italy; young, robust and often surprisingly long-lived. In Petronius' Satyricon he describes a meal at which the famous Opiddian vintage was served - over 120 years old at the time of writing. Long-lasting wine like this suggests that it was well-made in the first place.
It's an unbroken tradition coming down to today. My cousins have vineyards on land thet came into the family in 1376, which wasn't yesterday. In my valley we grow the Cabernet Sauvignon, which is used for the Atina DOC, but for this part of southern Lazio that's unusual, the more common red grape is the Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. Since the Abruzzi is only five miles away as the crow flies, that makes some historical sense. What we make is red wine, and as in most of rural Italy it's made to be drunk young. It's big and robust, as well it might be to stand up to the strong flavours of our peasant food. It's unfiltered and unpasteurised and has a taste so different from commercial wines that it sometimes seems like a different drink.
Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 1999 Farnese/Fantini