Italy has been one of the world's most famous wine producing nations for centuries. Actually, one can argue that would be millenniums, as wine was made in the southern reaches of this country more than 2000 years ago. Today, it is one of the two leading wine countries in the world - France being the other - and Italian wine is known around the world for its quality and above all its variety and distinctiveness.

Italy is the only country where wine is produced in every region. There are twenty of them and given the geography of Italy, you can imagine that there are many different wines, as the cool climate of Friuli in the far northeast, near the Julian Alps, is dramatically different from the hot temperatures on the island of Sicily, located not very far from Africa. Add to that the maritime climates on the east and east of Italy, and you have a myriad of conditions for producing wine.

But the real key to understanding Italian wines is realizing that the overwhelming majority of Italian wines are produced with indigenous varieties. Many of these varieties are not found outside of Italy and some are not even planted outside their region or particular district. Estimates on how many of these indigenous varieties exist throughout Italy range from 700 or 800 up to 2000 or even more; no one is exactly sure.

Indigenous varieties shape the style and character of Italian wines. Sangiovese, the most widely planted red variety in the country, produces medium to medium-full bodied reds with good acidity and moderate tannins; Tuscan wines such as Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino are produced either primarily or entirely from Sangiovese. Meanwhile in Piedmont, Nebbiolo is one of the most important varieties, producing wines that are medium-full to full bodied, with strong tannins and good acidity. Barolo and Barbaresco are two of the most famous reds produced entirely from Nebbiolo.

But in Piedmont, there are other red varieties, such as Dolcetto and Barbera, that yield very different reds. Dolcetto is a red wine with ripe cranberry and red cherry fruit with good acidity and moderate tannins, while Barbera has very high acidity with extremely light tannins. Both wines are meant for consumption in their youth, perhaps up to five years. Then there are stylistic differences, as with Barbera, for example. Barbera d'Alba is a more traditional style for the variety, while producers of Barbera d'Asti craft riper, more "serious" style of this variety that are flashier wines than those from Barbera. It is this difference from one area to another that is another fascinating aspect of Italian wines; a Barolo from La Morra is vastly different than one from Serralunga d'Alba, a few miles away. It is this expression of terroir that defines in part, the uniqueness of Italian wines.

Northern Italy, with red wines from Piedmont, such as the ones listed above, as well as Amarone from the Veneto region, has been considered among the finest sectors of Italian viticulture. But then you have central Italy, with Tuscany, Umbria and Abruzzo also being home to some considerable reds. As far as the south, this part of Italy has been unfairly treated as far as the qualities of their wine, as some consider the warm temperatures here not suitable for elegant wines. Yet Taurasi in Campania and numerous examples of Aglianico in Basilicata along with Nero d'Avola in Sicily are proof that excellent red wines do emerge from the south.

Red wines have always been the most famous from Italy, but over the past two or three decades, white wines and sparkling wines have been elevated to world-class quality. Northern whites such as Friulano and Sauvignon from Friuli along with Gewurztraminer and Pinot Bianco from Alto Adige, have been widely acclaimed for their varietal purity, ideal acidity and structure. Verdicchio from Marche is one of the finest whites of Italy, and one that can age for decades. From Campania in the south, Greco di Tufo, Fiano di Avellino and Falanghina are among the world's finest whites, offering excellent varietal purity, along with a distinct minerality derived from the local volcanic soils.

Classically made sparkling wines, especially those from the Franciacorta district in Lombardy and Trento in Trentino, offer excellent complexity and richness, as these wines are given the same care in the vineyards and cellars as the best sparklers from anywhere in the world.

While indigenous varieties continue to be the linchpin for Italian viticulture, international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are used in a few red wines, most notably in Tuscany. The best manage to maintain an Italian identity, but too often, these wines are modern and international in style, and taste as they could come from anywhere. While some of these wines have brought great acclaim to the Italian wine industry, the danger is that producers of highly distinctive, traditional wines from small districts throughout the country may lose out on market share and attention.

The Italian wine industry continues to thrive, with exports increasing to more and more countries around the world. Local heritage may be important in Italian viticulture, but the country's producers have been able to adapt to modern tastes, proving that tradition is indeed a moving target. Whatever one's tastes may be, there is an Italian wine of very high quality for every occasion and everyone. (Wine/Appellations)