High spirits in Italy

When in Italy, drink as the Italians do. Have a cappuccino with your breakfast, choose the perfect wine to pair with a pasta at lunchtime and end the day with a liqueur — savouring the good things in life just like the locals.

Wine is not just a way of life for Italians, it is a passion, much like their cuisine, art and culture. Picturesque vineyards spread from the rolling hills to the sunny, southern landscapes produce both vibrant and subtle flavours in mind-boggling varieties that can easily overwhelm a visitor. But while settling down to savour some of these famed wines, take time out to enjoy other drinks that the Italians love — their coffee culture is unique and the country manufactures other spirits as well.

Wine

With more than 350 labels and 20 regions producing wine, Italy was the largest manufacturer and exporter of wine in the world in 2020. Some of the prominent regions are Tuscany, Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna and Sicily. Going on a wine tour is one of the best ways to understand the nuances of different wines but it may be best to start with some that have climbed the popularity charts.

Two glasses of barolo wine on a windowsill with the castle of barolo (piedmont, italy) blurred on the background
Two glasses of Barolo wine on a windowsill with the castle of Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) blurred on the background. Image: Shutterstock

Barolo:

Made from thin and small red grapes called Nebbiolo, this red wine from the Piedmont region has won the title of the ‘King of Wines’. It is a full-bodied, strong wine that has a garnet-red colour and notes of rose, truffles and chocolate. Need one say more? The village of Barolo is, in fact, the first to win the title of ‘City of Wine’ or ‘Città del Vino’, a new official award introduced by Italy this year to promote the country’s wine tourism and culture.

Barbaresco:

If Barolo is the king of wines, then Barbaresco is the queen. Also from the Piedmont region and made from the same Nebbiolo grapes that are used to make Barolo, it is quite similar to that wine with a few subtle differences. The main difference is in the topography, ageing requirements and soil in the making of both these wines — Barbaresco has fruity notes of cherry, truffle, fennel and licorice.

Chianti:

This delicious Tuscan red wine is made from thin-skinned Sangiovese grapes. It’s ruby red in colour with notes of cherry, strawberry, dried herbs and more and is a perfect wine to pair with Italian food like tomato-based pastas and pizzas.  

Vineyard prosecco on the green hills near valdobbiadene, girl with a glass of prosecco wine, veneto, italy
A Prosecco vineyard on the green hills near Valdobbiadene and a visitor with a glass of Prosecco admiring the view, Veneto, Italy. Image: Shutterstock

Prosecco:

One of the most popular sparkling wines in the world, it is named after the village it comes from and is a slightly sweet, light and fruity wine. It is a perfect accompaniment to desserts, certain cheeses and charcuterie as well.

Lambrusco:

One of the oldest wines in Italy is made from a family of red grapes grown in theEmilia-Romagna region. Its different varieties range from dry to sweet, with fruity and floral notes and can vary in colour from red to deep purple. Relatively low on alcohol, these wines accompany a variety of foods from lasagnas to barbecued meats.  

Franciacorta:

Popularly called Italy’s equivalent of French champagne, this sparkling wine is made from hand-harvested grapes grown in the rolling hills of Lombardy. For people outside Italy, it is a relatively unknown wine but has often been called a “hidden gem” by wine connoisseurs. It boasts of rich fruit flavours, thanks to the balmy climate of the region.  

Coffee

As a nation, Italy is obsessed with coffee and in a way this brew defines their philosophy of a leisurely life. An Italian usually has three to four cups of coffee in a day. For breakfast it is cappuccino, during the day it is a caffe macchiato — espresso with a couple of teaspoons of steamed milk — while the day ends with espresso.

Drinking coffee at a cafe in bologna. Image: shutterstock
Drinking coffee at a cafe in Bologna. Image: Shutterstock

“Coffee is a way of life in Italy just like chai is our way of life in India,” says Chef Ritu Dalmia who has lived in Italy for many years. “What is nice about Italy’s coffee culture is that it is not just about big brands. Everyone has their little coffee shop or coffee vendor who they prefer. In some ways it represents the easy-going lifestyle of Italians.”  

Espresso is not served piping hot but at a perfect temperature to drink and people mostly have it standing, pay and then move on. Sitting down and having coffee is usually more expensive.

Unknown to many, Italy introduced the world to espresso, cappuccino, Americano and macchiato — and this is also where the espresso machine was invented in Turin in 1884 by Angelo Moriondo. The famed coffee brand, Lavazza, was also born here.

The coffee served also varies regionally. When in Turin, coffee lovers should not miss having Bicerin — espresso with hot chocolate and whipped cream.  


Liquor

Italians love their spirits — and have managed to make quite a few of them. Campari, Vermouth, Limoncello, Grappa, Sambuca, Aperol — all were invented in Italy and are now loved all over the world.

Grappa:

Perfect after an appetising meal, it is usually had as a digestif. It is similar to brandy and is made by using grapes left after they are pressed for wine. The alcohol content is quite high — 40 to 60 per cent — and some even call it ‘Healthy Water’.

Campari:

The world over, Negroni is a popular drink and the main spirit from which it is made is Campari — a popular Italian aperitif. The bright red coloured drink is an acquired taste since it is quite bitter. Italians love drinking it as an aperitivo — a pre-meal drink that is usually accompanied by a lot of finger food or snacks.

Traditional italian limoncello. Image: shutterstock
Traditional Italian limoncello. Image: Shutterstock

Limoncello:

The luscious, juicy lemons of the Amalfi Coast go into making this bright yellow, refreshing drink that is very easy to fall in love with. It’s sweet, fresh and very citrusy — best enjoyed ice cold and chilled. It goes perfectly in cocktails and is used in a lot of desserts as well.

So, from starting the day with the correct coffee to spending time selecting the right wine to accompany the meal or ending a meal by sipping Grappa, drinks as much as food are a hallmark of Italy’s leisurely take on life. 

Read more. 

Elena Fucci: One woman. One grape. One wine