Two top end journalists and great Italy lovers Bill Emmott and John Hooper share their opinions on Italian and British wine culture.
Is there such a thing as wine culture, that can differ from country to country? We asked two British journalists who know Italy extensively.
No food, no wine
B:The wine cultures are different, though it’s dangerous to generalise about a whole country. But to a British eye, several things are striking: clearly, the fact that Italians rarely drink without food. And more particularly, that for Italians wine is much less of a convivial affair, as it tends to be for us stuffy, reserved Brits. For Italians, it’s more of an extension of the food, and its quality. I think I have become more Italian in seeing wine in much closer association with food.
J:One of the things I fully approve of, and which has now an entrenched habit, having lived so many years in the countries of the Mediterranean, is that Italians drink wine with food, whereas British people often drink it without food. I now only drink half a glass of wine without food, it’s really too acidic for any more than that.
The bottle is always present
B:Wine is seen as something almost routine, like the bottle of olive oil that is also constantly on the table. But because of that, a Brit can feel a little offended when his Italian hosts fail to pour wine into his empty glass, instead just leaving the bottle on the table and expecting people to help themselves. As for me, I have certainly not changed my view of conviviality, and will always pour wine into other people’s glasses! One thing I have not yet found myself doing is leaving a table with an unfinished bottle of wine on it. To Italians, the wine is no longer needed, because the dinner is over. For me, it is one last chance to raise glasses and say salute!
J:Italians definitely drink less, and they are quite reserved about the amount of wine that they drink. I often notice that, even if there is a whole family around a table, at the end of the meal many of the bottles will be only half or two thirds drunk.
Wine snobs? No, tea snobs
B:There is a cultural difference linked to the traditions of the respective countries. Funnily enough, I found British people studying wine more than Italians, because they don’t have a wine culture. On the other hand, I find Spanish or Italians are really learned about tea, because they actually study it! I’ve heard people pointing out to me that the tea I was drinking only comes from the northern slopes of who-knows-where, something that no British person would ever say! So you get Italian and Spanish “tea snobs” rather than wine snobs.
J: I haven’t really noticed much wine snobbery among Italians. If anything, it can be about quality: Franciacorta rather than Prosecco, for example. Otherwise, I tend to notice, with some admiration, that Italians do look askance at how readily British people get drunk. It is a little like the “rule” against cappuccinos after breakfast-time, because of failing to understand the purpose of the milk: if you get drunk on wine, it means you have missed the real point of drinking it, which is to savour its quality and to accompany your excellent food.
Red wine with fish. Break the rule.
For me, there are no rules. Just quality, and a good combination of tastes. Of course, this means that very tannic red wines are not good accompaniments with fish. But a Dolcetto d’Alba
or a Nero d’Avola
I tend not to do it, but there are some fish dishes where it can work. The Spanish, for example, eat a lot of merluza
(hague), and red wine goes quite well with that. But normally I would go for white wine.
What about a favourite wine? I can’t pick only one.
If forced to choose, I would definitely go for a Franciacorta for my aperitivo
. As for red wine, you are spoilt for choice in Italy. If I was forced to choose just one, it would probably be an Amarone di Valpolicella
, or possibly a well-matured Barolo
I adore both Etna Rosso
and Etna Bianco
, but I have a particular favourite from Le Marche region: Pelago
. As for white wines, I recently had a bottle of Chianta, which I loved. If I have to go for a sweet wine, then there is a sweet white one from Umbria, called Calcaia
, which is absolutely fantastico
John Hooper is Italy correspondent of The Economist and Southern Europe editor of The Guardian. He spent almost his whole life in the Mediterranean countries, travelling around Cyprus, Spain and Italy. His knowledge of the Italian culture has been summed up in his latest book, “The Italians”, a mix of fun and serious description of the Bel Paese.
Bill Emmott is the former editor of The Economist, and an expert on international affairs, namely Japan among Asian countries and Italy in Europe. His book “Good Italy, Bad Italy” and his documentary “Girlfriend in a Coma” depicted Italy’s state after the rise of Berlusconi’s party and reached a wide international audience. He is currently collaborating with the Italian newspaper La Stampa and is promoting his new documentary, “The Great European Disaster Movie”.