Wine pervades all areas of life and is an important part of Italian culture. It’s impossible to imagine Italian art or history without its influence. But it’s also an important part of everyday life.
Wine alone makes up about 2% of an average family’s budget. While elsewhere wine is a drink we break out for special occasions, it’s nothing particularly special in Italy. It’s not considered high-brow, but a normal, unpretentious part of nearly every meal, and is enjoyed by people of all classes and backgrounds.
Wine and Food
Wine is almost always served with meals. Everywhere in Italy you see inexpensive table wine being poured when people sit down to eat. Wine brings out the flavors of the food and enhances the social experience of eating. The food does the same for the wine, bringing out its natural flavors. Matching wine to food is an art-form.
In fact, wine has traditionally been considered a type of nourishment. In olden times, the lower classes drank wine to make up for the calories their poor diets lacked. It has always been thought of as an essential part of the diet just like the food you eat.
Also in olden times, table wine was used as a water purifier. This was done before industrialization and the improvements in water purifying technology that came with it. It was also before soft drinks were widely available. This tradition remains today where sometimes table wine has water added to it.
Wine without Winos
Wine with every meal? It may sound like an endless party or an alcoholic’s paradise, but not so in Italy. Drinking to excess is not common as it is in other European countries. The purpose of the beverage is to be enjoyed. It’s the flavor and the way it complements the food. Except for certain occasions, it’s not considered socially acceptable to become drunk.
This is often not well understood by travelers to Italy. Brits and Americans are commonly seen getting intoxicated in the cafes of Italy, and there’s no offense taken by it. Most likely, the locals just think it’s a waste of good wine! On the other hand, as Italians and other wine-drinking peoples increasingly drink beer and other alcoholic beverages from the more northern countries, they tend to adopt their drinking habits as well. Wine, it seems, is meant to be drunk in moderation.
A Dying Tradition
In recent years, consumption of wine in Italy has been on the decline. Surveys show that a majority of the wine drunk today in the country is among the older age group. People under 35 are far less likely to drink wine at their meals or other ordinary times in the day.
Part of the reason is that the cost of wine has risen. There are fewer good wines available at low prices. During the 1980s there were a number of scandals where wines were found to be contaminated and this led to wine makers focusing more on quality than quality. The result was higher prices.
For many, wine is associated with Italy’s agrarian past. It’s drunk much more in rural areas. Some city dwellers see the drink as a reminder of their backward past. This is hard to imagine for those of us from countries where wine smacks of sophistication.
There are also health reasons for the lower wine consumption, as well as the fact that many young Italians simply prefer beer, soft drinks or water with their meals.
However, it’s far from likely that the wine drinking culture of Italy will ever disappear. Although the country’s wine makers have shifted their focus largely to importing, there are still places where you can taste some of the best wines the world has ever known in Italy. Despite the decline, it still has one of Europe’s highest per capita wine consumption rates.