The Ginger Man

Italian Wine

Italy – the home of MoscatoChiantiAmarone and Prosecco – has a rich and diverse wine heritage dating back more than two thousand years. Famous for its bewildering diversity of both grape varieties and wine styles, Italy is also significant for the sheer volume of wine it produces: just over 40 million hL in 2012, from 800,000 ha of vineyards. It is rivaled in this regard only by France and Spain.

Managing and marketing such a vast wine portfolio is no easy task, particularly in today’s highly competitive wine market. The Italian government’s system of wine classification and labeling uses a four-tier quality hierarchy made up of more than 500 DOCG, DOC and IGT titles.

The classic Italian hillside vineyard

Italy is divided into 20 administrative regions, all of which produce wine to some extent, and all of which contain various wine regions. The most significant, when both quality and quantity are taken into consideration, are TuscanyPiedmont and Veneto.

Each region has its flagship wine styles. Some are famous because they are produced in large volumes and can be found all over the world, others because of their consistently high quality. Tuscany is known for its Chianti, of course, but among devoted wine aficionados its Brunello and Vino Nobile are even more highly regarded. Likewise, Piedmont’s most famous wine is now Moscato d’Asti (following a recent and meteoric rise in popularity), but the region is most respected for its Barolo and Barbaresco. Veneto’s vast output of Prosecco, Soave and varietal Pinot Grigio does little to boost its reputation as a fine wine region, and yet it produces one of the world’s richest, finest wines: Amarone della Valpolicella.

Italy’s vineyards are home to more than 2000 grape varieties, many of which are on the brink of extinction. The safest and best-known Italian grapes are SangioveseBarberaNebbioloMontepulciano and Pinot Grigio (although technically the latter is more French than Italian). These varieties cover many thousands of acres of vineyard, and can be found in various regions. At the other end of the scale are such little-known rarities as Centesimino and Dorona, which are found in tiny numbers in just one or two places.

All of Italy’s grape varieties, famous or not, face serious competition from better-known French varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. These internationally popular grapes are being planted in ever-increasing numbers all over Italy, and with high success rates. Some of Italy’s finest and most expensive wines are made from these “foreign” varieties. An obvious example is the Super Tuscan Sassicaia from Bolgheri, which is a predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon with a hint of Cabernet Franc.

Italy is unmistakable on the map, with its iconic, boot-like shape. Effectively one vast peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean, the country runs NW–SE for 700 miles (1,130km) along a strong, steep spine formed by the Apennine Mountains. On its western side, in the Tyrrhenian Sea, lie its two island regions, Sicily and Sardinia.

It is hard to summarize in any useful way the climate of such a long and topographically varied country. Vineyards here are planted anywhere from sea-level in eastern Emilia-Romagna to around 4200ft (1300m) in the alpine Aosta Valley. Latitude is also a key factor here; at 46°N, the northern Alto Adige region lies a full 11 degrees north of Pantelleria, leaving it some 680 miles further from the warmth of the equator.

Italian Wine Label Information

Italian wine labels, just like those from France and Spain, are required by law to show an established set of basic information (producer name, appellation, vintage, alcohol content and bottle volume). Italy began developing its official wine classifications in the 1960s, modeled on the French appellation system. The DOC and DOCG categories were introduced in 1963 (although the latter remain unused until 1982), and the IGT category followed in the early 1990’s.

The four official tiers of Italian wine classification:

Italian Wine Terms
Abboccato Slightly sweet
Amabile Medium-sweet
Amarone Dry red wine made from dried grapes (a form of passito)
Azienda/Tenuta/Podere Estate
Bianco White
     Cantina Winery
Cantina sociale Co-operative winery
Chiaretto Pale red or dark rosé
Classico Denotes the traditional, theoretically superior, vineyard area within a DOC/G zone
Dolce Sweet
Frizzante Slightly sparkling
Imbottigliato all’origine Estate-bottled
Metodo Classico Sparkling wine made by the classic Champagne method
Novello Literally ‘new’ – describes light, fruity wines intended for early consumption rather than cellaring
Passito Generic term for wine made from dried grapes (typically sweet but sometimes dry)
Recioto Sweet red or white wine made from dried grapes (a form of passito)
Ripasso full-bodied, powerful wine style made by re-fermenting wine with amarone grape skins
Riserva Literally ‘reserve’. Denotes extended ageing (in cask, then bottle) before the wine is sent to market.
Rosato Rosé
Rosso Red
Secco Dry
Spumante Sparkling
Superiore wines with greater concentration and higher alcoholic strength
Vendemmia Vintage
Vigneto Vineyard
Vin Santo A dessert wine style originally from Tuscany, generally made from air-dried Trebbiano grapes. The style is now made in various Italian regions.


Super Tuscans

This useful but unofficial term emerged in the 1970s, to describe a particular set of high-quality Tuscan wines which were precluded from claiming DOC or DOCG status because they broke traditional Italian winemaking norms (foreign grape varieties were used, and the wines were often matured in small, new oak barrels). Several of these wines earned global recognition and astronomical price tags – hence ‘Super Tuscan’. Originally these wines had to be labeled as Vino da Tavola because they contravened the stringent, tradition-focused DOC laws. This situation ultimately led to the creation of the IGT category, with its relatively relaxed production rules.

Italian wine is like Italian politics; it’s complicated, barely understood by the rest of the world, and often breaks its own rules. It is also delicious and diverse.

From the fragrant whites of the north, to the sun drenched reds of the south, Italian wine is pure pleasure on the tongue. That is as long as you know what you’re looking for.

Understanding of Italian wine becomes clearer with an understanding of the differences between each region; their cuisines reflect their indigenous wines, and vice-versa.