Italy – the home of Moscato, Chianti, Amarone 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.
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 Tuscany, Piedmont 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 Sangiovese, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Montepulciano 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:
- DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) is the highest classification for Italian wines. It denotes controlled (controllata) production methods and guaranteed (garantita) wine quality. There are strict rules governing the production of DOCG wines, most obviously the permitted grape varieties, yield limits, grape ripeness, winemaking procedures and barrel/bottle maturation. Every DOCG wine is subject to official tasting procedures. To prevent counterfeiting, the bottles have a numbered government seal across the neck.
- DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) is the main tier of Italian wine classification, and covers almost every traditional Italian wine style. There are around 330 individual DOC titles, each with a set of laws governing its viticultural zone, permitted grape varieties and wine style. Those which show consistently high quality earn promotion to DOCG status.
|Italian Wine Terms|
|Amarone||Dry red wine made from dried grapes (a form of passito)|
|Cantina sociale||Co-operative winery|
|Chiaretto||Pale red or dark rosé|
|Classico||Denotes the traditional, theoretically superior, vineyard area within a DOC/G zone|
|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.|
|Superiore||wines with greater concentration and higher alcoholic strength|
|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.|
- IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) was introduced in 1992, to allow a certain level of freedom to Italy’s winemakers. Prior to 1992, many wines failed to qualify for DOC or DOCG status – not because they were of low quality, but because they were made from grape varieties (or blends) not sanctioned under DOC/G laws. The IGT classification focuses on the region of origin, rather than grape varieties or wine styles.
- Vino da Tavola: means ‘table wine’ in Italian, and represents the most basic level of Italian wine. The Vino da Tavola category held a certain prestige in the 1970s and 1980s, thanks to experimental winemakers who produced top-quality (but unorthodox) wines under the title. This situation has gradually diminished, however, since the introduction of the IGT category with its more flexible production conditions, and Vino da Tavola has steadily returned to its original status as the lowest rung on Italy’s wine quality ladder.
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.