The grandfather of wine, Italy is the oldest wine producing region in the world. Year to year, Italy and France vie to be the world’s largest wine producing country. Italy has wine producing areas in almost every region of the country.
The Italian appellation system was created in 1963. There are 4 categories. Two are for generic table wines: vini, and vini variteli. The other classifications are Vini IGP and Vini DOC. These are higher quality wines and have more regulations to follow. There are sub-categories in each of these as well.
The DOC and DOCG not only regulate the grapes, but will also stipulate minimal aging requirements. While DOCG wines are more expensive, their quality is guaranteed by the DOCG status. IGT wines are classified in the IGP system. IGT stands for Indicazion Geografica Tipica) This allows wine makers to make great wines that fall outside of the rules of the DOC & DOCG. Super-Tuscans are in this category because while they are great wines, the blend is not included in the DOC & DOCG rules.
Italian wines are labeled 3 different ways. They can be labeled by the grapes, by the village or district, or by the proprietary. The name can also contain a grape and a village. Unless you speak Italian, it can be difficult to know which of the 3 the label refers to. Don’t be afraid to ask about this at Italian restaurants when ordering wine, or asking the wine steward when purchasing wine. For example, Barbera is a grape, Barolo is a district, Tignanello is a proprietary and Barbera d’Asti is the grape + the village name.
There are 20 wine regions in Italy. The 3 largest producing areas are Piedmont, Veneto and Tuscany. Italy has many indigenous grapes, but now also grows what are referred to as “international grapes” – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay.
Piedmont is located in the Northwest part of Italy. (Think of the top of the boot). There are 5 sub-regions in Piedmont: Canavese, Colline Novaresi, Coste della Sesia, Langhe, and Monferrato. Here many fabulous red wines are made, including 2 of the best DOCG wines which are Barolo and Barberesco. Both of these wines are made with Nebbiolo grapes. The differences in the 2 wines are the wine making style and the characteristics of the land in which the grapes are grown. The terroir is the biggest distinction between these 2 wines. Both are hearty reds that need considerable aging. Barolo is considered to be more tannic. Barberesco’s tannins soften sooner and make it ready for drinking sooner. Barolo is harvested later than Barberesco and is more tannic and requires longer aging.
The other major red grapes of Piedmont are Barbera and Dolcetto. Barbera is a lighter and less tannic grape; it produces a more fruit forward style wine. Dolcetto is also a lighter grape. Both are considered to have a little bit of spice and produce great everyday wines. Also in this area, Moscato grapes are grown to produce the Moscato d’Asti, a light fizzy wine. There are 2 main white wines from this area, Cortese and Arneis. Both are dry white wines.
The Veneto region is in northeast Italy. The Alps protect this region from too much of the harsh climate of North Europe. This area has over 20 DOC zones and several sub-categories. This region boasts high elevation as well as a coastal component. Veneto is known for several red wines, Soave (dry white) and the sparkling wine Prosecco. The red wines are Bardolino, Valpolicella and Amarone.
Bardolino is a blend made from Corvina, Molinara, and Rondinella. Up to 15% of this blend can also contain 4 other grapes, including Sangiovese. This wine pairs easily with all foods as it is a lighter red. It has hints of cherry and a soft, spicy fragrance.
Valpolicella is made from many of the same grapes as Bardolino but is made in a style where it is more structured and full bodied. Basic Valpolicella has a sour cherry taste and around 11% alcohol. When the wine is made into Amarone della Valpolicella is becomes a wine that is drier, has a much higher alcohol content, fuller body and ripe tasting. These wines are rich with flavors of mocha, dark chocolate, raisins, dried figs and earthy flavors.
The Tuscan region of Italy is located in Central Italy on the Coast. There are many grapes produced in this area, but the most famous one is Sangiovese. To the west is the Tyrrhenian Sea giving this region a Mediterranean climate. It is also a very hilly area where crops can be planted hillside to receive more sun. The higher altitudes also leads to the diurnal temperature variation increasing the balance of sugar and acidity.
Tuscany is the 3rd most planted region in Italy, yet is only 8th in production. Good soil can be scarce and the grape crops are low-yielding to focus on quality rather than quantity.
There are 42 DOC and 11 DOCG for the regions 11 provinces. Some wines purposely fall out of the DOC or DOCG classification, and those are called Super Tuscans. Many wine makers felt they could make a superior wine by blending Sangiovese with international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Some of these wines are now included in the DOC/DOCG system, while some wine makers choose not to classify their wines.
The wine that is most likely heard of from the Tuscan region is called Chianti. Chianti wine is required to be 80% Sangiovese grape. It can be 100% Sangiovese grape after the laws were updated in 1995. There are 7 sub-regions in the Chianti region and are designated on their labels. If the wine is aged 38 months, it can be labeled Riserva. If the wine follows the strict demands of low crop yield and higher alcohol, it can be labeled Chianti Superiore.
In the area of Montalcino south of the Chianti Classico zone, the wine there is called Brunello di Montalcino. In this region, the Sangiovese grape thrives in the terroir. The grapes easily ripens which leads to consistently good wine with full body and a good balance of tannins. The aging requirements for Brunello is 4 years, and increases to 5 years to be labeled Riserva. The winemakers can age this wine for less time and label it as Rosso di Montalcino. These wines are often called “Baby Brunellos” and are drinkable in their youth.
Carmingnano is another region that bases their wine on the Sangiovese grape. However, they were one of the first regions to begin using Cabernet Sauvignon in their wine blend, long before the wine makers began making Super Tuscans. These wines are only required to have 50% Sangiovese and the other half is usually Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc. Because of the lower altitude of the region, the wine is less acidic and more pronounced tannins. This wine is medium-bodied and the Cabernet added can bring out chocolate notes to the fruit as well as increasing the aging potential.
From the Montipulciano region, comes the wine Vino Nobile di Montipulciano. The name is derived from the 17th century when the members of Tuscan nobility favored this wine. This climate is in the southeastern region of Tuscany and is influenced by the sea. Sangiovese is required to comprise 80% of the wine. The rest can be made from Canaiola and Mammola. Again, some wine makers are experimenting with international varieties and will use Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. The aging requirement is 2 years, and an additional year to be labeled Riserva. These wines are noted for their plummy fruit forward taste and smooth tannins.
With all the wonderful Italian red wines, it is easy to overlook the white wines of Italy. They have a great range from the semi-sweet moscato to the dry Soave grape and several new world varietals of Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.
Moscato blanc is grown in the Northwestern region of Piedmont. It is mainly used in the semi-sweet Moscato d’Asti. This wine is a slightly sparkling wine referred to as a Frizzante. This is a sweet wine with fruity and floral flavors.
Frascati is a white wine made from the Trebbiano grape. This grape is the most planted white wine grape in Italy. Frascati is made mostly in Abruzzo and Lazio in central Italy. This wine can also have Malvaisa and Greco grapes blended, the wine can be still or sparkling and ranges from dry to sweet. This wine can be traced back to the early days of Rome and is still a very popular every day wine in the region. It is often referred to as the Golden wine due to it’s color. The fermentation process utilizes the grape skins and makes it a darker, golden color.
Soave is a dry white made in the Veneto region in Northeast Italy. It is mostly comprised of the Garganega grape. It can also have the varietals Pinot Bianco, Verdicchio and Chardonnay added in varying amounts. The region’s DOC also permits a sparkling version, but it must be from late harvest grapes making it sweeter. It is a light bodied wine with fresh and has fruity flavors.
Cortese d’Gavi is also from Piedmont region. The wine is named after the city Gavi that is central in the region’s designated restrictions. This wine has been around for centuries and legend has it the town was named for the wayward Princess Gavia who ran away and married her guard. The king eventually forgave his daughter and gifted them with the town and the wine they so loved in that area. The Cortese grape is the only grape allowed in this wine. It is known to be a dry, crisp acidic wine that pairs well with seafood.
And of course, there is the famous Pinot Grigio. This is the most popular white wine of Italy. Northeastern Italy is where this grape thrives and is grown in the regions of Veneto, Alto-Adige and Friuli–Venezia Giula. These grapes are usually harvested early to retain as much acidity as possible as they are naturally low in acidity. To retain the freshness of the acidity, this wine is aged in stainless steel and is meant to be consumed at a young age. The DOC regions of Collio and Alto-Adige are considered to be among the best producers of Pinot Grigio.
Prosecco is the Italian “champagne”. This sparkling wine comes from the Veneto region and is made from the Glera grape. Sometimes the grape is still referred to as Prosecco. This sparkling wine is made by the Charmat method. This means the still wine is put in a tank where the 2nd fermentation takes place. Once it’s done with the 2nd fermentation, the sparkling wine is pumped into individual bottles. These wines are meant to be drunk young so make sure you get a recent vintage. These wines are dry, fruity and bubbly. The taste is slightly sweeter than brut champagne with tastes of peach and vanilla. These wines are also lighter in alcohol, usually around 11 to 12%.
Italy also makes other varying degrees of sparking wines. There are a few DOCG regions that make sparkling wine from the traditional method. These regions are warmer than the Champagne region and will produce flavors of lemon zest, brioche (type of bread) and creaminess. Italy is also known for it’s sparkling wines of Lambrusco and Asti Spumante.
Lambrusco is made in Emilia Romagna. (One of the regions that produces Parmesan Cheese). Most of the wines are frizzante, only slight sparkling red wine made from the Lambrusco grape. And yes, this is the wine that was famous in the 70’s for “Riunite on Ice, it’s Nice”.
Asti Spumante is a sweet frizzante wine made from Moscato. Moscato d’Asti is the spumante version and considered the higher quality of the 2. These wines go well with sweet desserts, or blue cheeses.