Italian Wine 101 Cheat Sheet (#ItalianFWT)

View from Elvio Cogno in Barolo. Photo by Greg Hudson

Hope your 2020 is off to an amazing start!

I’m kicking off the new DECADE by getting back to basics with a cheat sheet of Italian wine essentials. This is not as simple a task as it would appear. Italian wine can be super daunting! With 20 different regions and an astonishing number of grapes (in Native Grapes of Italy Ian D’Agata covers 500 different native varieties, and that isn't close to an exhaustive list), it can be really difficult to know how to begin to get a handle on the wines. That said, the wines are so intertwined with the amazing cuisine and are so captivating that it is well worth the effort.

Let’s see if we can break down the essentials into bite-sized pieces. Consider this your CliffsNotes for Italian wine basics.
Map courtesy of WineFolly.com


LABELING

Naming

Let’s start with the naming of wines in Italy, because even this can be maddening. Wines can be named by the region, the grape, or a combination of both. For the most part, there’s no easy way to parse this out other than just diving in and getting to know them. However, if you see a preposition like di, d’, or della (of or from), things get a little easier as this is usually a combination of the grape and place. For example, Barbera d’ Alba is made of the grape Barbera, coming from the commune of Alba in Piedmont.

The Quality Pyramid(s)

If you’ve ever looked at an Italian wine bottle, you might’ve noticed a little flag of paper wrapped around the capsule with letters like “DOCG” – these are indicative of the quality tier the wine falls into under the Italy’s appellation system. These indicators also will appear somewhere on the labels.

There are four basic tiers:

•    DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) is the top of the Italian wine pyramid. To achieve DOCG status, wines must comply with a very strict set of rules overseeing everything from the grape varieties, production area, grape ripeness/alcohol levels, permitted yields, winemaking procedures, and aging requirements.  These wines are also subject to inspections and official tastings to ensure that they meet the standards of the specific region. 

•    DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) is the next tier down and covers the grand majority of the traditional Italian wine styles. There are also specific sets of regulations overseeing the production of these wines, although they tend to be less strict than those overseeing DOCG wines. That said, DOC’s that show a consistent quality track record can be promoted to DOCG status.  

•    IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica): This classification was added in 1992 as a way to give winemakers some flexibility and room for experimentation. Before then, there was really no way to indicate wines that were of good quality, but fell outside of DOC/DOCG rules. So if you were a winemaker who wanted to play with grapes other than those sanctioned by the region, there was really nowhere on the quality ladder to put the resulting wines. The IGT designation focuses on the region rather than specifics of grapes or winemaking styles. 

•    VdT (Vino da Tavola)/ Vino: This is the most basic level of the Italian wine pyramid. Vino da Tavola translates to “table wine.” Prior to the creation of the IGT category, all the quality experimental/non-traditional wines that fell outside the DOC/DOCG rules fell into this camp. Nowadays, it has been renamed as Vino and it might appear on a label as Vino d’Italia. These tend to be inexpensive and can be a blend of different grapes, regions, and even vintages. These wines will not be labeled with a region or a vintage.


Knowing these tiers can be a very useful tool when picking out a wine. It’s not to say that every DOCG wine will be better than every DOC wine, etc. There are plenty of exceptions. However, if you’re staring at two bottles at a wine store and you know nothing else about either of them, but one is DOC and the other is DOCG, it’s a fair bet that the DOCG wine will be of higher quality because it has been held to stricter standards. 

Aging Tiers and Other Terms


Beyond the overall quality pyramid, different regions might have their own quality pyramids in addition to this, as well as additional terminology. A lot of times these terms will center largely around aging requirements, alcohol levels, and/or classical boundaries. For example, Chianti has the following tiers/classifications, all of which are DOCG :
  • Chianti: This is a DOCG, but it covers 38,000 acres of vineyards, which is quite a big area with multiple subzones. 
  • Chianti Classico: By comparison, the Classico zone is made up only 17,800 acres of vineyards and essentially follows the original boundaries for the region, which were expanded over time. (Soave/Soave Classico, and Prosecco/Prosecco Superiore DOCG present similar situations.) The wines also require a one-year minimum period of aging before they can be released. 
  • Chianti Classico Riserva: These wines are made within the Classico zone, but as a "Riserva," they require aging for two years in barrel, plus an additional three months in bottle.
  • Chianti Classico Gran Selezione: Wine must be aged for at least 30 months in oak barrels. This category was created to signify the highest quality standards, and wines must be made from all estate fruit as well. Additionally, Gran Selezione wines might not be made every year. This is a fairly new designation introduced in 2014.

Another term you might see on a bottle that isn't represented here is "Superiore," which can have different meanings depending on the region. In all cases, however, the wine must meet stricter standards to use the term, be it higher alcohol/grape ripeness, more aging, or vineyards from better locations. For more on Italian wine label terminology, see this useful guide on Wine-Searcher.com.

Now that we know the basic quality tiers and terms,  let’s take a look at some of Italy’s regions.


KEY REGIONS


The areas included here were chosen because of either their importance in fame and reputation, or in terms of production. There are so many wonderful regions in Italy worthy of exploration and I’d certainly encourage you to branch out.

 

Tuscany

Tuscan landscape view taken in Montalcino. Photo by Nicole Ruiz Hudson.


Since we’ve already been talking about Chianti, let’s start with Tuscany where it is located. Tuscany is also quite probably Italy’s most famous wine region, thanks to its beautiful rolling landscape and sunny weather. It’s easy to see why it’s so celebrated. Seriously, you see so many romantic pictures and paintings of the region that they can start to seem cliche. Then you go and you see that they weren’t exaggerating one tiny bit. It’s just that pretty.

Located in central Italy, the area generally enjoys a Mediterranean climate, with warmer, temperate coastal areas, and cooler temperatures in hilly, central areas with increased diurnal variations.

Star Grape: Sangiovese

Key Areas: Most of Tuscany’s most famous appellations – Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano – have Sangiovese in the leading role. Each of these has their own local variation or clone, but they’re all Sangio. (Sangiovese is also the most planted grape in Italy overall.)

Other Important Players: Vernaccia and Vermentino for white wines. You’ll also find a good amount of Chardonnay. Canaiolo and Colorino are other local red grapes allowed in Chianti in small amounts.

Also Notable: Super Tuscans. The unofficial term for Tuscan wines made from international grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. These wines account for the main reason the IGT category was created. They originally fell under the VdT category, but started commanding hefty sums of money and lots of critical acclaim, making the quality pyramid look rather strange.  

Posts & Pairings for Tuscan Wines:
Cooking to the Wine: Fattoria del Cerro Vino Nobile and Spicy Salami Tomato Pasta
Cooking to the Wine: Borgo Scopeto Chianti Classico with Italian Meatloaf  and Pasta Pomodoro
 

Exploring Castello di Brolio & On Location Pairings From the Home of Chianti Classico
Cooking to the Wine: Barone Ricasoli Brolio-Bettino Chianti Classico & an Italian Twist on Pulled Pork


View from Brancaia winery. Photo by Nicole Ruiz Hudson

Piedmont

Vineyards at Manzone in Monforte d'Alba in Piedmont. Photo by Greg Hudson.

Located in northwestern Italy, Piedmont is Tuscany’s rival in fame, and it actually has more DOCG’s than any other region in the country. Piedmont, or Piemonte, means “foot of the mountains,” and indeed it’s a hilly region located at the foot of the Western Alps on the border with France, and the Apennine Mountains are to the southeast. The region has a continental climate and it’s colder here than in most of the rest of Italy. It can also get quite a bit of fog, particularly in the valleys. (The pic at the top was also taken in Piedmont and shows some of the fog.) That said, the mountains protect the region from getting a lot of rain.

Star Grape: Nebbiolo

Key Areas: Barolo and Barbaresco are the region’s most famous appellations and are both made from Nebbiolo. (Find less pricey versions from Roero and  under the regional appellation Langhe, among others.)

Other Important Players: I love Nebbiolo, but Piedmont has a wealth of other excellent grapes, most of which are better priced for everyday. Other reds include Barbera (particularly from Asti and Alba), Dolcetto (from Dogliani and Alba), and lesser known but delicious grapes like Freisa. There are excellent white wines are wells from aromatic Arneis and Cortese which is found in the wines of Gavi. This is also the home of the lightly sweet and sparkling Moscato d’Asti.



Posts & Pairings for Piemontese Wines:
Cooking to the Wine: Fontanafredda Barolo and Braised Short Ribs with Mushrooms
Classically Contratto: Beautiful Wines from Italy's Oldest Sparkling Wine House
Contratto Millesimato and Vitello Tonnato Two Ways
8 & $20: Braised Chicken Thighs in Mushroom Sauce


 

Sicily

Passopisciaro Vineyards in Contrada Guardiola, on Mt. Etna, Sicily. Photo courtesy of Sarah H. Bray.

Sicily is Italy’s most southern region and its largest island – actually it’s the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. It has the climate to match with lots of sunshine and moderate rainfall. The quality of the region’s wine suffered for a while, but they’ve made concerted efforts to right the ship and now the region is a darling of sommeliers. The region is also 4th in terms of production volume.

Principal/Star Grapes: Catarratto (white) and Nero d’Avola (red) are the first and second most planted grape varieties.

Key Areas: Etna DOC covers Mount Etna – the slopes of this volcano makes for very interesting vineyard area. Currently, the island’s only DOCG is Cerasuolo di Vittoria which is located in the southeastern section of the island and is made of Nero d’Avola and Frappato.

Other Important Players: This is another region with many very interesting grape varieties. Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio form a small part of the overall production, but are key grapes on Mount Etna. Other key white grapes include Grillo and Inzolia. In addition to dry still wines, Marsala, the island’s famous fortified wine, is also made of these two grapes along with Cataratto, of which there is a lot on the island at varying levels of quality. (A total of ten different grapes are permitted for Marsala.) Of course, you’ll also find the international varieties here, as in most places.



Posts & Pairings Related to Sicily:
Cooking to the Wine: Arianna Occhipinti SP68 Sicilia Rosso with Creamy Eggplant and Tomato Zoodles
A Passion for Sicily with Passopisciaro: An Interview with Sarah H. Bray, Part 1
A Passion for Sicily with Passopisciaro: An Interview with Sarah H. Bray, Part 2
8 & $20: Creamy Chicken and Vegetable Crepes
8 & $20: Chicken and Spinach Lasagna Rolls


Veneto

Landscape from iLatium Morini (producers of Valpolicella, Amarone, and Soave.) in Veneto, outside Verona. Photo by Greg Hudson

Moving back up the boot again to the northeastern quadrant. It produces the most wine in terms of volume than any other Italian wine region. It is also the home of several, completely distinct styles of wine. Here is a quick run-through of a few:

Valpolicella and Amarone: The grapes for the region of Valpolicella are Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, Molinara, and Oseleta, and typically make for easy-drinking wines. Amarone della Valpolicella uses the same grapes, but makes a very different style. The grapes for Amarone are dried a bit to concentrate the flavors. The wines are dry, but have raisin-like flavors which is an interesting juxtaposition. (Dessert wines are also made using grapes dried in this way, but are called Recioto della Valpolicella.) The area is within an easy 30 minute drive from Verona.

Soave: Crisp white wines based on the grape Garganega. Look for those labeled Classico for more serious versions produced from the original zone that is made up of mostly hillside vineyards. In addition to dry wines, Soave can also be made in Recioto styles.

Prosecco: Bubbly wines made from the semi-aromatic Glera grape, typically via the tank method. Prosecco vineyards begin just outside Venice. The classic heartland of the region, Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG, is situated in the hills about 30 to 40 minutes from the city.

Other Important Players: There is a ton of Pinot Grigio planted in Veneto, as is the case throughout northeastern Italy. The region of Bardolino, located next to Lake Garda, makes wines from the same grapes as Valpolicella. Veneto shares the area of Lugana with Lombardy, and while the area is not well known, it makes wonderful wines from the grape Turbiana (aka Verdicchio, Trebbiano di Lugana). Pinot Nero, Merlot, Cab Sauvignon, Cab Franc, and Carmenere are all here too.

Posts & Pairings Related to Veneto:
Cooking to the Wine: Inama Soave Classico with Brown Butter and Herb Crayfish Rolls
The Sweet Side of ILatium Morini: Sette Dame Recioto di Soave Classico with an Old-Fashioned Strawberry Cake
Cooking to the Wine: Sorelle Bronca Extra-Dry Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG with Poached Chicken with Pears and Gorgonzola
Three Nights of Prosecco Holiday Fun: Carbonara, Sabering, Friends, with a Side of Pear Endive Spears
One Afternoon in Lugana at Podere Selva Capuzza
8 & $20: Chicken Paillard Salad With a Fresh White
8 & $20: Buffalo Chicken Meatball Sliders
8 & $20: Arctic Char With Orange-Scented Fennel and Onions
8 & $20: Lamb Chops with Mint Gremolata and Minty Mashed Peas
8 & $20: Chicken Breasts with Pesto 'Zoodles'

8 & $20: Shrimp Wontons and a Bright White
Entertaing with 8 & $20 with a Side of Travel Memories: Lamb Chops with Mint Gremolata and Minty Mashed Peas


Puglia

Puglia (sometimes pronounced Apulia by English speakers) is a long, skinny region that make up the heel of the boot. The warm, Mediterranean climate and terroir of the region make it ideal for grape-growing, and it is extremely productive – in 2018, it came in second after Veneto in terms of production by volume. The majority of the wine produced here is still cheap bulk wine, but there have also been moves to improve quality in recent years.

Principal Grapes and Key Areas: It’s hard to pick just one or two star grapes for this region, since it’s a long and varied, making a ton of wine, but that also is still differentiating itself. Sangiovese is the region’s most planted grape. In the northern part of the region you’ll also see a lot of other grapes typical of central Italy like Montepulciano (not to be confused with the town of Montepulciano in Tuscany). Primitivo (aka Zinfandel in the US) is another important grape in the region and is the star in the region’s first DOCG, Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale. There is also dry Primitivo di Manduria, but it remains a DOC. Negroamaro is the star of many of the region’s southern DOC’s, such as Salice Salentino. There is also quite a bit of Nero di Troia. In terms of white grapes, there’s a lot of high-yielding Trebbiano, which contributes to the bulk wine production. Verdeca is a rare white grape now found almost exclusively in central Puglia in the towns of Taranto and Bari. The international grapes are all here as well, and have also often been a big part of the bulk wine production. The area also makes quite a bit of Vermouth.


Emilia-Romagna

This is another fertile wine region but in north-central Italy, surrounded by Tuscany, Liguria, Lombardy, and Veneto and the Adriatic Sea to the east. It’s a large region and in 2018, it was the third most prolific region after Veneto and Puglia.

Star Grape: Lambrusco (actually, a group of grapes)

Key Areas: There are several DOC’s in the region focusing on Lambrusco and representing different styles: Salamino di Santa Croce, di Sorbara, Grasparossa di Castelvetro, Reggiano, and Modena which encompasses the whole province of Modena.

Other Important Players: Malvasia is an important white grape for the region and is often also used to make lightly sparkling wine. Trebbiano, Barbera, Bonarda, Sangiovese, and the internationals are all here as well.

Pairings & Posts Related to Emilia-Romagna:
Cooking to the Wine: Pezzuoli Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro with Antipasto Pizza


I will be updating this from time to time with wine recs, pairing ideas, and additional post links as I cover more of these regions in depth.


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The rest of the Italian Food, Wine, Travel (#ItalianFWT) is also getting back to Italian wine basics and thinking about how they'd introduce friends to Italian wines. Check out their posts here:


Additional resources used for this post and extra reading:
The Oxford Companion to Wine via JancisRobinson.com
Wine-Searcher.com  
Italian Wine Central: Top Ten Most Planted Grape Varieties in Italy
Italian Wine Central: Wine Production by Region The Culture Trip: 5 Italian Wine Regions You Should Know
La Gazzetta Italiana: A Tour of Italy's Top Wine Regions
Food Republic: The Five Italian Wine Grapes You Need to Know  
Wine Folly: The Best Italian Red Wines for Beginners  and The Five Best Italian Wines Beginners Must Try



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10 comments

  1. I love all the detail Nicole and you chose so many great areas! Cheers!

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  2. This excellent post covers the basics in the key wine regions — not easy in a country of such diversity. Glad to Puglia in the spotlight. Definitely an up-and-coming region!

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    1. Thanks Linda! So hard to know where to start with this topic.

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  3. This was a seriously broad topic, wasn't it?!? Thanks for you cheat sheet. It's great and easy to understand.

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    1. Thanks so much Cam! And yes -- introducing Italian Wine is quite the daunting task!

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  4. The more we love something, the harder it is to be brief! I liked your post a lot, and I, too, was challenged to not turn it into a book. Well done.

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  5. There is no easy way to break it down is there?! I like how you included Emilia Romagna in there as well as the classics.

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Thanks so much for leaving your comments and questions. I always love to hear from you!