Saturday, January 4, 2020

The Beginnings to Understanding Italian Wine

Happy New Year to everyone! There is no better way to start off the year than an opportunity to learn and try new things.  This month our Italian Food, Wine & Travel group is starting off 2020 with an introduction to Italian wine and the best way to learn and understand it.  To tackle Italian wine as a whole is a huge undertaking considering Italy has almost 2,000 native varieties according to Ian D’Agata.  This is what I also love about Italian wine since there is always something new to discover.  We’re going to break it down here starting with a few key elements when it comes to selecting a bottle the next time you find yourself out shopping for wine. 

First and foremost, understanding what you’re looking at when you read an Italian wine label is one of the first obstacles.  You’re basically reading another language and lots of wine lingo that you may or may not know.   

First off, below is the standard pyramid representing the Italian appellation system.  Although it has changed since 2009 following many of the EU regulations you’ll still find these appellations used as the core and still widely found on all bottles, except vino da tavola which is no longer allowed. 
Italian wine appellation designations
copyright of Federdoc
  • Vino da Tavola (VDT) - your basic table wine 
  • Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) - this classification is as the name indicates that it is related to a particular geographic area/region.  This classification gives producers much room to experiment without strict regulations. 
  • Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) - This along with the next classification of DOCG are considered quality wines designated to a specific appellation.  They follow strict guidelines including percentages of grapes used, yields, aging requirements, etc. 
  • Denominazione di Origine Controllata Garantita (DOCG) - To become a DOCG the wines must pass a blind taste test along with even stricter regulations.   
By no means will I ever say that one produces a better wine over the next as many may be familiar that some of the popular “Super Tuscans” like Sassicaia were VDT wines before they became IGT wines.  It should guide you though in the right direction to give you a sense of quality of a particular appellation and quality of a grape from that place. 
Further more, on wine labels for DOC and DOCG wines you’ll also find further information that will guide you. 
  • Novello  - a wine released 2 months after the harvest  
  • Classico – wines labeled Classico show that the wine came from the historical area within the appellation 
  • Superiore – this indicates that the wine is 1% higher alcohol than the requirement 
  • Riserva – a riserva wine goes through a longer aging process depending upon the requirements of the particular appellation 
There are a number of different terms utilized as well including:  
  • Passito - named after the process of drying out the grapes known as appassimento to fuller concentrate the grapes. 
  • Vendemmia tardiva – a late harvest wine where the grapes are harvested later resulting in a higher residual sugar. 
  • Frizzante & Spumante – found on sparkling wines indicating the bars of pressure with the latter being a fully sparkling opposed to the frizzante being slightly sparkling. 
  • Levels of sweetness including secco (dry), abboccato (semi-dry), amabile (semi-sweet) and dolce (sweet). 
Now that we’ve covered a few of the areas concerning the wine labels let’s understand the wines of northern, central and southern Italy.  I hate to generalize because there are always exceptions, but when you think of the climates throughout Italy the north tends to be cooler, think the alpine mountain ranges, and the south tends to be warmer, think of Sicily, Calabria and Puglia.  Therefore, many of the wines of the north tend to be leaner, more rustic, where those of the south are typically bigger wines, more ripe.  Again, a total generalization as it will vary, but just a guideline. 

Sparkling wines of Italy 
Of course everyone knows the market flooding prosecco that overtakes almost every wine shop, but try to seek out those of the Conegliano Valdobbiadene for better quality.  Lambrusco has come a long way from the Emilia Romagna region and is a perfect aperitivo with some salami and cheeses.  Italy truly makes some top quality sparkling wines that can compete with some of the best around the world.  They may not be the easiest to find, but Franciacorta from the Lombardy region and Trento DOC of the Trentino-Alto Adige region are a must try. 

White wines of Italy 
I’m a big fan of northern white wines, but that’s my personal preference.  I love crisp, clean whites and I’m enjoy those coming from Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli because of that.  Some other respectable whites you may find are Soave of the Veneto, Vernaccia di San Gimigano of Tuscany, Verdicchio of Le Marche and Catarrato of Etna in Sicily.  

Red wines of Italy 
So many great red grapes found all throughout Italy it’s hard to just pick a few.  We have the bold grapes of Piedmont including nebbiolo, famous for Barolo and Barbaresco, but many affordable versions as well from the Langhe and Roero.  The Sagrantino grape of Umbria from the area of Montefalco along with aglianico from Campania and Basilicata should be top of the list if you love big wines.  The wines of Sicily are hot right now in the market and quite unique, especially those Mt. Etna made from nerello mascalese and nerello cappuccio grapes.  You’ll also find nero d’avola of Sicily and primitivo of Puglia if you like wines leaning towards to the fuller-bodied side.  Abruzzo makes quality montepulciano d’abruzzo not to be missed.  The Valpolicella wines of the Veneto are the prized possession of this region.  Even though Amarone is one of the most regarded wines of Italy it also comes with a  hefty price tag.  There are plenty of great Valpolicella Superiore wines you can find at reasonable pricing.  Lastly, there is the ever classic sangiovese of Tuscany from the Chianti Classico region always a great choice and a grape I hold close to my heart.   

Dessert wines of Italy 
There are a number of styles of dessert wine found throughout Italy including the red frizzante and spumante Brachetto d’Acqui and the white Moscato d’Asti of Piedmont.  Tuscany is known for its vin santo made from the trebbiano and malvasia grapes that is a more viscous dessert wine.  Sicily produces Passito di Pantelleria found just off the coast on the island of Pantelleria.  A very aromatic wine made of moscato grapes that can vary in texture.  These are some of the more common dessert wines easily accessible here in the states to get you started. 

What are some of your favorites?

Our group of Italian wine lovers have some other great perspectives and there is plenty of learn to get you started on your Italian wine journey. 


  1. Perfect information for any newbie to get started and understand, white, red, sparkling and sweet!

  2. Very nice overview and you kept it short and sweet.

  3. Such a vast topic, it's difficult to know where to start. Great job at giving a nice and succinct primer!

  4. Cool...I like how you talk about the different types of wine, the classifications. That is not always easy to get the hang of.