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Italian Wines


Italy is the most complex, diverse and potentially confusing wine-producing nation in the world. Almost every region has its vines and has made wine since Roman times (some since the Etruscan era) and in most years Italy makes more wine than anywhere else, only occasionally being outperformed by France. But where the French, with their innate sense of order, have imposed a classification system (Appellation d'origine contrôlée, AOC) that makes sense of the myriad styles and qualities of wine, controlling origin and production, the Italian approach (Denominazione di origine controllata, DOC) is intrinsically flawed.

Many of Italy's best wines have fallen foul of a system routinely abused, ignored or bypassed; labelled as table wine because they couldn't match strict DOC criteria. Efforts have been made to refine the system, but choosing an Italian wine, particularly outside Italy, can still be a struggle. The Italians, of course, are less confused than foreigners, not least because they've always taken a regional approach to wine; local was (and often still is) considered best, whatever its classification. Most Italians will know something of the wines in their region but little about those beyond. Similarly, whilst wine is ingrained in the culture, taken as nourishment (rather than stimulant) with almost every meal, there's a gratifying absence of wine snobbery in either home or restaurant (they're as likely to order a quarto or mezzo litre carafe as anything from the wine list).

Understanding the Wine Classifications

Vino da tavola (VDT): Table wine, the humblest classification, had a reputation for rule-flouting, international-style wines made using forbidden, often French, grape varieties, but has now been largely superseded by IGT (see below). The label won't mention geographic origin, vintage or grape variety. Many old VDTs have been reclassified as IGT or absorbed into the DOC system.

Indicazione geografica tipica (IGT): Introduced in 1992 because so many good wines could only get VDT status, IGT wines, functioning rather like French vin de pays, usually disclose geographic origin and grape variety. Some IGT wines (there are about 120) can fetch a higher price than their DOCG cousins.

Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC): Introduced nationally in 1963, the DOC standard controls geographic origin, production methods, grape varieties (not mentioned on the label), yields and maturation techniques. A DOC wine should only come from the region, town or vineyard on the label. Progressive growers ignoring DOC rules in the 1970s and 80s created the Super Tuscan VDT boom (see page 259).

Denominazione di origine controllata e garantita (DOCG): DOC with bells on, DOCG is subject to more stringent testing, is usually produced from lower yields and comes 'sealed' around the neck with the government's tag of authenticity. The classification, introduced in the 1980s, has successfully improved the image and quality of some old DOC wines, notably Chianti.

Types of Wine

  • Spumante: Sparkling
  • Frizzante: Semisparkling
  • Classico: Wine from a limited, historic core within a DOC zone
  • Riserva: Wine aged for longer in the cask before bottling
  • Superiore: Aged longer and/or with a higher alcohol content than the DOC standard

The Main Grape Varieties

Italy has more indigenous grape varieties than anywhere else, most of them used in blends. Few are mentioned on the labels of DOC and DOCG wines. Red varieties have historically been more interesting, although the quality and character of the whites has improved of late. The late 20th century fashion for using international (mainly French) varieties in Italian wine has waned. In spite of their rich diversity, few Italian varieties are exported, with the increasingly notable exception of Nebbiolo.

Grape Region Characteristics
Red
Barbera Throughout Italy Almost black, berry fruit, acidic
Dolcetto Piedmont Fruity and fresh, similar to Beaujolais
Lambrusco Emilia-Romagna Fizzy red, at its best dry though much is sweet
Montepulciano Abruzzo Dark, savoury, zesty, spicy
Nebbiolo Piedmont Dry, tannic, perfumed, very long-lived
Primitivo The south Alcoholic, coarse, related to Zinfandel
Sangiovese Tuscany Pale, savoury, fresh, variable, can age
White
Arneis Piedmont Dry, grapefruit, fragrant
Cortese Piedmont Dry, lemon, mineral
Garganega Veneto Mineral, Chablis-like, but often bland
Greco Campania Dry, full-bodied
Moscato Throughout Italy Always sweet and grapey, sometimes fizzy
Pinot Bianco North-east Dry, mineral
Pinot Grigio Throughout Italy Variable, usually dry, crowd-pleaser
Prosecco Veneto Usually dry, frizzante or spumante
Trebbiano Throughout Italy Usually very bland
Verdicchio Marche Variable, can be lemony or almondy
Vermentino Liguria, Sardinia Rich, full, but dry