Welcome to Italy. Well, not exactly, but welcome to the wine of Italy. I do hope that since our previous articles, regarding the essence of wine labels from various places in the world, you've had the opportunity to sample wines from these regions and become familiar with different styles of wine, different grapes and more and have a better understanding of various labels. If not, as a professional, I do encourage you to enjoy whatever good and quality wines possible to expand not only on labels, but educate your palate just as much.
So, let's get to it; today we're covering Italy and its wine labels. If you’ve read the previous wine label article on Spain, reading Italian wine labels should "click" a bit easier. If you’ve mastered some French wine labels even, then Italy will be a cinch. So here goes!
Italian Wine Classifications
Italy is comprised of 20 different wine regions. Most of the celebrated and well-known wines are located in the northern regions of Veneto and Piedmont and the more centralized region of Tuscany. These are where you’ll find DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) wines. And just as in the rest of the European wine regions, Italy has a hierarchy of wine classification as well. The following are the classification designations you'll find on an Italian wine label.
From the top wines, DOCG - There are not many in Italy, in fact well-under 100 wines may fall under this category. However, there are wineries that are given a "promotion" to DOCG status on occasion. Regional grapes and traditional winemaking restrictions apply as with vinification, growing practices, and aging of the wine, etc.
- DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) - To obtain this status, as with the former designation, the wineries must follow certain rules of their particular region or vineyards.
- IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) - The rules for wines of IGT status are a bit more relaxed, however a minimum of the wine in the bottle must be of 85% from the zone specified on the label. *As a note, IGT status does not mean it is a lower quality wine. For example Super Tuscan wines are very good wines and some of the most sought-after wines by collectors worldwide.
- VdT (Vino da Tavola) - This signifies that the wine is made in Italy. There are no restrictions, and often, these wines are not always exported out of Italy and are sold as "table wines" for those who live in the region where they are made.
Italian Wine Regions
You might remember from our Wine Labels 101 series on France and Spain that each specific wine region has certain varietals which are recognized as grapes to be classified at higher classifications. Also, as in France and Spain and many other European countries, these regional varietals are those which have been cultivated for generations, as it is where they thrive and make the best wines.
Before we move onto labels themselves, I will list some wine regions below that you might already be familiar with and those you can familiarize with. Their corresponding grapes will also be noted, along with some explanation of the style of wine they make. This should make understanding Italian wine a little less complicated.
Grape(s): Nebbiolo (red), Moscato (white)
You might recognize this grape better if it comes under the names of Barolo and Barbaresco. In Italy, the labels and wine grapes are named after their regions, rather than the specific grape (or grape clone) themselves. Barolo wines are classified as DOCG wines and make for big wines with high tannins. These wines are known to age and be more enjoyable with age, sometimes up to 20 years or more.
Barbaresco is also a DOCG wine. They are less tannic than Barolo, but they are still big red wines, albeit with influences from their maritime climate that make them a little lighter and easy to enjoy in their youth.
As for Moscato, you’ve probably heard of this one. These are the lovely, light and sparkly, sweet dessert wines the Italians love to dip their biscotti in.
Grape(s): Lambrusco (red)
The region of Emilia-Romagna is not well-known by its name perhaps, but some of you readers out there might have heard of "Lambrusco". It is not a "quality" wine, however it is a fun wine, which is why I had to mention it. The wine goes by the same name as the grape, and it is mainly known for its sparkling, light and fruity red or rosé wine made via the Charmat method. You can learn more about the Charmat Method in our "How Sparkling Wine is Made" article. The region is of DOC classification and their wines are meant to be consumed in their youth.
Grape(s): Garganega (white), Glera (white)
The region of Veneto is highly recognized for its white wines and especially those sparkling white wines of Prosecco. The grape used to make this famous and affordable bubbly is called Glera and is the only grape permitted. These wines are super light and with very present minerality and light citrus notes. The cheaper ones are great as mixers for mimosas or the classic Bellini (with white peach puree). However, you can get a decent Prosecco perfect for toasting and as an aperitif for under $15 USD.
The Garganega grape is used to make the other light-bodied wine, Soave. If you are a fan of Sauvignon Blanc that favors more on the side of light and savory citrus, as in citrus zest and minerality, you will enjoy these wines. They are also very affordable.
Grape(s): Sangiovese (red), Cabernet Sauvignon (red), Cabernet Franc (red), Merlot (red), Vernaccia (white), Trebbiano (white)
The most recognized wine of Tuscany is Chianti. By law, for the wine to be labelled as a DOCG in the Chianti region, a minimum of 70% of the Sangiovese grape must be used in the wine. It can be blended with other grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon. If it comes from the DOCG region of Chianti Classico it must contain a minimum of 80% Sangiovese.
Another famous region utilizing the Sangiovese grape is the DOCG Montepulciano. Throughout the two regions of Chianti and Montepulciano, different clones of Sangiovese are cultivated. Depending on the growing season, these wines can vary from medium to full-bodied and have characteristics of young or matured berries such as cranberry and raspberry and vary often in acidity. These wines also are best if aged in their bottle for a certain time, but perhaps not more than 8-10 years.
*Note: A Chianti Classico wine is always authentic if you see a sticker over the foil of the wine bottle or on the wine label itself of a "Gallo Nero" or Black Rooster.
Of course, from Tuscany, you have your Super Tuscan! These are big, bold and sometimes rustic wines made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and sometimes a blend of the two with Sangiovese. Super Tuscan are classified as IGT wines. However, don’t be fooled in thinking they are lesser wines due to their "lower" classification. These are some of the most sought after and prized collector wines in all of Italy.
The white wines of Vernaccia and Trebbiano come from the famous white wine region of Tuscany, Vernaccia di San Gimignano. This region is famous as it was the first white wine of Italy to be granted DOC status for 700 years! The wine is noted for its dry style but lovely earthy notes with notes of minerality and honey. If you’re looking for something different in your wine routine of Pinot Gris, this is a fresh change-of-pace.
Grape(s): Nero d’Avola (red)
Sicily is located off the southern west coast of the mainland. It is a hot region and they are known mainly for their Marsala wines. This is a fortified wine made with the grape Nero d’Avola. The region is of DOC status, and it can be found in many different styles ranging from semi-sweet and sweet and are classified via different aging and oxidation techniques.
The Nero d’Avola grape is also known for a dry, red wine with bold, mature berry notes and light tannin, which is meant to be consumed in its youth. Italy has a history of making wine to go with their local foods. This particular wine was crafted in its origin to go with marinara. So next time you make a simple spaghetti with marinara, go purchase this wine. It is very affordable and you can get a good one for under $16 USD.
Italian Wine Labels
Alright, I think we got through that part fairly easily. While reading the previous section, you might have discovered you recognize more about Italian wine than you originally thought.
To help even more to decipher an Italian wine label, here is some terminology you might read on more common labels and their translations:
- Brut - dry
- Classico - a historic region of a specialized region (i.e. Chianti Classico)
- Dolce - sweet
- Liquoroso - fortified wine
- Rosato - rose wine
- Rosso - red wine
- Superiore - longer aging of the wine than what is required by law
- Spumante - sparkling wine
- Vigna - vineyard
- Passito - dried grapes
- Abboccato - slightly sweet
Now let’s have a look at a wine label
The producer of this wine is noted as "Aurelio Settimo"
It is a Barolo, which signifies that it is made from the Nebbiolo grape, the grape which is required in the region of Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. The vintage is 2009.
Here is one more:
The region from which this wine is from in the main region of Veneto is the DOC (Denominazione di Origine Contrallata) Valpolicella.
You may see a new labeling term just below Valpolicella, "Ripasso". This signifies the style of wine. In Valpolicella there is a special manner in which they make their wines. This wine style begins with the fermentation of Amarone wine in which grapes are placed on straw mats for weeks in an area where air can easily move through and raisin the fruit. The concentrated juices of these grapes are fermented and made into Amarone or Recioto wine. Ripasso is the wine which has been made from the grape skins which have been partially dried which are left overs from the fermentation of Amarone wine.
The producer of this wine is Pasqua found at the bottom of the label. The vintage year is 2010.
That is about it when it comes to Italian wine labels. Of course, as you can imagine there are thousands of other wines from Italy. But, just as with learning about other wines from other regions, it takes a little bit of your effort to read many other labels and of course as always, trying the wine itself. Cheers!