Italian wine is diverse, as diverse as its cultures, food, landscapes and weather. One can observe this diversity in each of the twenty unique and proud wine regions of Italy. Sound big and complicated? It is! There’s certainly more to it than just Chianti and Prosecco, and this article is your introduction.
Thousands of Years of Practice
With an ideally suited climate and a couple thousand years of history, wine is deeply embedded in Italian culture. When the Greeks arrived between the 8th and 6th centuries BC they named the land Oenotria- the land of wine.
Then the Romans came and like many other countries in the European continent, wine production grew and Italy became a wine production and trade epicenter. So much so, this led to a wine glut, and in 92AD the Roman emperor Domitian issued an edict forbidding the planting of new vines. After more ups and downs over the centuries, and influences from other parts of the world, we have the Italian wine of today. And this will continue to evolve due to climate change and the push for organic and natural wines.
So Where Do You Start?
An estimated 600 to 1,000 native (autochthonous) grape varieties exist in the twenty wine regions of Italy, plus the usual international varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling and more). A tad overwhelming!
Many people (particularly in the US) think about and look for the grape variety on the label, which is fine, but in the old world, like France, Italy, and Spain, knowing and communicating the variety isn’t as important as the appellation and it’s style of wine. Often the appellation or a town name is on the label. For example Soave, Barolo, or Barbera Del Monferatto. So when it comes to Italy, my advice- don’t focus on the grape!
It’s About the Region and Style From The Region
When you taste a region’s wines you experience the combined effect of terroir and winemaking style. Terroir is about the land and surroundings from which the wine comes. For example in Italy, the Apennines Mountains run the length of Italy and the Italian Alps span the north. And bodies of water affect climate, for example, the Ligurian, Tyrrhenian, Ionian, and Adriadic Seas, and also lakes and rivers. The expression of this terroir in the wine is then molded by the winemakers style of vinification and aging, including choices pertaining to crushing, fermentation, temperature, and method and length of aging. The combination of these items set the stage for a general style from a region.
And don’t forget about the food! It’s an over used phrase but truly what grows together goes together!
Tackle The Label
Italian wine names, terms, labels and classification systems take time to tackle. To make it easier, let’s break Italian wine into three categories and throw in a few essential quality terms.
Table wine (Vino da Tavola) — At the bottom according to quality but very drinkable and lower in cost. For everyday easy drinking, very easy to pair with foods, and the wine you find by carafe in restaurants.
Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) – One step above table wine, these are simple wines (but not always!), for everyday drinking. Typical of a particular geography or local region they have much more going on than table wine.
Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) e garantita (DOCG) – Higher quality wines from specific, defined regions, produced according to rules designed to preserve tradition. Hundreds of DOCs add a level of difficulty, but they convey a regional style using specific grapes. DOCG are most of Italy’s top wines made to the highest quality standard and again convey a regional style using specific grapes.
And sometimes you see the following terms:
- Classico – A wine produced from an original, historic growing area of a DOC or DOCG.
- Superiore – A DOC wine with slightly stricter regulations on things like grape percentages used and length of aging.
- Riserva – The wine went through longer aging before release.
Fortunately, many high quality Italian wines are affordable, including DOC and DOCG. My recommendation? Steer towards DOC and DOCG wines.
Now that you have an overview grasp of Italian wine, let’s look at styles.
Find Your Style, Find Your Wine
I wish it were that easy! Twenty regions is a lot to conquer in one article so let’s pare it down.
Italian red wines tend to be:
- earthier in the northern regions
- fruitier in the south
White wines tend to be:
- fresher with higher acidity in the north and at higher altitudes
- fruitier and often fuller-bodied in southern regions.
Let me emphasize this is generally speaking because almost every area has a bit of everything: light, medium and full-bodied, and fruity and earthy.
To make it easier to manage, I categorize the wine regions geographically, which makes sense in terms of general climate. But be sure that doesn’t mean the wine from regions within a geographical group are at all similar- that is affected by local terroir and wine making style.
Northern: Aosta Valley, Piemonte, Liguria, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Trentino-Alto Adige, Veneto, Fruili-Venezia Giulia
Central: Tuscany, Umbria, Le Marche, Lazio, Abruzzo
Southern: Campania, Molise, Basilicata, Puglia, Calabria
Islands: Sardegna, Sicily
Here’s a list of some wines to consider depending on your mood and preferences. But please note this is NOT an all-inclusive list. Summarizing the appellations and grapes in Italy would take more than one article.
If in the mood for sparkling wine, reach for Franciacorta from Lombardy (Lombardia) made from Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Noir in the traditional Champagne method. These are lower dosage wines, meaning less sugar is added after decanting. And in the Trentino region, Trento DOC for more traditional Champagne method bubbles. Many here rival Champagne!
Dry red wines
There are many style profiles to consider here…
Lighter to medium-bodied, fresh and fruity reach for Trentino-Alto Adige (common grapes include Lagrein, Schiava, Pinot Noir, and Teroldigo). Click here to read my article about super wines in the Alto Adige region.
Medium-bodied fruity head to Puglia for Primitivo or Negroamaro grapes (above right); Sicily and the Nerello Mascalese or Nero d’Avola grape (above left); Marche for the Lacrima grape (above right); Sardegna for Cannonau (aka Grenache); Tuscany for Merlot; Calabria for the Gaglioppa grape.
Medium-bodied earthy reach for Piedmont and the Barbera grape often listed with the town name on the label; Valpolicella (a blend) from the Veneto; Lazio is home to the Cesanese grape, you can read more about it here. Photos below.
Full-bodied and deeply fruity reach for Tuscany and a Super-Tuscan or Brunello di Montelcino (but make sure you have money); Umbria for the Sagrantino grape.
Full-bodied and earthy reach for Piedmont and the Nebiollo grape (a Barolo or Barbaresco wine). Photos below; Veneto for Amarone works here too.
Dark and powerful is your thing search for the Aglianico (ahl-yhan-ee-co) grape found in five regions: Campania, Basilicata, Puglia, Calabria, and Molise. The Barolo of the south! Photo below right.
White Wines (Dry)
Light and fruity head to the Veneto for Soave (Garganega grape). Note this wine comes in medium-bodied, intensely aromatic and richly textured versions too. Photo below left.
Medium-bodied, bright and citrusy-herbal (step aside Sauvignon Blanc!), head to Abruzzo or the Marche region for Pecorino (grape). Photo below center.
Medium-bodied, white floral, tropical fruits and crisp acidity, head to Lombard and Lugana (Turbiana, aka Trebbiano di Lugana grape) . Photo below right.
Light-to-medium, lively, fruity, bright and refreshing summer porch wine, or the same to enjoy fireside with pizza- head to the Veneto and pick Bardolino Chiareto, a rosé from the Lake Garda area. To read about this food and wine pairing shown belo click here.
Full-bodied, fruity (citrus) and mineral is your preference, head to the Marche region for Verdicchio (grape). Both the Castelli di Jesi and Matelica areas make super wines. Photo above.
Fuller-bodied wine with citrus, apple, stone fruits and a slight creamy mouth feel, reach for the Alto Adige region’s Colterenzio Winery, Lafóa Chardonnay, photo left here.
In fact many Chardonnay from Trentino and Alto Adige are super wines.
The possibilities are endless!
The above is only a sampling… and I haven’t touched on sweet wines, fortified, and other specialties. Those need to be addressed in another article, but this should be enough to get you started.
So now, pick some of your favorite Italian specialties and recipes and think about which wine you would like. You could also just open a bottle, sit down, and start planning your next trip to Italy!
Italian Food, Wine and Travel Group Introduces you to Italian Wine!
We start the year with an introduction of Italian Wines via our host Jeff from foodwineclick! As you see from the titles below, group members present from a variety of angles. Note we’ll be chatting live on Twitter Saturday, January 4th at 11am ET, 17:00 in Italy. Join us using hastag #ItalianFWT. Hope to virtually meet you then!
- Camilla at Culinary Adventures with Camilla shares “Sips and Eats Around the Boot: A Primer to Italian Wines and Pairings”
- Lynn at Savor the Harvest shares “Introducing the Diversity of Italian Wine”
- Wendy at A Day in the Life on the Farm shares “Ringing in the New Year with Loved Ones and Prosecco“
- Pinny at Chinese Food and Wine Pairings shares “Sharing Lugana DOC – Winter Whites With Friends #ItalianFWT #luganawines“
- Marcia at Joy of Wine shares “The World of Italian Wine: Where Do I Begin?“
- Gwendolyn at Wine Predator shares “4 To Try in 2020: Italy’s Franciacorta, Friuli, Chianti, Mt. Etna“
- Cindy at Grape Experiences shares “Why the Wines and Food of Custoza DOC are Some of Veneto’s Many Pleasures”
- Susannah at Avvinare shares “Three Noble Red Grapes that Help to Navigate the Italian Peninsula”
- Linda at My Full Wine Glass shares “What exactly IS this Italian grape?”
- Jen at Vino Travels shares “The Beginnings to Understanding Italian Wine”
- Kevin at Snarky Wine shares “Cutting Your Teeth on Italian Wines”
- Katarina at Grapevine Adventures shares “3 Grapes to Get a Beginner’s Taste of Italian Wine”
- Nicole at Somm’s Table shares “Italian Wine 101 Cheat Sheet”
- Jeff at Food Wine Click! shares “Italian Wine 101 – Start Your Journey Here”