Well, here it is, the biggie. In the past, we’ve wowed you with our Amarone 101 and we’ve dazzled you with our Ripasso 101, but we couldn’t help but notice you still had more questions you needed answering, more curiosities as yet unsatisfied, and that they mainly pertained to this – wine in the rest of this great and historic winemaking country, where since before recorded time grapevines have been cultivated, which boasts an unparalleled (and yet perhaps under-explored) variety of styles, regions, cultures, and whose produce we’re proud to have on our shelves. And so, we’ve rolled our sleeves up, taken a deep breath, and worked hard to give you the low-down on everything you wanted to know relating to fermented grape juice and the famous Boot.
So, without further ado, here it is: everything you wanted to know about Italian wine (but were afraid to ask)!
What is Italian Wine?
Yeah I know, but this question has two answers, one simple and one complicated. The simple one is, obviously, that Italian wine is the wine made in Italy (technically, from grapes grown in Italy). This means, basically, that if some part of Italy declared independence its wine would no longer be ‘Italian’, and if some bit of another territory joins Italy then its wine becomes ‘Italian’. Easy!
Except, of course, it’s more complicated than that, and you knew it! Italian wine isn’t just a geographical description but the name given to a range of cultural expressions and visions of what wine can and should be. That range of cultures is diverse – from the elegant, lean fizz of Franciacorta in Lombardy to the deep soul of a Tuscan Chianti to the cheerful generosity of a frappato from Sicily – and it is this range in its entirety we call ‘Italian’.
There are certain important things in common, however. Like other parts of Europe, local taste has determined the local grape varieties preferred, and Italy pullulates with autochthonous vines, the pride in which is felt everywhere. Furthermore Italian wines are characterised by their food-friendliness – wine is considered first and foremost a culinary concern, to go with the table, and so certain aspects of the wine profile will be thought of as crucial for matching with dishes. The most notable aspect of this is surely acidity, which in Italian wines from north to south is almost always remarkably pronounced.
Where is Italian Wine Country?
The answer is – everywhere! Wine is made in every single region of the country, seemingly in every province even. Not only is there land under vine even in the smallest regions like Molise and Val d’Aosta, but also in the small island of Elba, on the flat islands of Venice, in Leonardo da Vinci’s old garden in Milan, on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius and Mount Etna. And everywhere is different, everywhere is unique in character, everywhere has its own special microclimate and terroir, its own histories and traditions, its own inimitable ways of doing things.
In the end, every city has its local wine countries, plural! The local wine forms a vital part of life and culture up and down the peninsula, and there’s nowhere that doesn’t have it.
What is the history of Italian Wine?
Well, it’s very long, very old, and very distinguished. There is no point in recorded Italian history where wine hasn’t been present. Indeed, this history is getting older and older – long thought of as a Greek and Phoenecian import, during the second millennium BC, we’re now finding evidence in Sicily especially of winemaking practices as far back as 6,000 years ago!
There’s no doubt, however, that the Phoenecians and especially the ancient Greeks had a profound influence. The Greeks referred to Italy as ‘Oenotria’, the land of wine, and it’s highly likely that they brought many of their own native vines to their colonies in the peninsula (it’s hard to be certain, but it seems probable that many quintessentially Italian grapes are descended from these originally Greek varieties). In turn, Italy was to have an enormous influence on wine around Europe, with vineyards established in every province of the Roman Empire – once the Romans abandoned an exclusivity law banning other provinces from making it.
From there on in it’s been a story of unambiguous flourishing. Italy has been synonymous with wine throughout history – indeed, has been seen as a connection between the modern world and the ancient, as famously featured in the poetry of Romantics like Keats and Byron.
What are the most famous Italian wines?
Up and down the country you will fomd some of the wine world’s most celebrated names, regions, grapes and appellations. These names are justly renowned for their long-standing records of producing distinctive and top level wines in every category. However, a word of caution – just because a wine carries a well-known label on it doesn’t mean that that particular bottle is high quality. Also, there is of course an aspect of fame that is just marketing; many wines deserve to be just as famous, but for whatever accident of history have lacked that element of luck that’s often so important.
Nevertheless, here are a few of the biggest names in Italy:
Sparkling – Prosecco in the Veneto, Franciacorta in Lombardy, Moscato d’Asti of Piedmont;
White – Soave in the Veneto, the Traminer and Ribolla Gialla wines of Friuli, the Arneis grape in Piedmont, the Vernaccia di San Gimignano in Tuscany, the Vermentino wines of Tuscany and Sardinia, the Fiano, falanghina and Greco di tufo grapes in Campania, the Grillo grape of Sicily;
Red – Amarone and Valpolicella Classica of the Veneto (woo-hoo!), the nebbiolo wines of Piedmont especially Barolo and Barbaresco (as well as famous sub-regions like Alba, Langhe and Gattinara), the great sangiovese-based wines of Tuscany like Chianti and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano as well as local sangiovese variations like Brunello di Montalcino, the non-sangiovese wines of the same region known as the Super Tuscans (this being the famous names like Ornellaia and Sassicaia), the confusingly unrelated to sangiovese Montepulciano d’Abruzzo from, well, Abruzzo, the Sagrantino di Montefalco of Umbria, the Cannonau of Sardinia (a different name for the grape also known as grenache or garnacha), the Primitivo wines of Puglia (a different name for the grape also known as zinfandel in California), the Aglianico wines of Campania and Basilicata, the Nero d’Avola grape of Sicily;
Dessert – Recioto di Valpolicella and Soave in the Veneto, Moscato d’Asti of Piedmont (again!), Albana Passita of Emilia-Romagna, Vin Santo of Tuscany, the Marsala and Zibibbo wines of Sicily.
Of course, this is hardly an exhaustive list! Italy positively teems with appellations and denominations worthy of your attention, not to mention all the innovative winemakers doing new things with old styles, all the start-up, unofficial wine areas labelled ‘IGT’ – which reminds us…
Yeah, all this ‘DOC’ and ‘IGT’ stuff – what does it mean? How do Italian wine labels work?
This is a good question indeed, as one of the first things you’re confronted with when you look at an Italian wine bottle is a label with a bunch of stuff on it: the winery or brand, the name of the specific release, the vintage (usually), the alcohol content, the origin – and a strange little collection of letters, occasionally but not normally explained. So, let’s explain them.
Back in 1963, the Italian government decided to introduce regulations to help protect winemakers of quality from cheap imitations of their produce, and to help consumers be more sure of what it is that they’re buying. In this they were following the example of France, who in 1935 became the first country in the world to enforce modern point-of-origin laws (later to become the EU’s ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ laws, or PDO), creating the system of ‘Appellations d’origines controllées’ (‘Appellations of controlled origins’) – or ‘AOC’ for short – which were to be distinct from the simpler ‘vins de France’. The AOCs would have to conform to much stricter local production standards than the VdFs – for instance, a true Burgundy (‘Bourgogne AOC’) must use 100% pinot noir and nothing else. This means you, the wine buyer, will know that when you buy a bottle of Burgundy, that behind the words on the label is a whole governmental structure proving that it is what it says it is.
The Italian equivalent is the ‘DOC’ or ‘Designazione di Origine Controllata’, but there was to be a twist. Rather than simply creating a difference between these wines and the VdF equivalent ‘VdT’ (‘Vino di Tavola’), they founded an extra, super-high category, the ‘Designazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita’ (‘DOCG’), to be reserved for the very top of the industry. For instance, our own Valpolicella Classica, a lean, fresh, fruity wine for a midweek dinner, is classed as a DOC; Amarone della Valpolicella, however, is recognised as a DOCG due to its elevated stature and value within the wine world, making the guaranteeing of the point of origin, the integrity of the winemaking methods and the grape composition of the utmost importance.
But, Italy being Italy, we’re not done there, for another category was made – and largely thanks to one wine and a big row. In 1974, a wine from the Tuscan village of Bolgheri called ‘Sassicaia’ won a competition up against a range of offerings from Bordeaux. Which might seem strange – until you realise of course that this wine from Tuscany was itself more Bordelais in character, being a classic Médoc blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and so on. This Sassicaia would go on to become one of Italy’s most sought-after bottles, a real prestige offering, and one that would soon be joined by a whole host of similar Bordeaux-style wines from the rest of the country but Tuscany in particular, that would soon come to be known as ‘Super Tuscans’.
The trouble was, how to classify them? They were innovations, unconnected with history and without any fixable rules of production you could even approach implementing – resulting in the somewhat crazy situation whereby some of Italy’s most high-value wines were being sold under the lowest classification label, as Vini da Tavola! Eventually, in order to accommodate these and other more unclassifiable yet quality wines, Italy made the new category of ‘Indicazione Geografica Tipica’ (IGT) in 1992 (France this time would follow the Italian example, introducing their own equivalent the following year). As a result, interesting new products have a way of distinguishing themselves as such on the label, and the customer has more reliable information to go on.
The Italian classification system isn’t just important for its wine, but it has passed into Italian culture more broadly; it’s common now, when referring to something or even someone obviously, authentically typical of a place as ‘doc’ (e.g. ‘both his parents are from Venice, he’s veneziano doc!’). This reflects not only wine’s importance at the centre of life in the country, but the great success of the system in aiding producers and consumers alike, making selling and buying products easier and more transparent.
So these prestigious, DOCG Italian wines, are they expensive?
Often the labels carrying a DOCG can reach higher prices than others, but this isn’t always the case, and the reasons when it is aren’t just down to ‘prestige’ – though that is a factor!
For instance, while most prosecco wines carrying the more stringently-regulated DOCG designation will indeed cost more than those of the broader DOC category, but that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be very expensive! Certainly compared to Champagne or Franciacorta, prosecco remains a very affordable option in the sparkling category, largely because the way it is made carries significantly fewer costs for the producer.
This is in stark contrast with Amarone della Valpolicella, where to satisfy the DOCG demands one has to use rather expensive methods of production. But this too doesn’t mean all Amarone is expensive – it’s just something to bear in mind when you see a cheaper one, in that if it’s under a certain price yet carries the label, then costs have probably been cut somewhere (perhaps in grape quality) and it might not be as good as it could be.
But the simple fact is that not all land is equal. Some plots within even areas granted DOCG status will have proven track-records superior to others, and so will be valued more highly – meaning higher purchasing price (if they happen to have been purchased), higher property taxes and so on. This is how prestige and quality and price go together – the history of the land, its pedigree in producing great wine, increasing its value and worth not just in production terms but also once it gets to market.
Of course, you can’t discount prestige, especially at the very top end of the market. At a certain point, the value of Domaine Romanée-Conti, for example, keeps going up because the name itself carries such incredible value just by itself. Some Champagnes are similar, buoyed by the fame of the appellation. This can happen with Barolo in Italy, say, or Brunello di Montalcino, but not to the same extent usually.
So, DOCGs can be more expensive, and if they are, it’s often reassuringly so. But it’s not the hardest, fastest rule.
But OK, that’s most of how labels work but there are some other questions. What does ‘riserva’ mean?
‘Riserva’ has no fixed meaning across the whole of Italy, but it does have a general meaning – it indicates that the wine has spent an especially long period in oak. The rules around this change from region to region, indeed are part of the DOC or DOCG regulatory jurisdiction – Amarone, for instance, demands at least four years in barrel to qualify as riserva, while Barolo demands a surprisingly exact 62 months to make the cut.
Generally, riserve (the equivalents of reserva wines in Spain, for instance from Rioja) are considered deeper, more developed, and more rounded, but this isn’t necessarily a rule – it’s just a different style of winemaking.
These regions – how many Italian wine regions are there?
There are 20 administrative regions of Italy, including the two islands of Sicily and Sardinia, all of which (as we mentioned) are wine producing. Further within this, there are around 330 areas and styles designated DOC and 77 which are designated DOCGs, which together make a pretty decent map of oenological Italy.
However, even this is incomplete – you have the IGT category, with its awkward-squad array of innovations and vibrant ideas, but even that’s not comprehensive, and there are many quality wines not covered even by this most deliberately loose of taxonomies. And beyond that, there’s the vast world of vini da tavola, rustic wines of a certain honest jollity grown virtually everywhere and made by virtually anyone.
So you see, in a way there’s no limit to how many wine regions there are in Italy. Yes, there are the official categories and those are crucial to understanding the industry in this country, but we must never forget individual license and creativity.
OK, so, advice time. A lot of people really like cabernet sauvignon. What’s an Italian wine that’s like that?
Italian cabernet sauvignon would be a natural place to start! Although it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s not a local grape, and so is mainly produced across the country as a nice, inexpensive, day-to-day wine because of the vine’s famous reliability and adaptability (you can grow cabernet sauvignon almost everywhere vine-growing is possible and be sure of producing a certain level of a certain kind of wine). There are of course exceptions, sometimes grand ones such as many of the above-mentioned Super Tuscans. However, like merlot or syrah, cabernet sauvignon is fundamentally best-known as a French and international grape, at which Italy can excel but generally doesn’t choose to.
So what can you find that’s like it? Well, it depends what you like out of your cab sauv! The greatest expressions across the world are all unique, from the austere class of Bordeaux to the opulence of Napa to the elegance of Coonawarra. They’re all known for a certain kind of concentrated blackberry quality, a dense crunchy fruitiness that doesn’t overwhelm but instead allies itself to a body that is normally on the full end of medium-full.
With this in mind, a few ideas are:
if you like Bordeaux, Sagrantino, Umbria’s biggest red which in many cases also resembles a Madiran, but a fine example will have the fruit to bring back memories of cab sauv;
if you like Californian style, perhaps a high-end primitivo – the same grape as the zinfandel that made that part of the US famous, but more restrained and less sweet, bringing it closer to a Golden State expression of France’s finest;
and if you prefer the top-level of the Australian style, why not try a Rosso di Montalcino, a sangiovese-based blend which is less obviously typical of that grape than the monovarietal Brunello label, and perhaps more likely to carry some of that forest-fruit character.
But this is, of course, no complete list – many other wines might be closer to one or another aspect, or some producer might be more similar to a different style, and so on. Hopefully, this gives you a good idea of how to search for similar things across wine cultures; you’ll never get a perfect match, and that’s a good thing! The vinous universe is infinitely varied. You can, however, find things that somewhat resemble other things you like, and in so doing find more delicious things to try and expand your knowledge at the same time.
That’s great! But what about whites then? What about sauvignon blanc, for example? Or chardonnay? Are there Italian wines like those?
Again, both of these are vines that are grown somewhat in Italy, but which are generally considered to reach greatness in France and other places. There are fine chardonnays in particular in the country, but let’s focus on some of the more unusual alternatives Italy has to offer.
As with the reds, you won’t find exact equivalents when you switch from one white wine culture to another – what you will find are similarities between one style of winemaking with one grape and another, a grape which exhibits some similarities when treated in the same way as another. With sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, there are essentially two styles for each of them. Starting with ‘SB’, there’s French, Loire Valley style (a stony, steely, tingling-souled sort of wine), and New Zealand style, in its famous, grass-perfumed abundance:
if you prefer your savvy blanks lean and old school, then consider going to Veneto for a really classic Soave (made from the garganega grape), or perhaps heading to Tuscany for some vermentino from Maremma;
if you’re more down with the more perfumed style, a Sicilian fiano or a falanghina from the Campania region might carry the heft that you’re looking for!
Chardonnay is a different beast, infamous to some because of one particular style that gained enormous widespread fame a couple of decades ago, and which either really pleased or really displeased the drinking public! We’re talking, of course, about heavily oaked chardonnay, a method of vinifying the grape that become extremely prominent in California and especially in Australia during the 80s and 90s, and left a lot people thinking of chardonnay as synonymous with big, buttery, sometimes unbalanced and a little unnaturally coconut-sweet wines relatively high in alcohol for a white.
But this is only a part of chardonnay’s story, and very unfair on this, perhaps the most versatile of all classic white grapes. The big oaky style is based on the prestige whites of Burgundy, in particular Meursault and Montrachet, whose often frightening price-tags reflect the extraordinary regard these wines are held in, not at all the unbalanced monsters of industrial production infamy (often aged with oak chips rather than in the barrels so beloved in eastern France). But chardonnay is also the sole grape responsible for the wines just to the north of Burgundy, the famous region of Chablis with its extraordinarily taut, bright, almost savagely acidic white wines, beloved everywhere by fans of sharper, refreshing, flinty white wines.
So, it’s once again a stylistic preference thing:
if you’re into your cleaner, zingier styles of wine, wine which almost eschews the idea of fruit in favour of something more like metal or rocks, vernaccia di San Gimignano in Tuscany might have some of the answers you’re looking for, while you can’t go wrong with a high level pinot grigio especially from Friuli, or indeed our old friend Soave again;
if the oakier style is your vibe, that’s trickier as traditionally Italian winemakers haven’t favoured the kind of barrel-ageing you need to produce this even for red wines, let alone whites, but there are some excellent examples coming out of the Isonzo Valley – and indeed, Soave hero Pieropan’s ‘La Rocca’ has changed many peoples’ minds about the potential of garganega and oak.
And so, as with everything, it remains a matter of taste, vigilance, learning, and experience!
You mentioned food earlier, so a big question – what food does Italian wine go with?
It would be a bit glib to say ‘Italian food’, but it is also the obvious place to start. There’s an old saying that runs ‘what grows together goes together’, and it’s not wrong – different areas are better suited to the cultivation of different vegetables or the husbandry of different livestock, which will influence the kind of wine not only that people can make but also that they want to make, wines that won’t taste all wrong with the food (even in the very beginnings of wine, when much of what was produced was very rough stuff indeed, there were still prestige offerings where pairing was very much a consideration). It really is no coincidence that Alsace riesling goes so well with sausages and cabbage, nor that Muscadet pairs up so well with the local oysters.
So, it is true that Italian wine goes with Italian food, but it is wise to be regional to a degree. Piemonte is very famous for its truffles, for instance, and richer preparations couldn’t be more of a dream with a fine Barbaresco or Gattinara, wines which carry something of a truffly edge themselves. Cross the plain over to Veneto, Valpolicella Ripasso is the most excellent combination with the medium-rich duck ragù, while prosecco goes so well with pretty much all known aperitivo foods that it’s practically synonymous with the pre-meal snack. Central Italy is famous for its meat obsession, and it’s therefore no surprise to find that its red wines are unusually substantial (the sangiovese, sagrantino and montepulciano grapes are not shy!), while the seafood of Sicily finds much to love in its easy-going whites made from grillo and carricante.
However, the major point about Italian wines is this – for whatever reason, especially the red wines of the peninsula are notably fresh and zingy, certainly compared to the wider wine world. This makes them more versatile with food, as high acidity is a commonly desired trait to accompany much European food, and especially with the newest fundamental aspect of Italian cuisine, that post-Columbus arrival: the tomato. The challenge of pomodoro-based sauces – especially reduced sauces, which are a big-time crash of weight, umami and acidity – is one that many Italian reds are especially well-placed to solve, and better than much from other wine countries.
But there are also some surprising qualities to Italian wines (and what are we here for if not surprises?) in how they go with food, because not only are its wines so various, those wines are often so particularly versatile and flexible. For example: how many countries have so many options for whites that can pair with sushi? Yet Italian grapes’ habitual zinginess and tendency towards a certain nuttiness provides the perfect backdrop to an impressively wide variety of sushi and sashimi preparations. Or the famously difficult-to-match dishes of Szechuan Province, which not only have the every-flavour philosophy of much Chinese cuisine, but combine body and the extraordinary numbing pepper like no other? Incredibly, southern Italian reds like the negroamaro of Salice Salentino or the gaglioppo and magliocco grapes of Calabria combine mouth-cleansing acidity with fruit profiles effectively designed to go with intense spiciness (Calabria in particular being renowned as a chili-addicted region).
This answer has already got out of control, but a few more off-the-wall ideas before we move on:
jollof rice with a chilled schioppettino, a red from Friuli;
biscuits and gravy with a bombino bianco from Abruzzo;
Taiwanese beef noodle soup with a cheerful ciliegiolo red from Tuscany;
hot dogs with a really substantial friulano (formerly tocai) from the Colli Friulani!
OK phew! That was a lot. Just one more question then – all this seems very exciting and vibrant. What’s going on that’s new in Italian wine?
Rediscovery of autochthonous varieties is certainly one thing that’s going on! Along with much of Portugal, Spain, and Greece, the exhuming and celebrating of ancient vines hitherto under-utilised, or perhaps uprooted in favour of more immediately best-selling international varieties like merlot or chardonnay, has become a matter of great interest and immense local pride. Furthermore, a lot of grapes considered mere bulk or filler, such as Sicily’s cataratto or the aforementioned trebbiani, have been given new leases on life, with greater respect afforded to their vinification and the potential they have if treated right.
But as with everywhere else we must not ignore the grand trend in wine over the last decade and a bit – the move towards the idea of the natural in wine. ‘Natural wine’ is a hard thing to define, notoriously so, but there’s no denying that it has been the dominant idea in much of what’s interesting in the wine movement over the last decade. A more minor but nonetheless interesting development has been the use of lesser-heralded international varieties, in particular carmenère and petit verdot, and there has been enough promising wine made from these to suggest that they may flourish in the warmer climes of Italy than they tend to further north.
What does it mean, though, in practice? Well, the low-to-no-added-sulphite wines are the best known fruits of the movement, and there certainly are quite many of these across the country. But that is most certainly not the only thing to come from this tendency – wines exhibiting a fair bit of fizz which have been subject no particular method other than being bottled early, so as to ferment in vitro and thus have their natural CO2 trapped thus (known as pétillant naturel or ‘pet nat’); wines whose grapes have been grown according to certain ecologically sustainable principles, in particular those espoused by Rudolf Steiner and that have gone on to be known as ‘biodynamic’ (in Italy this is not to be confused with the simple ‘bio’ designation, which indicates organic practice); wines aged and vinified in unusual but often traditional ways, for example concrete tanks or (particularly popular in this, the former heart of the Roman world) clay amphorae.
What’s old is new, what’s history is future, what’s then is now. The world of Italian wine is infinitely diverse and difficult to predict, but one thing is for sure: it is a vine whose roots run deep into the past, whose prospects for tomorrow are always grounded in learning more about what it had once been, and whose genius springs from an appreciation for its own self, even when it seems to be jettisoning it entirely. There’s no doubt there’s so much more to come, so much more to discover, and only one lifetime to do it in for each of us! So – what are you waiting for?