Italy can be an intimidating course of study. It’s important to take it in smaller pieces and is best approached regionally. There are over 2000 documented grape varieties grown and to date there has yet to be a completed agricultural census! The biggest impediments to quality are yields and overdrawn boundaries of classic regions due to Italian cronyism in the political Consorzio system. Nevertheless, Italy is home to some of the greatest wines produced in the world today. The subtle nuances of place, variety, tradition, and modernity intersect to craft wines unlike any other country.
Italian wine law is similar to that of the French AOC system, with limited geographical boundaries specified for the respective DOC(G)s, limits on yields, grape varieties, and the like. Where Italian law goes one step further is in codifying aging requirements in areas like Barolo, Brunello, and Taurasi. In Italy, the term “Riserva” actually has meaning, indicating more time in wood and/or bottle before release. In order to stand more wood and bottle aging, the grapes must be the top selections. Theoretically, the best areas are denoted by the higher “DOCG” classification. These classifications lead to a producer revolution in the 1960s, lead by the likes of Mario Rocchetta in Tuscany, to create world-class wines produced from non-traditional grapes with flexible vinification and aging techniques. These wines, which fell outside of the traditional DOC system, were labeled as Vino da Tavola. Within a few decades, some of the greatest wines in Italy fell under the table wine classification. In 1992, to resolve this egg-in-the-face situation, Italian legislatures enacted the Goria Laws, which created the IGT designation. Indicazione Geographica Tipica (IGT) wines are now found throughout Italy, but are still most notable in Tuscany as Super-Tuscans!
If you have ever traveled to Italy, one of the most striking features is regionalism. In fact, the country as we know it was only unified after World War I. Indeed, there are many different dialects of Italian, with the Savoy influence felt in Piemonte and Val d’Aosta, the fiercely independent Sardo culture and language of the beautiful Island of Sardinia, the German speaking, virtually autonomous area of Alto Adige, and more. And the wines are just as diverse. With each region, you find rich culinary traditions and wines that are meant to pair well with those cuisines. As you might expect when talking about food wines, you encounter good acid in almost all of the wines and often tannin in the reds. In fact, the link between food and wine and place is so strong, that Italy is actually the global home of the back-to-the farm, local food movement that is rocking the globe today.
Italy is one large vineyard with many different microclimates! The Alps form the northern border of the country and as a result, elevation, slope, and aspect of the vineyards have a major influence on the character of the wines. The Apennines Mountains form a scoliatic spine, beginning in Piedmont and the Ligurian Coast near Genoa and stretching down the middle of the Italian Peninsula. This area was formed over time from a variety of factors and the soils range from calcareous marl dating to the Tortonian epoch, weathered sandstones from the Helvetian period, volcanic activity in Campania (tufa) and Sicily (basalt), calcium-magnesium carbonate in the Dolomites and Galestro-schist in Tuscany.
Piedmont is one of the most glorious places in the world. Mountains on three sides surround Piedmont: the Alps to the west and north, and the Apennines to the south. Aside from the Po River that flows just outside of Turin creating a flatter river plain, the terrain is defined by rolling hills. Piedmont has the most DOCGs, including Barolo, Barbaresco, Ghemme, Gattinara, Roero, Barbera from Monferrato and Asti, Dolcetto from Dogliani, Ovada, and Diano d’Alba, Brachetto d’Acqui, Gavi di Gavi, and Asti/Moscato d’Asti. Nestled in the Langhe hills are the great communes of Barolo DOCG and Barbaresco DOCG. Nebbiolo is the autochthonous grape that makes these wines. It is defined by a haunting perfume of red fruit, dried roses, tar, and leather. It is characteristically high in acid and tannin and traditionally needs time in bottle to resolve itself. There are many styles of Nebbiolo-based wines being made. The traditional wines usually require more aging before they are very drinkable. The modern tend to be more luscious and fruity with French oak influence and are more accessible in youth. In between you find wines that utilize great tannin management resulting in softer wines with nice fruit, and variations of oak. In Piedmont itself, the producers are far beyond the discourse of traditional and modern. Like any region, producer styles vary and there is not a catch-all description. The greatest legacy of “modernity” in Piedmont has more to do with farming than barrel treatment. As recently as the 1990s, forward thinking, low-yield farmers were the exception to the rule. Throughout Italy, great farming is a very modern notion. The great producers of today are doing the work in the vineyard, so that manipulation in the cellar does not happen.
In terms of DOCGs, Barbaresco is the queen to Barolo’s king and the wines tend to be a bit more finessed when compared to the power inherent in Barolo. Within Barbaresco there are 3 communes: Neive, Treiso, and Barbaresco. There are 11 communes in Barolo: La Morra, Verduno, Novello, Barolo, Grinzane Cavour, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba, Diano d’Alba, Cherasco, and Roddi. Different soils characterize different villages so the styles and characteristics vary based on this fact as well. North of the Tanaro river lies the Roero. Here the Nebbiolo grows on more sandy soils and the result is a Roero DOCG, that may not quite compete with length, structure and longevity of the Barolo or Barbaresco, but that is a great expression of Nebbiolo pleasure. Everyday wines are made from Barbera, Dolcetto, & Arneis. Asti is one of the most notable production areas for Barbera, where it gets first-rate treatment on sunny, south-facing slopes. When farmed well, Barbera is rich with fruit and balanced by good acidity. It takes well to barrel treatment, being naturally low in tannin. Styles vary by producer. The best Dolcetto comes from Dogliani, where is planted on southern-oriented hills allowing it to ripen to it’s fullest potential. The best Arneis is grown in the Roero, once completely submerged in the ocean. Calcareous, sedimentary, and sandy soils dominate the region. Arneis, meaning “little rascal,” is complex and transmutes terroir when farmed well.
Lombardy is home to the DOCGs of Franciacorta, Oltrepo Pavese Metodo Classico, and Valtellina Superiore, among others. The first two produce sparkling wines made in the traditional method with the best Franciacorta rivaling great Champagne. Valtellina Superiore is made from Chiavennasca, the local name for Nebbiolo. The wines are less powerful than those produced in Piedmont, yet offer a delicious array of haunting flavors that are often easier to enjoy than young Barolo or Barbaresco.
Trentino-Alto Adige is a region that represents varietally labeled wines. There is symmetry between Alsace, parts of Germany, and this region, which is not surprising given that Alto Adige was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until its collapse at the end of World War I. Some of the best white wines of Italy are farmed here. The Dolomite soil encourages wines high in acid. The local grapes are reds like Schiava (Trollinger of Germany), Lagrein, and Teroldego. Whites are made from Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, and many more, including the native grape from the town of “Tramin,” known as Traminer and Gewurztraminer (the spicy clone of Traminer). Lagrein is a juicy and plumy with a soft lusciousness and easy quaff-ability. While they can be age worthy, most are a great way to turn consumers onto Italian reds that are not as dry or austere as some. Often the wines are listed as Trentino DOC or Alto Adige DOC.
Veneto is a large region, responsible for a substantial amount of the wine output in Italy. While the wines of Valpolicella, Soave, and Amarone can be epic, they can also be plonk, so knowing your producer is the key. The issue is expansion of the boundaries of the famous regions beyond their “Classico” zones into the flat, highly-fertile Po River Valley where vines can grow unchecked like weeds, the resultant yields making watered-down, insipid wines. They give the great wines a bad name. Yet great wines abound! Valpolicella and Valpolicella Ripasso DOC are made up primarily of the Corvina grape, with Rondinella and other indigenous and international grapes allowed in smaller proportions. The styles range, but in general the wines show dark red and black fruits with meaty and aromatic components. Those made in the “Ripasso” style, repassed over the gross lees of Amarone, are richer with slightly more alcohol and may have a bit more of a glyceral quality. The best fruit comes from the “Classico” region. Amarone della Valpolicalla DOCG only became DOCG in 2009. These wines are made from similar geographic boundaries as Valpolicella, but are defined by the process of drying the grapes before making the wines. This gives the wines an unparalled richness and depth, as well as the more raisinated flavors one might expect in wine made from raisins!! Technically they are not sweet wines, but when you smell and taste them you might be inclined to think that they are. For American wine drinkers who enjoy big Zins, Syrahs, or Napa Cabs, this can be a great alternative. You cannot leave the Veneto without discussing the DOCGs of Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOCG and Prosecco Asolani, as well as Soave Superiore DOCG. The best Soave Superiore wines also come from its historic “Classico” district and have a characteristic lemon, green apple, and bitter almond quality with medium weight. They will be comprised of a minimum of 70% Garganega with Trebbiano, but the best are made almost entirely of Garganega. “Glera” is the historical name for the Prosecco grape and has come back into circulation with the promotion of the two Procescco DOCGs listed above. The best Prosecco has a stone fruit and floral flavor with a hint of almond and honey. The most expensive vineyard area in the world is that of the Prosecco cru of Cartizze.
Friuli-Venezia Giulia has two DOCGs for the production of sweet wines. The region has Italian, Germanic, and Slavic influences in food and wine and has been revolutionary and trend-setting in terms of white wine production in Italy. Mario Sciopetto brought fresh white wines into the Italian vernacular for the first time and then a couple decades later, Graver brought oxidized “natural” wines back into fashion. There are many indigenous and international red and white grapes grown here. The best still wines come from the Collio Goriziano DOC and Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC.
Emilia Romagna is best known for it’s food staple from the town of Modena, Reggiano, and Parma more than wine. Perhaps the most significant wine is the sparkling red Lambrusco, made from the grape of the same name. There is one DOCG, Albana di Romagna and the best are sweet wines.
Liguria is beautiful country, where the coastal villages of the Italian Riviera meet the rugged Apennines Mountains that contour the interior terrain of the region. It is better known for seaside fishing villages than wine. Tourists consume most wine on holiday with freshly caught local seafood. Refreshing whites are made from autochthonous grapes such as Albarola, Bosco, and Pigato. Reds from Ormeasco (Dolcetto) and Granaccia (Grenache).
What is “Classico?” Classico refers to the original heart of a growing region – the historical area within a larger zone. You will find it on labels from Valpolicella, Amarone, Soave, Bardelino, Orvieto, and Chianti. Usually this area is hillier with greater elevation, aspect, and soil types. Typically the wines are a safer bet when buying blind off a wine list or retail shelf.
Tuscany is a significant production region with a large assortment of DOCGs and DOCs. Sangiovese is the most important grape and wine styles range. This is the seat of the modern red wine revolution in Italy and as such is well known for incredible wines made from Bordeaux varieties in DOCs like Bolgheri, as well as indigenous grapes. DOCGs include Brunello di Montalcino, Carmignano, Chianti (with seven sub-zones, the best of which is Rufina), Chianti Classico, Vernacchia di San Gimignano (white), Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Morellino di Scansano, and Elba Aleatico Passito.
Brunello di Montalcino DOCG is made from the Sangiovese Grosso clone south of the city of Siena in a more Mediterranean climate than that found in Chianti. The wines can be very age worthy and remarkable. DOCG laws codify aging and Riserva wines are made. The wines are powerful and full-bodied with darker fruit than that found in Chianti Classico. They are very aromatic with earth and savory aromas. Yet it is hard to make sweeping generalizations with style. Indeed while a number of producers have illegally been blending international varieties into their Brunello, even the producers of integrity have a range of style depending on farming methods and winemaking treatments. Location of the vineyards is also important. The best vineyards are situated in the southeastern corner of Montalcino, where proximity to Mount Amiata and the Orcia River help to moderate climate and bring great finesse to the finished wines of the area. In addition to Brunello, Montalcino produces wines under the DOC Sant Antimo. This DOC allows room for international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot.
Chianti Classico DOCG is also made from Sangiovese. Many of the best vineyards have been replanted in the last 10 years to superior clones of Sangiovese that result in lower yields and more concentrated flavors. The Classico area spans the hills in between Florence and Siena and style vary depending on the area the vines are grown. The commune of Gaiole has great elevation and rocky soils. Conversely, the vineyards of Castelnuovo Berardenga are closer to Montalcino and have a warmer climate resulting in richer wines. The best Chianti is denoted by rich sour red cherry and citrus zest, roses/flowers, spice and organic red dusty soil. In addition to Classico, there are seven other sub-regions of Chianti, including Ruffina, Colli Senesi (Siena), and Colline Pisane (Pisa).
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is made primarily from Prugnolo Gentile, thought until recently to be a clone of Sangiovese. Ampelography has shown it to be a grape variety in its own right. Again, it is hard to generalize about Vino Nobile as style range from cherry-scented, tea leaf, and spice to a deeper richer wine falling somewhere between Chianti Classico and Brunello in style. The Super-Tuscans are impossible to define but most are crafted from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and/or Sangiovese in varying quantities and with varying quality.
Lazio wines are predominantly consumed locally, in cafés lining the streets of Rome. Cesanese di Piglio is the one DOCG, and the most famous appellations are those of Frascati and Est! Est! Est! di Montefiascone.
Umbria is one of the few land-locked regions in Italy. It has good elevation as it sits in the Apennines Mountains. The two DOCGs are Sagrantino di Montefalco and Torgiano Rosso Riserva. The most famous appellation is Orvieto DOC, known for easy drinking white wines made from Trebbiano, Verdello, and others. The Classico historical heartland produces the best wines. Quality and styles greatly vary with the best showing crisp, clean apply flavors with delicate aromas of peach and fresh hay.
Marche is located on the Adriatic Coast on the eastern side of the country. The most famous wines are the delicious whites from DOCs Verdicchio di Matelica and Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi. They are decidedly mineral and crisp with fresh citrus fruit, sour apple, pear, and flowers and the trademark bitter almond finish. The two DOCGs are for red wines: Rosso Conero Riserva and Vernaccia di Serrapetrona. As an interesting note, “Vernaccia” means in the vernacular. So while you see Vernaccia as the grape of 3 different DOCGs throughout Italy, the grapes are not related to one another. Indeed, the Vernaccia of Serrapetrona is red, while the other two are white.
Abruzzo is a beautiful part of the country with towering mountains in the west and a beautiful Adriatic Coast in the east. The trademark grape is Montepulciano with the DOCG being Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane. The styles vary as the Montepulciano from the coast is bigger with an occasionally stewed fruit character due to the humid nature of the Adriatic Coast. That from the eastern hills and into the mountains is fresher with dark red and black fruit, a comfiture character to the berries, violets, licorice, and spice.
Molise is a small region with beautiful country with a smattering of vines. Biferno is the DOC of note and in general the grape varieties mirror those of the surrounding areas of Abruzzo and Campania.
As you move further south in Italy, you find the origins of Italian viticulture, brought to Italy by the Greeks and the Etruscans before them.
Campania is a region rich in history, immortalized in the volcanic-frozen ruins at Pompeii. The soils are volcanic in origin with basalt and tufa throughout the area. There are two DOCGs for white wine: Fiano di Avellino, with characteristic smoke, fennel, white flower and apple-pear flavors, and Greco di Tufo, showing a juicy fruit richness on the attack with a broad palette and a flinty mineral finish. The red DOCG is Taurasi, made from the enigmatic Aglianico grape. It has different sides, with Taurasi requiring barrel and bottle aging before release. Aglianico exhibits black fruit, coffee, tobacco, cocoa nibs, and earth. It is powerful and grippy evolving into leather, mushrooms, and tea with age. Great whites from Falanghina as well.
Puglia is the heel of Italy’s boot. The north is a bit more mountainous with the south opening up to flatter plains. Yields are the biggest impediment to quality. There are a number of grapes grown here, including Negroamaro (meaning black and bitter), Primitivo, and Malvasia Nera. The DOC of note is Salice Salentino, made from Negroamaro with Malvasia Nera.
Basilicata is rugged country. The mountainous volcanic terrain is hostile to civilization and agriculture. The wine of note is Aglianico del Vulture DOC, traditionally a more rustic version of that found in Campania.
Calabria hosts an amazing array of autochthonous grape varieties and modernization has been a great asset to quality winemaking – temperature controlled fermentation resulting in wines with fresh, rather than cooked fruit qualities. Ciró DOC is made from the native Gaglioppo grape. Magliocco and Mantonico are also native varieties with ancient origins.
Sicily is home to some incredible wines. While one might think of a hot island in the middle of the Mediterranean, volcanic mountain (indeed the active volcano of Etna) elevation can play a factor in diurnal swings and fresh wines. Nero d’Avola is the most ubiquitous red grape, with whites from Inzolia, Catarratto, and dessert wines from Malvasia and Zibibbo (Muscat). Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG is made from Nero d’Avola (a.k.a. Calabrese) and Frappato and has a vibrant cherry color. Reds from Etna DOC are often described as the Nebbiolo or Barolo of the south and are made from Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Capuccio. The great indigenous whites of Etna are made from Carricante. International varieties are also planted. Marsala is from the western part of the island and has myriad styles.
Sardinians don’t necessarily consider themselves Italian. They are fiercely independent and every grape that they grow there is “indigenous” to Sardinia! Don’t try to tell them that Canonnau is from Spain (a.k.a. Garnacha). The only thing the Spaniards brought to Sardinia was disease!! The DOCG is Vermentino di Gallura, from the higher elevation, rocky vineyards in the northern part of the island. Native varieties include the white Nuragus and red Monica. Canonnau and Bovale Sardo (the Bobal of Spain) are grown, as are international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Italy can be an intimidating course of study. It’s important to take it in smaller pieces and is best approached regionally. There are over 2000 documented grape varieties grown and to date there has yet to be a completed agricultural census! The biggest impediments to quality are yields and overdrawn boundaries of classic regions due to Italian cronyism in the political Consorzio system. Nevertheless, Italy is home to some of the greatest wines produced in the world today. The subtle nuances of place, variety, tradition, and modernity intersect to craft wines unlike any other country.