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Learn About Italian Wines

Posted 25 September 2023

by Vintage Wine and Port

Italy is a country that has a formidable tradition and history of winemaking. Indeed, it is known that vines used for Italian wine production have been growing in this region for over 4000 years. The constant influx of conquerors and travellers over the centuries constantly added to the existing base of knowledge and allowed Italian wine growing to develop into the highly regarded craft that it is today. The Ancient Greeks referred to southern Italy as Enotria, meaning “land of the vine”, and with the tremendous quality and variety of Italian wines on call today, Italy remains one of the most exciting wine regions of the world.

Italian wines are perhaps most famously associated with the fabled Barolos, Chiantis and Brunellos. Added to these great names are the Super Tuscan wines, the Pinot Grigio wines, the speciality Italian wines such as sparkling red Lambrusco, and of course the Italian takes on well-known international varieties of wine grape. The most striking aspect of Italian wine, however, is its sheer variety and individuality. Italy has hundreds of native varieties of grape that contribute to a myriad of regional wines. Individuality is a major characteristic of Italian wines.

For the lover of wines, all of this marvelous variety can of course cause confusion, given the sheer number of grape varieties, place names and producers. Over the past thirty years Italian wine has undergone something of a renaissance, with old and new producers both contributing to a range of high quality wines that are a striking combination of the new and the traditional. There has never been a better time to investigate and enjoy the world of Italian wine!

To assist the consumer amidst all this wondrous variety and choice, Italian wines have a classification system similar to that used in France. Wines are classified as Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) or as Denominazione di Origine Controllata et Garantita (DOCG), with the DOCG wines supposedly having extra levels of quality. The lowest category, Vina da Tavola, corresponds essentially to table wines, and there has been a relatively recent introduction of the Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) classification, along the lines of the French Vin de Pays wine classification.

Along with this official classification system, the Italian wine enthusiast is also guided by a basic knowledge of the wine growing regions of Italy, and the wines that typically emerge from these regions. Broadly speaking, these regions can be considered in terms of northern, central and southern Italy.

Northern Italian Wines

There are four regions comprising the northwest of Italy: Valle d’ Aosta, Lombardy, Liguria and Piedmont. Of these, Piedmont is regarded in many quarters as the most significant of all Italian wine regions since herein lies the origin of the Barolo, possibly the greatest of all Italian red wines. The Barolo, named after a small village in the region that sits atop an extinct volcano, is made from the Nebbiolo grape and is often considered the “King of Italian wines”. The Barolo responds well to ageing, and has a characteristic strength of bouquet that sets it apart from most other Italian red wines. The Bardolino and the Barbera also emerge from this region, but are considered distinctly second best.

A nearby wine of note is the Barbaresco, also made from the Nebbiolo grape, but which is more readily drinkable in its youth than the Barolo, and generally more affordable. Both the Barolo and the Barbaresco are classified as DOCG wines in recognition of their excellence. The term “Riserva” is used in conjunction with these wines if they have been aged in barrel for four or three years respectively.

The great recent vintage years to look out for where Barolo and Barbaresco are concerned are those of 1985, 1988-90, 1993, and indeed most of the years of the late 1990s.

The Barbera grape is Piedmont’s second grape after the Nebbiolo, and is the source of great value wines under the DOC classification – most notably the Barbera d’ Alba and the Barbera d’ Asti. Coming in third is the Dolcetto grape, which generally produces light wines of the table variety.

Also of note from the Piedmont region are the dry sparkling white wines of the Asti variety, popular but generally low quality wines for celebration and thirst quenching.

The northeast of Italy has three wine growing regions: Veneto, Trentino-Alto, and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, and of these the Veneto is considered to be of greatest importance. The Veneto region has a few DOC wine regions that are worthy of attention for the Italian wine enthusiast. Most famous of these is Valpolicella, and the wines can come as either stright Valpolicella, Valpolicella Classico, or Valpolicella Superiore (indicating higher alcoholic content). Of particular note however are the Amarone della Valpolicella, a complex and concentrated wine that is well worth attention, and the Ripasso di Valpolicella which constitutes a tremendous value Italian wine.

Amarone wines from the Valpolicella region are typically considered as big, bold Italian red wines. They are made using grapes that have been partially dried, and they have correspondingly higher alcohol content, making for a strikingly delicious wine with fruit-forward flavours. Masi, Speri and Allegrini are producers of note here.

Of the white Italian wines from the Veneto region, the most famous are those of the Soave region, made from the Garganega and Trebbiano grapes. The Recioto di Soave is a sweet white that has attained the DOCG status and so is certainly worth sampling.

Central Italian Wines

This is a region that accounts for that most famous of all Italian red wines, the Chianti. The famous region of Tuscany produces this DOCG rated wine, which is made predominantly from the Sangiovese grape, albeit that small amounts of other grape varieties such as the Cabernet Sauvignon are allowed. The best of these wines are the Chianti Classicos, or are aged for longer before they are released and are hence designated Riserva.

There are also a range of Chianti wines that are produced outside of the rules that guide the DOC/DOCG classifications, and these are known as the “Super Tuscan” wines. These wines cannot easily be characterised due to the range of unique grape blends and terriors used in their production, indeed this is true of Chianti wines as a whole. “Super Tuscan” producers that are worth hunting out are: Viticcio, Antinori, and Tenuta dell’ Ornellaia.

Great recent vintages to look out for regarding Chianti wines would generally include the late 1990s as a whole, with 1997 being of particular note.

Montalcino gives rise to the famous Brunello di Montalicino wine, “Brunello” being a local name used for the Sangiovese grape from which this wine is made. This is another highly recommended wine for the beginner to Italian wines, much deserving of its DOCG status. The nearby Montepulciano region is also DOCG rated and the Italian wines produced here are worthy of attention too.

Whilst the Chianti, Montalcino and Montepulciano regions are clearly the most important within Tuscany, there are also coastal regions in this area are that are highly rated, and there are good quality Italian red and white wines awaiting in Abruzzi and Marches.

Southern Italian Wines

Of this area, regions of note for good quality Italian red wines are Molise, Campania, Basilicata, Calabria and Puglia. Of these, Puglia (also known as Apulia) is perhaps the most notable, and the wines of Castel del Monte, Salice Salentino, Copertino and Primitivo di Manduria have DOC status and reputations to match.

Sicily is beginning to emerge as a producer of good quality table wines, aside from its association with the fortified Marsala wine, and so is definitely worth consideration by the Italian wine enthusiast. The white wines of Sicily are also of merit, particularly the Planeta.

The above of course constitutes but a summary of the world of Italian wines, and has barely touched upon other greatly loved Italian favourites such as the range of high quality Pinot Grigio white wines that make such perfect drinking on a balmy summers evening. However, as with all of life’s important issues, experience is the key. Immerse yourself in the world of Italian wines and enjoy a world of discovery!

To begin your journey into the world of Italian Wines visit our website at Vintage Wine and Port