Italy wine guide

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The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine


Expertise Expertise

Italy's wines are wonderfully diverse. The Italians' individuality and long history, and stubborn campanilismo (hometown pride) has developed 330 recognised DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) wine denominations, not to mention 70 DOCGs (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) with more rigorous rules, and over 120 broader regional district IGTs (Indicazione Geografica Tipica). There are more than 100 different grape varieties in commercial use – and while it is not possible to describe them all here, we can give broad pointers to help you understand the most important differences between the regions, flavours and most widespread grape varieties.

Sebastian Payne MW

Explaining Italian wine

When we think of Italian wine two words spring to mind: diversity and confusion. Diversity comes from thousands of years of tradition: a vine-land that stretches from the latitude of Burgundy in the north to that of Tunisia in the south, from under 10 to more than 1,000 metres above sea-level; and from a plethora of grape varieties the like of which the rest of the world together cannot match. The confusion comes from… the diversity. How is it possible to make sense of all those grapes, places, DOC and IGT names, not to mention vineyards and brands, most of which, to the average non-Italian-speaker, are so difficult to pronounce?

The answer, you may be disappointed to learn, is that it isn't possible. Not entirely. What this article sets out to do, therefore, is not to reduce all to brilliant clarity but to make as much sense of Italian wine as we can in a limited space by reference to the most important factor of all: the wine in the bottle.

Vineyards of Barolo in the hills of Langhe, (Piedmont, Italy) at sunset. The zones

Every one of Italy's 20 regions grows wine grapes. However, four distinctive macro-zones can be discerned: Northwest, Northeast, Centre and South. Very succinctly, the Northwest is the area that has upheld quality principles longest; the Northeast has achieved the best blend of traditional and modern; the Centre is the home of the recent Italian wine 'renaissance'; and the South is the most traditional.

The grapes

The grape variety is the most important single quality factor in wine, so we will be giving it due prominence. I have also given some pronunciation tips in the text in places or you may find The Society's grape pronunciation guide to be of additional help.

The terrain

'Enotria', as vinous Italy is sometimes called ('land of wine' in Greek), is so diverse soil-wise that only generalisation is possible. Suffice to say that, in this largely hilly/mountainous country, there is a great deal of land not suitable for crops other than the vine and its soul mate, the olive tree. The truism that great wine comes from poor soil is demonstrated, over and over again, in Italy.

The law

The basic Italian quality designation is Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC). This is equivalent to France's appellation d'origine contrôlée, and sets the rules or parameters within which producers in a demarcated territory must work in order to qualify for DOC status. At the time of writing, there are 330 DOCs and 70 DOCGs (the 'G' standing for garantita or 'guaranteed'), the latter being supposedly the top wines of the land. (BUT see notes for Flaccianello in the section on Tuscany.)

There is another territory-linked classification, much less stringent than DOC, called Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT), more or less equivalent to France's vin de pays. Anything that does not fit into these categories is classed as Vino da Tavola, without the right to include a vintage, place name or grape variety on the label.

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The NorthWest

The four regions which make up this zone, Piedmont, Valle d'Aosta, Liguria and Lombardy, border France and/or Switzerland and have a Gallic/sub-alpine feel about them. Valle d'Aosta, under the shadow of Mont Blanc, makes limited quantities of mountain-fresh wines from French or French-sounding varieties like blanc de Morgex, petite arvine, petit rouge, gamay, pinot noir and fumin. Liguria is basically an extension of the French Riviera, its mainly white wines consumed almost entirely by passing tourists. Lombardy is more removed from France, but produces considerable volumes of pinot noir, pinot grigio, chardonnay, cabernet and sauvignon in Oltrepò Pavese and other sub-zones. Lombardy's main claim to vinous fame is Franciacorta, whose DOCG sparkling wines are basically Champagne lookalikes. Her most distinctive wines, however, come from the nebbiolo grape (here called chiavennasca – kya-ven-NAS-ka), grown in Valtellina on steep slopes near the Swiss border.

By far the most important wine region is Piedmont, boasting a unique range of good to great grape varieties. On the red side there is dolcetto which makes Beaujolais-like light, vivacious, bursting-with-fruit wines generally for early consumption. But with a longer maceration and some wood-ageing, dolcetto can make a wine of considerable depth, complexity and even longevity. Then there's barbera, a classic pizza pasta wine if ever there was one, with its zingy acidity and smooth tannins. Barbera too, however, can reach elevated quality heights in certain hands, and lends itself well to ageing in small French oak barriques. And there are others: freisa, rouchet, grignolino, brachetto, pelaverga, bonarda, croatina and vespolina.

Nebbiolo is the king of red grapes in Piedmont

But king of all Northwest red grape varieties is early budding, late ripening nebbiolo. A peculiarity of nebbiolo is that, unlike other 'major' grapes, it only makes great wines in the proximity of the Piedmont town of Alba (which is also the world capital for white truffles). Its two signature wines are Barolo, named for a village south and west of Alba, and Barbaresco, named after a village just to the east.

What is there about this relatively tiny area that here and here alone can be made from the nebbiolo grape wines of such contradictory characteristics as power and elegance, structure and succulence, immediacy and length? There is only one word that can sum it up: terroir. It is not just the soil, although the mix of clay and limestone, with sand in parts, is certainly a principal contributor. It has also to do with the climate, mainly continental thanks to the proximity, to north and west, of Europe's greatest mountain range, but influenced, too, by the warmer airs of the Mediterranean just beyond the Maritime Alps to the south.

By law, Barolo and Barbaresco must be 100% nebbiolo, most of the other denominations mentioned being allowed a small addition of other specified grapes. Barolo must be aged three years of which two are in wood; Barbaresco two years, of which one is in wood.

Whites of the NorthWest

Traditionally Italy has been noted mainly for its red wines than for its whites, but that situation is changing fast. A well-known wine writer and critic recently wrote that Italian white wines need fear nothing from France. There are some grape varieties of real diversity and interest.

Out of Piedmont there is peachy, silk-textured arneis, a variety that not so long ago was threatened with extinction. It took a few bold growers and a complete re-think of the vinification system to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. More traditionally, from the southeast corner of the region, there is cortese, the grape of lime-scented Gavi. Then there is musky moscato, which makes light sweet wines like Moscato d'Asti and Asti Spumante.

Lots of sweet and dry sparkling wine comes from Piedmont, but it is often of industrial quality. Lombardy's Franciacorta, however, has the grapes and the quality of Champagne, and enjoys a steadily growing reputation among sparkling wine connoisseurs. Lesser, but more economical sparkling wines come from the area south of Milan called Oltrepo Pavese. Oltrepo is also a major source of Italy's most famous white, Pinot Grigio.

The NorthEast

Just three regions constitute this macro-zone, but they are all important oenologically – two of them mainly for whites. Trentino-Alto Adige, is entirely alpine, and the other two, Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, are divided between mountain, foothill, plain and seacoast, bordering Austria to the north and Slovenia to the east.

Trentino-Alto Adige is effectively two separate provinces, having little in common except a name. Alto Adige has been administratively part of Italy (although officially 'autonomous') for less than a century, and the principal language remains German, as does the architecture, cuisine, the very soul. It is a magical land of soaring mountains above valley floors covered in apple trees, the lower and middle slopes of the mountains being devoted to vineyards, villages, woodland and sheer vertically looming rock.

The grapes are a broad mix of Gallic, Germanic and native, the two main red grapes being schiava and lagrein. The former is lightweight but eminently quaffable variety, the latter a sturdy, worthy winter warmer. Cabernet (both types) and merlot are grown here, but rarely manage to shed that vegetal note which would mark them in Bordeaux as not fully ripe. Pinot noir, on the other hand, can be fine and potentially long lived. To the south, thoroughly Italian Trentino, with teroldego batting here for lagrein, is very similar oenologically to its Teutonic neighbour, but controlled, alas, by vast industrial co-operatives.

As in Trentino-Alto Adige, red wines (as distinct from whites) in Friuli-Venezia Giulia have never really taken off internationally, for all the hype they receive in Italy itself. Again, this applies mostly to the imported varieties, though there are some interesting home-grown reds like schioppettino, tazzelenghe, pignolo and refosco.

Veneto, on the other hand, is big in quantity, big in mediocrity, but also big in top-quality reds. The eastern plainlands and central hills bring forth large volumes of very boring French and Italian varietal reds, but the foothills of the Alps to the northeast and northwest of the historic town of Verona are responsible for some of the most individual red wines known to man.

Valpoicella can be redolent of cherries and herbs

I refer to Valpolicella. Real Valpolicella – not the cheap stuff of old – can, like its neighbour Bardolino, be light but remarkably focused and intense, redolent of cherries and herbs. Valpolicella Ripasso – where the straight Valpolicella is poured back over the lees of Recioto/Amarone after vinification for a small refermentation – is a wine of medium weight, surprisingly full and complex, and unique. The great Valpolicellas are called Amarone – big, rich and full and almost dry; or, under the more historic name of Recioto, sweet and Port like, but with a big bite of bitterness at the back to cut the jamminess. Unlike Port, it should be said, all the richness or sweetness of Amarone/Recioto comes from the drying of the grapes or appassimento, which can last, under the roof of the winery, from four to six months. There is no addition of alcohol.

The grapes of Valpolicella are a mixed bag, but consist mainly of corvina, corvinone and rondinella, with small, optional amounts of the local negrara, dindarella and oseleta, or the international cabernets sauvignon or franc and the Piedmont croatina and even nebbiolo.

Whites of the NorthEast

But the principal grapes of the northeast, apart from Valpolicella's corvina and corvinone, are white. In Alto Adige there is a mix of French, German and Austrian varieties, the stars of today's market being pinot grigio and pinot bianco, although chardonnay and sauvignon, riesling, müller thurgau, traminer and grüner veltliner all do well in the right site. The growers of Alto Adige can play on altitude and exposure to get the best of these grapes, and there are some stunning examples of, for example, sauvignon from 700 meters up or müller thurgau from over 1000 m.

The grapes that succeed in Alto Adige are to be found also in Trentino, though not quite at the same quality level. The pinot brothers, chardonnay, sauvignon plus a smattering of characterful local varieties like verduzzo and ribolla gialla.

Veneto is the major volume wine-producer of the north. Some of it is large-volume and modestly priced, generally good-value whites like pinot grigio and chardonnay, but there are some unique zones putting out whites of incomparable personality like Soave with its garganega grape and, with a bit of a sparkle, Prosecco with its glera grape.

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Central Italy

Red Wines

This is a vast area covering the regions of Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio to the west of the Apennines; Emilia-Romagna, Marche, Abruzzo and Molise to the east. Unlike the Northwest and Northeast, it is not represented by a wide variety of red grapes, but by two or three, of which one is very dominant: sangiovese. This is certainly the case in Romagna, where sangiovese-based wines can be anything from industrial to excellent.

Tuscany, of course, is the real home of sangiovese, and other native grapes like canaiolo, colorino and ciliegiolo very much play second or third fiddle. In recent decades cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and syrah, have proved their worth in this warmer, Mediterranean climate.

There are some top sangioveses from Umbria, notably from Torgiano, but the real feather in Umbria's cap is sagrantino, an extraordinary grape of full and complex flavour and fierce tannins, which is almost entirely grown round the small town of Montefalco.

At present there is nothing of great excitement from Lazio – some sangiovese, some merlot, some cesanese, a local variety. But they're working on it.

Across the mountains from Umbria is Le Marche, where some fairly mediocre sangiovese is compensated for by some very fine montepulciano from denominations like Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno. It is important here to distinguish between the Tuscan tourist town of Montepulciano, where they make Vino Nobile from the sangiovese grape, and the montepulciano grape which thrives almost entirely on the east coast. There is no relation.

Montepulciano (the grape) really comes into its own in Abruzzo, under the name Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. Co-operatives rule, and most wine is good honest plonk, but there are too some truly outstanding wines, both red and rosé (which they call Cerasuolo: chair-a-ZWO-lo). Molise, winewise, is more or less an extension of Abruzzo.

Tuscan landscape Sangiovese In Tuscany

Sangiovese may be ubiquitous, but it is a temperamental variety, unpredictable from year to year and place to place, very sensitive to climate variations and inclined to over produce if not carefully tended. The best sub-zones (in Tuscany) are Montalcino, where Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino are made in 100% varietal form; and Chianti Classico, in the hilly heart of Tuscany. Sangiovese-based wines of excellence may also come from Montepulciano (the town), Rufina and Carmignano. Coastal wines like Morellino di Scansano can be very user-friendly, as can the more inland growths of Montecucco, Colli Senesi and Colli Fiorentini. Wines from too cool a micro climate, on the other hand, will tend to acerbity and toughness.

Tuscan landscape White Wines

Tuscany, so famous for red wines, is relatively poor in top whites. There are whites - Vernaccia di San Gimignano, some Vermentinos from the Tyrrhenian coast, the odd trebbiano, often blended with chardonnay or sauvignon or something else - but they are unremarkable. To get whites of real character from Central Italy one has to cross the Apennines to Le Marche, where Verdicchio, perhaps Italy's most versatile white grape, thrives. Another delicious prospect is, or can be, pecorino from Abruzzo. And Rome, in the region of Lazio, has its distinctive Frascati, from a version of malvasia. However, Verdicchio aside, there is nothing in Central Italy's white grape armory to match the fascination of the whites of Campania.

The law (Central Italy)

In the 1970s, quality-conscious Tuscan producers decided that, rather than be bound by what they regarded as anti-quality regulations, they would categorise their wines at the lowest, and therefore most permissive, legal level, Vino da Tavola. These and other wines, though expensive (because made from low-cropped grapes and aged in expensive oak barrels), caught the imagination of the world's wine drinkers and by the 1980s had become the 'in' thing, unofficially christened 'Supertuscans'. Later these were re-designated IGT, still a form of VdaT but of less humble prestige. The most recent effort to return these quality wines to respectability in the eyes of the law is Chianti Classico's new super-DOCG, 'Gran Selezione', supposedly at the peak at the 'quality pyramid'.

Southern Italy

Red Wines

Another huge area this, including, on the mainland, Campania, Calabria, Basilicata, and Puglia, as well as the islands of Sicily and Sardinia.

Campania, the region of which Naples is the capital, is the point of origin of one of Italy's outstanding red grapes, aglianico (a-LYA-neeco). It thrives particularly on the Apennine heights of Campania and in that part of the mountainous terrain of Basilicata which is the Monte Vulture (VOOL-too-ray) area. It ripens very late, often well into November, and buds early, so is vulnerable to mountain frosts in early spring and late autumn. But it brings forth wines of real complexity, occasionally great wines for long ageing. The only other native red grape of note from here is the relatively straightforward piedirosso.

Puglia is by far the largest wine-producing region of the southern mainland, annually rivalling Sicily and Veneto for top spot in the volume stakes. The montepulciano grape is to be found from north to south of this 360 kilometre-long region, and uva di troia is important in the middle, but the two most individual native varieties of Puglia both hail from the southern tip known as the Salento. Primitivo, a relative of California's zinfandel, makes wine of Porty style, though dry, in the hinterlands of the port of Taranto. Negroamaro ('black/bitter') is behind a number of DOCs of the tip of the heel, notably Salice Salentino and Brindisi.

Covered vineyards in Puglia

Calabria is huge, you'd think ideal for viticulture, but little has emerged from there in recent centuries with the honourable exception of Cirò, a zone whose most characteristic wines come from the gaglioppo (ga-LYOP-po) grape.

Sicily has recently gained a reputation as the 'California of Italy', perhaps because of the industrial size of some of its main wineries, as well as the international style of some of its wines, based on the local hero nero d'avola with the rapidly increasing help of syrah and other French varieties. In recent years there has been a burst of creativity from the volcano Etna, the main grapes of the high quality red wines of which are nerelloc mascalese and nerello capuccio.

Sardinia brings forth some good to excellent red wines from cannonau (aka grenache) and carignano (aka carignan or mazuelo).

White Wines

As indicated above, Campania is a paradise for white wine lovers. Nobody is quite sure why but there is a veritable wealth of interesting white wine varieties. The most important in volume terms is falanghina, which like Verdicchio is capable of turning out a plethora of wine styles from sparkling to still, from simple to quite complex - but always highly drinkable.

Other characterful whites from the mountainous areas to the east of Naples are fiano and greco - they, like falanghina, are normally labelled varietally. From the coast, or indeed the islands (Ischia and Capri) come other good white grapes like coda di volpe, biancolella,fForastera and asprinio.

Apart from Campania there is no great white wine producing zone in Italy's southern mainland, with the honourable exception of a bit of 'greco' (actually malvasia) from the far south of Calabria. But whites do thrive in Sicily in the shape of Entn's carricante and western Sicily's grillo, once only used for Marsala but today more prevalent in dry full-flavoured wines.

Sardinia has its share of interesting white grapes as well, none more so than vermentino, the best of which hails from the northeast corner known to wealthy tourists as the Costa Smeralda.

The law (southern Italy)

If you drive into a southern Italian town it could be hours before you find your way out again, such is the confusion of road signs, or lack thereof. Something similar can be said of the laws governing wines from down here – a plethora of names and grape varieties such as might require a university degree to unravel. One or two of the several obscure DOCs are vaguely familiar – like Copertino, for example, or Brindisi. Arguably, though, It's best when they stick to the regional IGT, 'Puglia', 'Sicilia' or 'Sardegna' – at least then the consumer has a chance of knowing where he is. But only the islands follow this through with any conviction.

Rose Wines

Some of the world's most characterful and intriguing rose wines come from Italy - from North to South and from East to West.

From the Northwest, for example, there's muscatty, semi-sparkling brachetto. From the Northeast there is Lake Garda's chiaretto, a blush-coloured wine of delicacy and quaffability. Central Italy boasts numerous tasty Sangiovese-based rosés, under various names. But no rosé from the Centre is finer the Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Cerasuolo.

The South's most significant contribution to the 'great rosés of the world' category are the wines of Puglia based on the negroamaro grape, examples being Brindisi DOC and Salice Salentino DOC as well as Copertino DOC.

Sicily's nero d'Avola also makes some gutsy yet flowery rosé.

Italian Map

Nicolas Belfrage

Nicolas Belfrage

Nicolas Belfrage became a Master of Wine in 1980 and is widely acknowledged as an authority on Italian wines. He writes for numerous wine publications and has published several books, including: Life Beyond Lambrusco; Barolo to Valpolicella, the Wines of Northern Italy; and Brunello to Zibibbo, the Wines of Tuscany, Central and Southern Italy. His most recent book, The Finest Wines of Tuscany and Central Italy, was published by Aurum Press in August 2009.

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