There has never been a better time to enjoy Italian wine. Whether you are a wine connoisseur, or just want to drink a glass of good vino every now and then, Italy offers something for every palate. Mr. & Mrs. Italy offer customizable Italian wine tours so you can taste and experience the wineries and vineyards we will share throughout this Italian Wine series.
If you have ever visited Italy, you know that it is covered in vineyards. They span from just below the Alps down to the heel of the boot and on to the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. Italy is home to twenty major wine-growing regions, each of which has its own culture and produces its own unique style of wine.
The French concept of terrior easily applies to Italy. Simply translated, terrior means “a sense of place.” In winemaking, terrior encompasses everything that interacts with the grape and makes it unique to its region—soil type, climate, and geography, to name just several factors. Every time you drink a wine from a specific region not only are you are immediately transported there but you are also drinking a vintage that is truly unique. A great terroir-driven Barolo, a red wine made from the Nebbiolo grape in Piedmont, will never taste like a Nebbiolo grown elsewhere. Sommeliers only blind taste classic wines that show their terrior. It’s no parlor trick; it takes years of practice to identify a wine without looking at its label, to learn which characteristics define taste as well as region. Like other great winegrowing regions, Italy offers visitors the opportunity to sample wines that show a great sense of place.
If you've traveled to Italy, you are likely familiar with the scope of its landscape. From the flowing hillsides of classic medieval Tuscan villages like Cortona to the breathtaking cliff-side vineyards of the Cinque Terre, Italy’s terrain, wine, and culture are as varied as they are beautiful. Until recent history, Italy was not a cohesive country so much as it was a collection of small self-governing regions. This is reflected in its culture and mirrored in its individual wines. For example, Trentino-Alto Adige, annexed by Italy in 1919, lists both German, and Italian as its official languages. Many of its winemaking techniques and laws differ from regions located farther south.
As such, learning about Italy’s wine culture can quickly become overwhelming. So rather than inundate you with a barrage of facts about the sub-regions of Chianti, or subtle nuances of every soil type, we will focus instead on the top wines of each region and suggest some basic food pairings.
The best way to begin your understanding of Italian winemaking culture is to experience it firsthand. Every winemaker we have encountered in Italy has been hospitable and happy to teach me about his or her particular style. Whenever possible, we suggest visiting the wineries, taking any tours that are available, participating in tastings, and asking questions. Just remember, appointments are usually necessary. If you can’t visit a winery, explore your hotel’s offerings. Many of the properties featured in this series, for instance, have superb cellars that heavily focus on regional wines as well as vintages that you may be unable to find elsewhere. Most cities have enotecas as well. These are wine shops that typically offer tastings of wine from all over the region.
Italian Wine Classifications
In order to understand the dichotomy of Italian wines, you need a basic knowledge of the Italian wine classification system. Created in 1963, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), is similar in design to the French AOC system in that it stipulates a geographical boundary and establishes how much and what types of grapes may be grown. It also covers certain viticulture techniques, alcohol levels, and aging requirements.
The Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) is an even higher level of quality. It was created in 1963 as well, but the first DOCG designations were not awarded until 1980. Brunello di Montalcino, Barolo, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano were the first DOCs to receive the prestigious DOCG honor.
Unfortunately, a wine stating DOCG is not an automatic guarantee of quality. The system has been regularly criticized for not being strict enough and for allowing huge expansions of already existing boundaries. Shortly after its inception, many of the winemakers became disillusioned with the DOCG. In Tuscany in 1968, Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta released Sassicaia, in an effort to realize his dream of creating a Bordeaux-style blend. It was mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, with a little Cabernet Franc. Because it did not fall into the DOC-allowed grape varieties, however, it was classified as a vino da tavola, or table wine. The Marchese’s blend also ushered in similar attempts, which in the process established a new wave of ultra-premium wines that have become known as the “Super Tuscans.” While these wines have no legal meaning, they typically stipulate a red wine from Tuscany that utilizes non-indigenous grapes. Ornellaia, Tignanello, and countless other iconic Italian wines had their start in this so-called lowest category of Italian wine.
In 1992 the Government passed Goria’s Law, which created a new category of wine classification called Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT). This category is a stepping stone for DOC. Once DOC, areas may apply for DOCG after five years and many are labeled by variety, which refers to a grape. For example, Sangiovese, the most-planted grape in Tuscany.
It is said that there are over one thousand native grape varieties grown in Italy. This guide will focus on the major grapes that make the finest wines. It is important to remember that most Italian wines are blends of multiple grapes. So unlike in the United States, Italian wine labels generally indicate the location in which the wine’s grapes were grown, rather than the specific grape itself. However, many wines that fall into the ITG category are now beginning to list grape varieties. This has been a boon for international sales, since the sometimes-confusing Italian wine labeling system could deter the average buyer.
Italian Wines and Food
Sommeliers have a general rule when it comes to pairing food and wine: What grows together goes together. This holds particularly true for Italian wines. If you’ve dined in a trattoria in Montalcino, you probably noticed that not only is the list full of Brunellos but it is almost exclusively Tuscan as well. It’s not just local pride; it’s because the wines pair exquisitely with the local fare. If you have had a glass of Brunello with ravioli al sugo di cinghiale (local wild boar ravioli) you understand. The wine and cuisine have evolved hand in hand. Wine breathes life into the glass and its consumption can lead to a euphoria that has nothing—okay, perhaps a little— to do with the alcohol.
Most waiters will be happy to suggest the best pairings; however, we will highlight those that absolutely must not be missed in the Classic Wines and Classic Pairings suggestions, which are listed separately according to province in the sections covering Northern, Central, and Southern Italy.
Ready for more? Continue your exploration of the classic wine regions of Northern Italy and wine regions of Central Italy and wine regions of Southern Italy.