As “Italy is the maestro of the modern wine world,” said Sir. Iris Rowlee, wine director at Perbacco in San Francisco. Wine is an inherent part of Italian culture the country's contribution to the world is acquiring progressively recognition around the globe. Etruscans and Greek colonizers manufactured wine in Italy prior to the Romans possessing vineyards in the second century. The method of Grape-growing and winemaking by the Romans was profuse, competent, and well-organized, introducing extensive production and depository approaches like barrel-making and bottling were done.
The Mycenaean Greeks are attributed with introducing Sicily and southern Italy to viticulture — the study of grape cultivation. The Greeks were so impressed with Italy’s idyllic climate that they called the land Oenotria, “the land of trained vines” when they arrived in Italy in the 8th century B.C. The Romans established a vibrant wine trade throughout their empire, influencing wine culture not only in Italy but elsewhere in Europe as well. Even during the Dark and Middle Ages, European monks and the Catholic Church maintained the tradition of winemaking. The first imprint of one of Italy’s most famous regions, Chianti, emerged as early as the 16th century, and the regions Barolo and Marsala were known throughout Europe as early as the 19th century when advances like bottling and the use of corks allowed Italian wines to be shipped.
Italy didn’t become a unified country until 1861, so each of its regions maintains a distinctive identity to this day, which is why some Italian varieties have numerous monikers. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the implementation of the DOC and DOCG appellation system―both were introduced in 1963, though the first DOCG was not awarded until 1980―marked Italy’s modern quality renaissance.
These days, 334 DOCs and 74 DOCGs produce wine across the country, from the cool northern reaches of Piedmont and Alto Adige to the sunbaked southern regions of Puglia, Calabria, and Sicily. “Italian wines have never been better,” Forte says. “Our producers work within strict regulations that govern the quality and are making wines at the highest level of quality in their history.”
Vines have been cultivated from the wild Vitis vinifera grape for millennia in Italy. It was previously believed that viticulture had been introduced into Sicily and southern Italy by the Mycenaean Greeks, as winemaking traditions are known to have already been well-established in Italy by the time the first Greek colonists arrived on Italy's shores around 800 BC. However, archeological discoveries on Monte Kronio in 2017 revealed that viticulture in Sicily flourished at least as far back as 4000 BC — some 3,000 years earlier than previously thought.
Under Ancient Rome large-scale, slave-run plantations sprang up in many coastal areas of Italy and spread to such an extent that, in AD 92, emperor Domitian was forced to destroy a great number of vineyards in order to free up fertile land for food production.
During this time, viticulture outside of Italy was prohibited under Roman law. Exports to the provinces were reciprocated in exchange for more slaves, especially from Gaul. Trade was intense with Gaul, according to Pliny, because the inhabitants tended to drink Italian wine unmixed and without restraint. Although unpalatable to adults, it was customary, at the time, for young people to drink wine mixed with a good proportion of water.
As the laws on provincial viticulture were relaxed, vast vineyards began to flourish in the rest of Europe, especially Gaul (present-day France) and Hispania. This coincided with the cultivation of new vines, such as biturica, an ancestor of the Cabernets. These vineyards became so successful that Italy ultimately became an import center for provincial wines.
Depending on the vintage, modern Italy is the world's largest or second-largest wine producer. In 2005, production was about 20% of the global total, second only to France, which produced 26%. In the same year, Italy's share in dollar value of table wine imports into the U.S. was 32%, Australia's was 24%, and France's was 20%. Along with Australia, Italy's market share has rapidly increased in recent years.
In 1963, the first official Italian system of classification of wines was launched. Since then, several modifications and additions to the legislation have been made, including a major modification in 1992. The last modification, which occurred in 2010, established four basic categories which are consistent with the latest European Union wine regulations (2008–09). The categories, from the bottom to the top level, are:
Vini (Wines - informally called 'generic wines'): wines can be produced anywhere in the territory of the EU, the label includes no indication of the geographical origin of the grape varieties used or the vintage. (The label only reports the color of the wine.)
Vini Varietali (Varietal Wines): generic wines that are made either mostly (at least 85%) from one kind of authorized 'international' grape variety (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah) or entirely from two or more of them, grape variety or varieties and vintage may be indicated on the label. (The prohibition to indicate the geographical origin is instead maintained. These wines can be produced anywhere in the territory of the EU.)
Vini IGP (Wines with Protected Geographical Indication also traditionally implemented in Italy as IGT - Typical Geographical Indication): wines produced in a specific territory within Italy and following a series of specific and precise regulations on authorized varieties, viticultural and vinification practices, organoleptic and chemical-physical characteristics, labeling instructions, etc. Currently (2016) there exist 118 IGPs/IGTs.
Vini DOP (Wines with Protected Designation of Origin): This category includes two sub-categories: Vini DOC (Controlled Designation of Origin) and Vini DOCG (Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin). DOC wines must have been IGP wines for at least 5 years. They generally come from smaller regions within a certain IGP territory that are particularly vacated for their climatic and geological characteristics, quality, and originality of local winemaking traditions. They also must follow stricter production regulations than IGP wines. A DOC wine can be promoted to DOCG if it has been a DOC for at least 10 years. In addition to fulfilling the requisites for DOC wines, DOCG wines must pass stricter analyses prior to commercialization, including a tasting by a specifically appointed committee. DOCG wines must also demonstrate superior commercial success. Currently (2016) there exist 332 DOCs and 73 DOCGs for a total of 405 DOPs.
A number of sub-categories exist pertaining to the regulation of sparkling wine production (e.g. Vino Spumante, Vino Spumante di Qualità, Vino Spumante di Qualità di Tipo Aromatico, Vino Frizzante).
Within the DOP category, 'Classico' is a wine produced in the original historic center of the protected territory. 'Superiore' is a wine with at least 0.5 more alc%/vol than its corresponding regular DOP wine and produced using a smaller allowed quantity of grapes per hectare, generally yielding a higher quality. 'Riserva' is a wine that has been aged for a minimum period of time. The length of time varies with (red, white, Traditional-method sparkling, and Charmat-method sparkling). Sometimes, 'Classico' or 'Superiore' are themselves part of the name of the DOP (e.g. Chianti Classico DOCG or Soave Superiore DOCG).
The Italian Ministry of Agriculture (MIPAAF) regularly publishes updates to the official classification.
It is important to note that looser regulations do not necessarily correspond to lower quality. In fact, many IGP wines are actually high-quality wines. Talented winemakers sometimes wish to create wines using varietals or varietal percentages that do not match DOC or DOCG requirements. "Super Tuscans", for example, are generally high-quality wines that carry the IGP designation. There are several other IGP wines of superior quality, as well.
Unlike France, Italy has never had an official classification of its best 'crus'. Private initiatives like the Comitato Grandi Cru d'Italia (Committee of the Grand Crus of Italy) and the Instituto del Vino Italiano di Qualità—Grandi Marchi (Institute of Quality Italian Wine—Great Brands) each gather a selection of renowned top Italian wine producers, in an attempt to unofficially represent the Italian wine excellence.
In 2007 the Barbaresco Consorzio was the first to introduce the Menzioni Geografiche Aggiuntive (additional geographic mentions) also known as MEGA or subzones. Sixty-five subzone vineyard areas were identified in 2007 and one additional subzone was approved in 2010, bringing the final number to 66. The main goal was to put official boundaries to some of the most storied crus in order to protect them from unjustified expansion and exploitation.
The Barolo Consorzio followed suit in 2010 with 181 MEGA, of which 170 were vineyard areas and 11 were village designations. Following the introductions of MEGA for Barbaresco and Barolo the term Vigna (Italian for vineyard) can be used on labels after its respective MEGA and only if the vineyard is within one of the approved official geographic mentions. The official introduction of subzones is strongly advocated by some different denominations, but so far Barolo and Barbaresco are the only ones to have them.
ITALIAN WINE LAW Following the establishment of the appellation system in France in the 1930s, other European countries were soon to follow with their own similar system. However, it was complicated during the second world war, recessions, and mass emigration of regions throughout Italy, the modern Italian Wines classifications were not introduced until 1963 and they still continue to evolve today. Labeling will follow either a geographic indication or without. The Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) system helps protect the Italian wine appellations. The four tiers are as follows. Vino Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) Denominzaione di Origine Controllata (DOCG) Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG)
LOCATION The country of Italy is a long peninsula that stretches out into the Mediterranean sea, bordered by the Alps in the north and coastlines along the Adriatic, Tyrrhenian and Ligurian seas. The Apennine Mountains run down the center of the country, creating a divide between the eastern and western coasts. Sicily and Sardinia are large islands that are unique on their own, with mountainous centers and beautiful beaches. A warm, Mediterranean climate can be generalized for the center and south, while a cool continental climate is primary in the north. DOC VS DOCG AND CLASSICO Wines without geographical indications are labeled “Vino” and are generic wines that are Bianco, Rosso, or Rosato and labeled with or without a vintage. Quality wines use terms to protect the traditional areas, grapes, and winemaking customs. It is important to recognize label terminology that matters. Classico is a theoretical superior vineyard area within a DOC of DOCG. Superiore denotes wines that have a higher level of alcohol or longer aging requirement before release. Riserva is legally defined as wines that have extended aging in cask, then in bottle. Metodo Classico is used for making sparkling wines in the Champenois style. Recioto/Passito is made from dried grapes and is often sweet.
NORTHERN ITALY One of the most culturally diverse regions in Europe is Northern Italy. France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia canvas the entire north, where the Alps serve as a natural border. This is a connection point of languages, cuisine, traditions, and many different wine appellations. While several of the regions are landlocked, the nearby seas and large lakes affect the climate and weather. Most of the vineyards and regions are on foothills and mountainsides, around lakes or narrow valleys. Bulk wines would be sourced from vineyards on flatter, more fertile areas that have generic geographic designations. Northern Italian wines have characteristics of higher acidity, lighter colors, and distinct earth qualities that can be served with food rich in fat, butter, cream, and mushrooms. A traditional northern Italian dish does not have as much olive oil or tomatoes, but more cream and butter. SEE TENZING PRODUCERS HERE
PIEDMONT Piedmont is in Northwestern Italy, bordering the French Alps and Liguria to the South. The region gets its name from the Italian word Piemonte, the foothills of the Alps. This region has many rolling hills and valleys, which contain a large majority of Italy’s quality DOCs and DOCGs. Mainly the Langhe and Monferrato hills near the famous city of Alba, known for white truffles. The city of Asti is a commercial center for neighboring wine regions like Barolo and Barbaresco. The climate of Piedmont is mild and continental with a common risk of early spring frosts.
Main Red grapes: Nebbiolo Barbera Dolcetto Freisa Ruché
Main White Grapes: Moscato Arneis Cortese Chardonnay Favorita (vermentino)
Milan is the most European city in Italy. Fashion, art, business, and design flourish, and locals consume many international wines. Over 25 million cases of wine are produced annually and 20% of it is DOC quality.
Grapes like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Blanc do not sound Italian but have been in the area for almost two centuries.
Northeast of the city is the region of Franciacorta, close to lake d'Iseo and the city of Brescia. Metodo Classico wines are wonderful here, making sparkling wines that rival Champagne.
Wines are required to age for a longer period in a bottle on the lees, adding richness and toasty complexity.
Close to the Swiss border in a narrow alpine valley, is the small region of Valtellina.
Valtellina Superiore DOCG is a brilliant area for the Chiavennasca grape (local name for Nebbiolo). Several subzones lend variety in styles and wonderful producers like Ar,Pe.Pe can make different bottlings.
One of the most beautiful places in the world is found in this northern Italian region. The drive north between Trento and Bolzano is breathtaking. The Dolomite mountains, villages, and perfect rows of vineyards are lined along the valley.
The continental climate provides cold winters but extremely hot summers, allowing grapes to ripen fully. You would think that only white grapes are planted, but locals love to drink red wines too.
Popular grapes like Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Merlot are found on labels as well as the German spellings for Weissburgunder, Gewürtztraminer, Müller-Thurgau, Blauburguner. Interesting wines made from Silvaner, Kerner, and Lagrein match perfectly with seafood, veal, vegetables, and pork.
Trentino DOC and Alto-Adige (Südtiroler) DOC allow a wide variety of grape varieties.
While Piedmont and Tuscany may have greater awarded and treasured wines, no other region has more recognizable wines than Veneto. For a new wine consumer, a bubbly glass of Prosecco or a crisp Soave, light-red Valpolicella, or even a full glass of Amarone Della Valpolicella may be their first introduction to Italian wine.
The region produces millions of cases of wine but is spread out over various DOCs. Near the steep hills of the city of Verona, the best reds are from the Classico, Valpaltena, and Val d’Illasi zones. The neighboring Lake Garda is warm and provides an adequate microclimate to grow red grapes.
Valpolicella DOC and Amarone Della Valpolicella DOCG are made from a blend of grapes, including Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella. The latter is made from resinated grapes, in a process called appassimento. The wine referments and can be vinified dry to off-dry with elevated levels of alcohol.
Sweet wines are called Recioto and can be of exceptional quality.
Soave is one of the most produced white wines in Italy, where the Classico zone is the best, Soave Superiore and Recioto di Soave both receive DOCG status. At least 70% White Garganega grapes are used with optional Trebbiano di Soave and Chardonnay.
Prosecco is easily the fastest-growing category of all Italian wines. The popular bubbly drink is a must on almost every wine list, bar menu, and retail shelf. The general Prosecco DOC is shared with Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, as the area overlaps and produces over 2.6 million hectoliters of wine per year. The smaller, original areas in Conegliano Valdobbiadene and Asolo receive the DOCG status. The focus here is to make Superiore wines, with drier brut, extra brut, and cru designations.
Prosecco is mostly made from the Glera grape and optional accessory varieties, in a frizzante (slightly sparkling) and/or spumante (fully sparkling) style. The main difference with the Champagne Methode is that these wines traditionally spend the second fermentation in the tank in a process called Charmat. This helps retain the aromatic quality and freshness without overpowering with yeasty flavors. It is also much cheaper to produce wines this way and is an affordable alternative.
One of the rising star regions of the wine world is the Colli Orientali del Friuli. Located on the border with Slovenia, this pocket of northeast Italy is influenced by the Julian alps and the Adriatic sea. You can be skiing in the snow in the morning and skiing on the water by lunchtime. This location also overlaps longtime Slavic and Austria-Hungarian cultures. Today, it can seem like Collio wines and Brda (Slovenia) are not much different. Modern winemakers have opted for clean, crisp, light white wines for which the regions are known for. There are a handful of small independent creators of “orange wines” with extended skin contact and vinification in amphorae, looking back at ancient traditions.
Local grapes are exciting and deserve more attention. Friulano, Picolit, Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia Istriana, Verduzzo, Refosco, and Schioppettino are all examples of grapes that represent the region well. However, since Napoleon's time, French grapes brought over have been established as the most popular. Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris), Sauvignon (Sauvignon Blanc), Pinot Blanc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon are allowed on labels.
Arguably the finest food in all of Italy is produced in Emilia-Romagna. Cities like Modena, Bologna, Parma, and Ferrara are foodie destinations with countless well-known dishes and products. A pit stop to one of the restaurants is a must, to enjoy gnocco frito with a glass of Lambrusco. The wines are lesser known, as this is a very fertile, agricultural-focused region and considered the ‘breadbasket” of Italy.
The clear majority of the wines produced are Lambrusco, a fizzy, semi-sweet red wine with ripe tannins and astringency. It’s a gateway wine for many until they experience one of the top DOCs, Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, Lambrusco di Sorbara, and Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce. These are usually finished in Sparkling wine bottles and closed with cork and cage. Sangiovese-based wines are on the rise and will soon be a fierce competitor to its Tuscan neighbor to the south.
A summer postcard from Liguria would make any recipient jealous, as this has a picture-perfect coastline, dotted with colorful cities along the bays. From the French Riviera to the Tuscan border, sail ships, yachts, and travelers will stop to enjoy some seafood, and pesto Genovese and drink a glass of Pigato (Vermentino). The Colli di Luni DOC is shared with Tuscany, but the best vineyards on steep hillsides are in Liguria.
TUSCANY/TOSCANA Along with Piedmont, Tuscan wines are the most recognized and awarded in Italy. The Sangiovese grape has established the reputation of the DOCGs of Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. With its many synonyms and clones, this grape is best when it’s aged in a cask and cellared in a bottle for years. Recent vintages like 2015 and 2016 will be collected and heralded for decades.
The capital Florence is key to the history and base for many producers of Chianti. The Antinori family alone has over 26 generations under their belt as wine growers and merchants. Medieval towns south of the city are not much larger today than they were 500 years ago. Castello Della Volpaia in Radda is a winery entirely run by the village and produces single vineyard wines that have been awarded internationally. Tuscany has a long western coastline with the Tyrrhenian sea and is bordered to the east by the Apennine mountain range. This creates long warm summers and mild winters that will aid the growth and maturation of different grapes. On the coast, the region of Bolgheri is best-suited for Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and experimenting with Sauvignon Blanc, while further inland on the Umbrian border, Syrah is becoming more popular Super-Tuscans have raised the reputation since the 1960s that Italy can produce wines that are world-class. Tignanello, Solaia, paved a path that now Tenuta Sette Cieli and others are widening with young, progressive winemakers. Value is still available in every category, with Toscana IGT, Rosso di Montalcino, Rosso di Montepulciano, and smaller DOCs.
Castello della Sala - Umbria
UMBRIA This landlocked region does not get enough recognition for its wines. It has been slower to develop an international style, perhaps since many of the grapes are not found anywhere else in the world. White Greccheto and the red Sagrantino are the best suited for quality wines here. There are many small DOCs, but rarely seen exported outside the region. The largest in production and notoriety is Orvieto DOC, a white wine that can be made in various styles ranging from dry, off-dry, and late harvest to Muff Nobile (botrytized sweet style). This is a case where DOCG status is not awarded for the best-known wine in the region. Sagrantino di Montefalco DOG has been a renaissance for the grape since Marco Caprai started making drier styles versus the sweet style of the past. This intensely tannic red wine is aged for many months before release and can continue to age for many more. Torgiano Rosso Riserva DOCG is an even smaller appellation for Sangiovese, created and produced almost entirely by one family. MARCHES If you’re looking to try interesting and authentic grapes, then the Marches are an easy choice. There’s something unique about Adriatic wines that have this piercing mineral rusticity to them. While Sangiovese and Trebbiano are grown there, it’s the Verdicchio and Montepulciano (grape) that are standouts. The area of Castelli di Jesi Classico makes Superiore wines that can retail for under $15, and compete with northern Italian wines twice that price. Rosso Conero Riserva DOCG is a large area that makes red wines from the Montepulciano grape which are easy-drinking, pronounced wines. Southern Italy and Islands
Featured Map Southern Italy
LAZIO This warm region is overwhelming white wine driven. Most are consumed locally with fresh seafood and classic Cucina Romagnola. The best-known wine region is Frascati DOC, just south of the Capital Rome is made with Malvasia Candia grapes. Many small DOCs with indigenous grapes should be sought after more for their novelty than their actual merit.
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CAMPANIA The true south begins in Campania, where tomato vines, olive trees, and ‘southern’ culture prevail. Napoli is like a whole different country. The towering Vesuvio volcano in the distance is a reminder of their past and the eruption that devastated Pompei. While the coast and islands are best left for tourists, the hills in the interior are ideal for the grapevines. Ancient Roman grapes like Fiano, Falanghina, Greco, Aglianico, and Piedirosso are national treasures that overcame millennia of human selection and vine diseases. The best wine appellations are Greco di Tufo, Taurasi, Fiano di Avellino Ischia, and Capri. The white wines are unoaked, light, mineral, and full of acidity, The reds share similar traits and have pronounced tannins and balanced acidity. Something that is usually not achieved in warm climates. PUGLIA This up-and-coming tourist destination has one of the longest coastlines in Italy. Beautiful beaches and UNESCO-protected sites have brought a much-needed injection into the local economy. Puglia had a declining population where abandoned towns, businesses, and farms left many of the wines there unknown. Today Puglia is the second largest producer of wine in Italy, after Veneto. The production has doubled since 2014. The majority is bulk wine but quality and value have increased. Styles are diverse, ranging from Uva di Troia red based-wine in the northern region of Castel del Monte and Negroamaro wines on the southern Salento peninsula. Salice Salentino DOC is the third largest in production, after Castel del Monte DOC and Primitivo de Manduria. SICILY/SICILIA This island is Italy’s fourth largest producer of wine, but very little of it is at the DOC or DOCG level. Many years of focusing on fortified wines from Marsala, gave the region a reputation for bulk, cooking wines. Efforts to farm at lower yields, better winemaking techniques, and education on their wines have increased awareness amongst new and young wine drinkers. Local white grapes include Cataratto, Carricante, Inzolia, Grecanico, Grillo, and Zibibbo. Mostly all made unoaked and often blended. Red grapes are now well known, with Nero d’Avola as a single grape that stands out. Frappato, Perricone, Nerello Cappuccio, and Nerello Mascalese are not known on their own but are the stars of their appellations. Etna DOC is surely one of the most exciting wine regions in Italy right now, with many similarities to Burgundy and Barolo. Grown on well-drained volcanic soils, these grapes achieve a level of complexity and structure that can make outstanding wines.
Today Italian wines are considered by critics to be amongst the best in the world. As there are twenty different regions to choose from, each with different varieties, it is never difficult to find a fine Italian wine!