November 29, 2012
Italian Wine 101: A Roadmap

A selection of Italian wines on display (photo: A. Sertoli)
You've been standing there for at least 15 minutes, staring at the bottles lining the shelves under the small rectangular "Italy" sign. You're here because you've heard that Italian wine is on the rise, having recently surpassed France in production and evermore-gaining popularity as a quality beverage in the United States. And, in honor of your recent trip to Italy, you've decided to switch this year's yuletide beverage from the usual Merlots and Chardonnays. The idea seems great in theory, but when you are actually at the point of purchase, you have no clue what you're looking at!

The world of Italian wine is vast. Production on the boot-shaped peninsula is as old as its ancient history, and the diverse collection of Italian soils and climates yields a large spectrum of wines from over 2,000 grape varietals. But don't let the immensity of vino italiano scare you: as long as you get down a few key facts, you'll be able to navigate those shelves well enough to impress the guests at your holiday table.

Italian wines taste of the earth in which they were grown
Begin by thinking about the wines in terms of geographic location, calling on the idea of terroir (a French term meaning that the geography, climate and geology of the earth in which the grape grows is reflected in the finished product). Simply put, Italian wines taste like the region in which they grow. And as far as regions go, you don't have to memorize Italy's 20 official political regions, but instead think of wine regions in terms of south, central and north.

Look at the big picture: southern Italy gets intensely hot, and the sun shines fiercely during the growing season. Many of the wines you might choose from these parts are going to taste as such; they are usually drier and earthy, often with a higher alcohol content and more tannins produced by the sun's beating rays. Alternatively, much of the central part of Italy is covered with rolling hills and is lit by a softer sun. Wines are drinkable, everyday wines in which you taste the fertile earth with a hint of the sun's power. Northern wines vary greatly since the land where they are produced ranges in geography from fertile plains to the rocky lower slopes of the Dolomites. However, the regions do have cloudy weather in common, and several of the most famous northern grapes are grown in difficult soil that produces complex, smooth wines in which you can almost taste the fog and the fiery sun's absence.

Italy yields over 2,000 grape varietals (photo: A. Sertoli)
Bottles will be labeled with the political region, but there is often a handy map of Italy on the back of Italian-made wines to indicate where that region lies. If not, you can remember (or write down) that the most common wines of the south come from Sicily, Puglia, Campania while Tuscany, Umbria, Abruzzo are in the central area and Piedmont, Veneto, Alto Adige dominate northern wines.

When scanning the labels of the wines in front of you, notice that some are marked as DOC, others as DOCG, and others not at all. This is merely an Italian system of wine classification, similar to France's AOC wines, denoting whether or not the wine was produced by a traditional method, ideally one that represents homogeneity in terms of the grapes used, the territory/region in which it was produced and the cultural traditions used to make the wine. The official wine classifications are as follows:

  • Vino da Tavola or "Table Wine": the meaning is in the name - it's table wine; the grapes can come from any region in Italy or elsewhere and the method used is entirely up to the maker.
  • IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica or "Indication of Typical Geography"); the grapes must come from the region in which the wine is produced.
  • DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata or "Controlled Designation of Origin"); the wine producer follows strict techniques of wine production and storage; Italy has roughly 330 DOCs.
  • DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita or "Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin"); these wines take DOC a step further, and must be tasted by a government official before receiving this label status.

Wine Tasting at a Roman Dream Deli

Salumeria Roscioli is one of Italy's top five wine bars and our exclusive private wine tasting lets you choose from three great menus for an unforgettable gourmet experience in the Eternal City!

While you are deliberating between regions and DOC labels, remember that while many of the DOC/DOCG wines are of high quality, the classification system is strictly an indicator of adherence to a specific wine-making method – these letters do not necessarily guarantee a wine's quality. Some of the more creative winemakers choose to go outside of the box, foregoing the DOC/DOCG status and making phenomenal wines.

Not sure which wine to pair with what for this holiday season? Here are a few simple suggestions for readily available wines to star at your holiday table:

REDS: If you are serving turkey or poultry, try Barbera from the North, which also compliments roasted vegetables. If you are going for red meat, Brunello di Montalcino, hailing from central Tuscany and considered one of the kings of Italian wines, stands up beautifully to Christmas roasts and hearty vegetables.

WHITES: For those who enjoy whites and are serving poultry, try Gavi or Soave, both northern Italian wines. Pinot grigio, also a northern wine, pairs nicely with pork, ham or cured salumi that you might be planning on serving as an antipasto.

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