One of the biggest challenges for visitors to Italy is usually trying to understand Italian wine labels. Yes, it can be daunting task for the uninitiated, but after learning a few simple rules, the whole endeavor becomes much more potable...
Classification All Italian wines are classified according to their designation or denomination. It is a way to help guarantee to the consumer what type of wine to expect in the bottle. I like to think of these designations as concentric circles.
The smallest circle would be DOCG Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. These wines are identifed by a purplish tag placed on the cap of the bottle. DOCG controlled wines have very strict requirements which range from how densely the vines can be planted, to how much alcohol is in the wine, to aging requirements, color, fragrance, and of course, which grapes to use in each wine. The wine must also be produced from grape to bottle within a very specific zone, and the bottles are counted and analyzed by government officials. These wines typically carry a heavier price tag due to the costs of production. This is not a guarantee that it will be an amazing wine - it is only a guarantee that the winemaker followed the specific rules of vinification during the winemaking process! Here are a few examples:
- Torgiano Rosso Riserva DOCG must contain 50-70% Sangiovese, then can contain up to 15-30% Canaiolo, or also other specific grapes up to 10%. It must be aged for a minimum of 3 years before it's release. Must be produced entirely in the Torgiano DOCG Zone.
- Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG must contain only 100% Sagrantino grape, can be dry or sweet (passito), must be aged for 30 months, of which 12 in oak barrels. Must be produced entirely in the Montefalco DOCG zone.
- Barbaresco DOCGmust contain only 100% Nebbiolo grape, must be aged for 26 months, of which 9 in oak barrels, there are also many laws about the altitude and type of soil, ect. Must be produced entirely in the Barbaresco DOCG zone.
The next circle is DOC Denominazione di Origine Controllata. These wines can be identified by the light green tag on the bottle. In the DOC areas, we widen our range a little bit. The rules always vary by wine zone, but we will see a little more elasticity in the grape blends allowed and the production zones are generally much larger than those of the DOCG. A few examples:
- Grillo di Salaparuta DOC minimum 60% grillo, with the remaining 40% to be any white grape authorized by the province of Trapani, except Trebbiano Toscano!
- Primitivo di Manduria usually 100% primitivo (fun fact: this grape is almost identical to California Red Zinfandel) the normal DOC can be released in March following the harvest, while the Riserva DOC must be first aged 24 months
Widening our circle ever further, we come to IGP Indicazione Geografica Protetta. (Older wines will have the IGT demonination) When we see the IGP label, instead of specific wine zones, we will usually see the idenfication of the region. For example we would not see Orvieto IGP, but rather Umbria IGP, as the grapes for the production of these designated wines can generally come from anywhere in the region, not just a specific wine area or vineyard. Many people wrongly think that wines carrying the IGP label are going to be cheaper, but in fact, many wineries use the freedom of the IGP labels to create wines otherwise not allowed in their designation - not just box wines to use up miscellaneous grapes! The most famous example of this are the Super Tuscans. These wines were created by vintners who "broke the laws" of the Chianti Classico DOCG designation, and in doing so, created world-class wines.
What I always tell people to do is to try to just pick a region and stick with it for awhile to understand the wines. Not all Montefalco Rossos are created equal - try out different wineries to see what you like! Also, get to know your grapes: know that if you are going to Friuli Venezia Giulia, you will be drinking wines made with the Refosco, Ribolla Gialla, Tocai or Schioppettino grapes. If you are in Le Marche, you will look for Verdicchio, Sangiovese, Montepulciano and Lacrima.
Names Like all wines, winemakers create individual original names for their wines, but what the wine actually is, is always on the label as well.
For instance, if you look at the wine bottle above to the left, you will see the name of the winery Pasetti, the creative name of the wine Testarossa, and what the wine actually is Montepulciano (the grape) d'Abruzzo (from Abruzzo), and the DOC denomination.
On the bottle above to the right, we first see the creative name of the wine Stella Tullie, then what the wine is Moscato (grape), the Puglia IGT denomination, and the name of the winery Michele Calò & Figli.
Pairing Think about what you will be eating. You don't have to go crazy with pairing a different wine with every course - Italians don't drink that way. However, they do pair local food with local wine, which is why everyone always says that the wine tastes different when they get back home. Well, it's probably not that the wine didn't ship well, it's more likely that you are trying to drink a heavy Amarone di Valpolicella (from the mountains of the Veneto) with a light, summery dish, where maybe a Vermentino from Liguria would be more appropriate.
Aging Not all wines are meant to be aged. I repeat. Not all wines are meant to be aged (or decanted, for that matter). Most wines produced in Italy are meant to be drunk young, meaning within the year of production (true for many (but not all!) whites), or within 3-5 years of production for the reds. This depends on how the wine was made and mostly, by the tannins in the wine. Tannins are natural polyphenols contained in the skins of grapes and the oak in wine barrels that help to naturally preserve the wine. Tannins are also that thing that gives you cottonmouth if you drink a wine that is meant to be aged, too young. Since most white wines are not fermented with their skins or aged in barrels, they generally contain fewer tannins, and therefore do not age well. The most tannic indigenous red grapes that we find in Italy are Nebbiolo and Sagrantino. These wines need to stay in the bottle for a many years (5-20+) to let their tannins soften and give you the fullest expression of the wine.
Sulfites All wines contain sulfites. I repeat. All wines contain sulfites. Sulfites are a naturally occuring preservative that are a byproduct of the grape fermentation process. Here is the problem: there are usually not enough naturally occuring sulfites to preserve the wine and keep it from turning to vinegar. Since white wines already contain fewer tannins (natural preservative), winemakers generally have to add more sulfites to these wines. Good winemakers know how to make quality wines with the least quantity of added sulfites. Unfortunatley there is no labelling law (though there should be!) as to how many sulfites have been added to the wine. Mass produced cheap wines (and I'm talking about quality, not price) are generally loaded with sulfites to preserve the wine (for millenia) so it can be shipped around the world, and that is what causes those headaches - basically an overdose of sulfites!
Bollicine: Prosecco vs. Spumante vs. Frizzante Ha! Ha! Ha! This always throws everybody. Ok... Prosecco is a wine zone, like Barolo or Chianti or Torgiano. It has both DOC and DOCG demoninations and it produced mainly from the Glera grape. It can be a still wine, fermo (very rare), or a sparkling wine: spumante or frizzante.
Spumante is an Italian sparkling wine in which the bubbles, or CO2, are produced naturally through secondary fermentations. There are 2 methods: Metodo Classico/Champenoise (Champagne Method- meaning the 2nd fermentation takes place in the bottles) or Metodo Martinotti (Charmat - meaning that the 2nd fermentation takes place in steel tanks).
Other famous Spumante, other than Proscecco Spumante are Trento Spumante, Franciacorte Spumante and Asti Spumante, which is typically sweet.
Vino Frizzante is typically cheap wine (as in quality and price) in which the carbon dioxide is added artificially. It is what you will usually be served in bars if you order a Prosecco, or what is added as a mixer to Italians cocktails such as the iconic Spritz.
Lambrusco is a sparkling red wine from the Emilia Romagna region, typically made in the Charmat Spumante method.
A final note: Italians NEVER drink wine without food. First comes the food, then the wine, always together.