What’s in a name? That which we call a rosé, by any other name would taste as sweet.
Italian wines may be very easy to drink.
They might not however be so easy to understand.
Italy has a complex naming system and more grape varieties (over 2000!) and more wine regions (over 400 officially registered producers!) than anywhere else in the world.
Most Italian wines are traditionally made by small, family-run producers. So rather than having the wines being known just after the winemakers themselves, they are classified in accordance with the location in which they are produced, plus the grapes and blends used.
This helps people select wines they like, even from small winemakers that may not be widely known.
Price alone is not always a good indicator of quality, however there are some ways to understand the Italian wines and pick out your favourite!
Red, white and hues
Italians like to help a man out when choosing Italian wine by obligingly writing on the label if it’s red (‘rosso’), white (‘bianco’) or rosé (also helpful, it’s known as rosé).
But don’t let colours fool you – the Sangiovese, for instance, that makes wines such as Tuscany’s famous Chianti Classico is typically quite orange in colour and tends to fade as it is aged. Thus, bold red flavours may actually have more browny-orange tonalities.
Other wines may be marked as ‘frizzante’, which means lightly sparkling wine, including the ‘Spumante’ that comes in a traditional bulbed bottle with a champagne-esque cork, like the Prosecco version made towards in the north. Spumante is then either ‘dolce’ or ‘brut’ , being sweet or dry.
Location. Location. Location.
Italians are very specific about what classifies as a certain type of wine. Growing on one side of the hill may be classified as one wine type, on the other side may be a completely different kind – even if it’s the same grape variety.
Take for instance the Tuscany wines, Brunello di Montalcino, Nobile di Montepuliano and Chiant and Chianti Classico wines. They are all made from Sangiovese grapes.
Brunello, from (“di”) Montalcino, Nobile made in Montepulciano, and Chianti and Chianti Classico wines from the Chianti region all have distinct characteristics, even though they are kilometres apart.
This is owing to variations in the “microclimates”, meaning that sun exposure, the slope of the land, the terrain, winds and more can have a great affect on the wines produced. Growing on the western or southern slopes and you have great sun exposure and nice sea breezes that facilitate complexity and boldness in the resulting wines. Growing on the northern slopes usually means a slower ripening process that will mean less complexity in the finished result.
If you’re good at geography (or the wine producers have very helpfully included a little map on the label), keep in mind that very, very generally Italian wines from the top of the ‘boot’ are lighter and crisper due to the cooler climate. Further down the toe you go, it is hotter and the wines produced are more likely to be stronger and bolder.
Time for a Wine
Obviously you can look at the year and see how old a wine is.
But going back to Montalcino, take 100% Sangiovese grapes then after harvest, place them under an extensive maceration period to give that big red colour and tannic flavour. Store the resulting liquid in oak barrels. If the wine is taken out after six months, bottled and kept for another 6 months, it is possible to label the wine Rosso di Montalcino (Red from Montalcino, being that it is, well, a red from Montalcino). Alternatively, the wine can be kept in the barrel for at least three years (two in large Slovenian oak barrels known as ‘botte’ and possibly also a few months in a smaller French barrique) before being bottled. Keeping it in the bottle for at least another four months, then and only then – some 4 years or 50 months since harvest – the wine be labelled as a Brunello di Montalcino. However, if you’re not in a rush, you can also store some of the bottles for another year and then release the ‘Riserva’ version.
Now, if the Sangiovese grapes are grown 35 kilometres away on the slopes surrounding Montepulciano, blended with up to 30% of grapes including Canaiolo Nero, aged in oak for one year and then bottled, it is known as Rosso di Montepulciano. Leave it an extra year in the barrel and you have Nobile di Montepulicano. Another year and it’s the Riserva.
But travel a little further down the road and you enter into the Chianti region, where the blending and aging can even be the same, but the names cannot.
And wine producers who try to be tricky about their labelling face up to 6 years in prison for commercial fraud.
Confused yet? It’s enough to turn a person to drink!
A Grape or a Gripe to Pick
If you like Chianti wine, for instance, then chances are good that you will like most wines produced from Sangiovese grapes in other areas too.
This isn’t always an easy way to go however given the 400 different wine varieties in Italy, especially when you have to remember if it were the Lambrusco Maestri or Lambrusco Marani you enjoyed… or was it Lambrusco di Fiorano or maybe Lambrusca di Alessandria? Then there’s Lambrusca Vittona, Lambruschetto, Lambrusco Barghi, Lambrusco Montericco, Lambrusco Oliva, Lambrusco Salamino, Lambrusco di Sorbara, Lambrusco Grasparossa and who could forget, Lambrusco Viadanese?!
And remember our Nobile di Montepulciano produced in Montepulciano in Tuscany? There’s also the Montepulciano grape that makes Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, in Abruzzo.
IGT, DOC, DOCG…OMG!!!
Italy has a very helpful classification system to help identify quality production and blending for all Italian wines.
Firstly, there is Vino da Tavola – table wine. This is usually produced for daily family consumption or as the house wine for restaurants. There are not a lot of rules governing blending and grape types, but does that not necessarily mean it’s not good to drink.
Indeed, some of Italy’s most famous SuperTuscan wines were classified thus until the newest denomination was created just for them, I.G.T. (Indicazione Geografica Tipica). These wines do not follow the classic guidelines listed below. These are table wines that are made typical to the production zone. The more boutique versions can cost much more than the below D.O.C.G.
D.O.C. (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) wines are governed by strict regulations on everything from irrigation to harvest, blending and bottling designed to preserve historic character and quality of the wines. Sulphurs are added in only once during the initial fermentation during which they are mostly burnt off, meaning they are good for people with sulphur allergies too.
The most strict classification is D.O.C.G. (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita). This is a top level of classification for top-quality blends. To be declared D.O.C.G., the wine must undergo strict tests and checks on its production process by a regulatory board that determines if the wine and its maker adheres to all the regulations.
You can spot a D.O.C. or D.O.C.G. wine by a paper ring around the neck that proves it has been government-approved and that all the taxes have been paid. Each wine maker must declare at the beginning of the season how many litres of wine they intend to produce. They are then allocated the number of these tags accordingly. If at the end of the season, they produce more wine than expected, you may find excess D.O.C.G. wine sold cheaper in unmarked bottles direct from the winery or in wine stores (an ‘Enotecca’).
But all this is not the same as actually enjoying a wine tasting immersed in the Tuscan hillside.
Enjoy tastings of traditional Tuscany products at Tuscan villa estates owned by historic Tuscan families on the Taste of Tuscany wine tour. Walk through the Tuscan countryside and visit a famous Tuscan villa on the Perfect Morning in Tuscany small-group walking tour. Expand your Tuscan horizons on the small-group Best of Tuscany tour visiting Siena, San Gimignano and Monteriggioni too, including lunch and wine tasting at an award-winning wine estate.