Wine.com Tasting Room: Italy

In our second Tasting Room, we’re delving head on into Italy.

Though not a large country in land size, Italy kicks some major butt in wine size. Not only is Italy one of the largest producers of wine in the world, it also is one of the most diverse. The country sports 20 different wine regions, each named by district. Vineyards are planted in just about every corner of the country – from the Alps in the north to the sunny tip of the boot. Add hundreds of DOC and DOCGs and numerous indigenous grape varieties, and you have one complex wine nation.

For the Novice…
Most people shy away from wine labels that look completely unfamiliar. Unfortunately, most Italian wine labels are just that – unfamiliar. So how do you go about decoding Italy? It’s good to know a few key regions and their grapes, as well as the laws that regulate them.
First, let’s talk about the label. Italian wine labels can be quite confusing due to the fact that they have no uniformity. In France you see region, in the US you see grape, in Italy… well, you see both. Sometimes the label will list the region, other times just the producer and occasionally the grape AND the region together. Without knowing what to look for, it’s hard to know what you’re getting. We want to give you a little cheat sheet for decoding Italy. Here, we list the regions and grapes and what you see on the label and what it means.

Tuscany (Toscana)
Tuscany is one of the more famous regions in Italy. The primary grape of Tuscany is Sangiovese. When you see red wines from Tuscany, you MOST LIKELY are drinking a wine based on Sangiovese. Within Tuscany are smaller sub-regions, some with grape specialties. They are:
Chianti (red): Chianti is a DOCG, which means it is regulated by the government. Within Chianti there are other sub-regions.
Brunello di Montalcino (red): Brunello is the grape (a clone of Sangiovese), Montalcino is the sub-region within Tuscany. It’s a collectible wine worthy of the cellar. Try Rosso di Montalcino for a less-expensive and more youthful wine.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano: Vino Nobile (the noble grape, which is Sangiovese) is the grape, Montepulciano is the sub-region of Tuscany (NOTE that in Abruzzo, Montepulciano is a GRAPE).
Super Tuscans: For Super Tuscan wines, you may see a grape or a region like Maremma or Bolgheri on the label. You will most likely see IGT instead of DOC or DOCG. This is because Super Tuscan wines came about by not following the DOC and DOCG rules, so they were labeled with IGT (see more on Italian Wine Labels).

Piedmont
A region in the north that is know for three reds: Barolo, Barber and Dolcetto, as well as the ever popular Moscato.
Barolo and Barbaresco: Both are regions producing big, bold, expensive and age-worthy wines from the Nebbiolo grape.
Barbera and Dolcetto: Both are grapes producing light-bodied, reasonably priced wines in Alba (Barbera d’Alba; Dolcetto d’Alba) and Asti (Barbera d’Asti; Dolcetto d’Asti).
Moscato: All the rage, Moscato makes a lightly sweet, lightly sparkling wine with low alcohol levels.

Trentino Alto Adige
 If you see this region on a label, you’re in for a delicious white wine (most likely). Some of the best Pinot Grigio are from this area.

Prosecco
A region and a grape, this is THE sparkling wine of Italy

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo
Montepulciano (grape) and Abruzzo (region) make a rustic yet fruit-driven wine from central Italy.

Primitivo
Genetically the SAME grape as Zinfandel here in the US, Primitivo is usually from the Puglia region down near Italy’s boot.

Soave and Orvieto
Two delicious white wines from indigenous varieties in central Italy.

For the Enthusiast…
Though small in land mass, Italy remains a giant in the wine world. With 20 wine regions and numerous indigenous varieties, diversity is a key theme through the country. While that means Italy can be confusing when it comes to wine, it also means there is a little something for everyone beyond Chianti and Pinot Grigio. Our Enthusiast list this month highlights the hidden gems – wines slightly off the beaten path – that are some of our favorites, yet often overlooked due to their obscurity.

Italy is full of what we call indigenous varieties, which means grapes that are local to Italy, species that originated in the country and have found a “home” there. We throw that term, “indigenous variety,” around when we’re talking about non-international grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon is also indigenous somewhere, but since it’s grown just about everywhere else, we call it an international variety.

Italy is quite unique in the vast number of indigenous varieties that are grown and not only consumed within the country, but also commercially sold. Falanghina is not in Australia yet. Aglianico has not picked up in California and I doubt you’ll be seeing Nero d’Avola pop up in South Africa. Countries have tried to grow Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, and while they have had some success, these grapes are just not destined to become international variety superstars. This makes Italy a very special place in the wine world.

There are a few generalities we could throw at indigenous varieties in Italy. For whites, most are crisp, with excellent acidity, and many have a slight hint of a “nutty” character, like almonds or roasted nuts. You may also note a lovely minerality flowing through Italian white wines. For reds, excellent acidity remains a theme, as well as red fruits, dusty tannins and an earth-driven character that is distinctive. That said, both white and red wines vary greatly due to extremely diverse climates, soils and grape make-up. Our selection of Italian gems off-the-beaten-path are meant to show you how Italy truly represents a sense of place.

For the Collector…
Structured and long-lived, the collectible wines of Italy are some of the best in the world. From the highly sought after Super Tuscans to the dust-worthy Barolos to the comeback kid Chianti Classico, we have a delectable list of collectible Italian wines ideal for your cellar. An age-worthy Italian wine has a combination of acid, structure and complexity of flavors. We think most of those wines deliver this harmonious blend. Though the majority could use some age, some of these wines can be drunk and enjoyed now.

We hope you enjoy the wines of this month’s Tasting Room. As always, feel free to let us knwo if you have any questions or would like to learn about a wine subject/region/grape in particular! tastingroom@wine.com