Let’s set the foundation of understanding in the learning of Italian Wine. These two concepts will help us understand why wine is the way it is in Italy, and how to get the mores pleasure from it.
1. PLACE- not - GRAPE
Perhaps the most important thing to remember in the understanding of Italian wine is it’s all about the place it comes from. (i.e.Barolo), rather than emphasis on the primary grape (Nebbiolo).
In general, the American thought process on wine is grape first- place second.
Italian wine producers make assumptions that wine drinkers know the grape of Barolo is Nebbiolo. Barolo is a wine recognized around the world as a great wine. They don’t have to tell the world via a label, what the grape is because the place it comes from (Barolo) is more important.
Even if the grape is the emphasis, it mentions the area (Langhe) where the grapes were grown (Langhe- Nebbiolo). The region rules over the grape! More details on Nebbiolo to come later inside the site.
Another thing you will see on many labels is the grape and the place.
For example, Barbera d’ Alba. This is the Barbara grape from the Alba area in the Piedmont region.
Most of the time, the d’ means- from or of the place that follows. (Alba in this example.)
There are a few exceptions, but 99% of the time Barbera d’ Alba, means Barbera grapes from Alba, the place.
Don’t get caught up in trying to memorize all of the over 700 different grape varietals in Italy. I will help you with the primary ones and then you can go where your heart takes you. You don’t have to memorize all the wine production regions either, but you might find you gravitate to a particular region more often due to the good experiences you had previously of that place.
Now don’t forget- Italian wines are label by the geographical place they come from rather than the grape that is used in the wine. If the grape is mentioned prominently on the label, it is followed by the place from which it was produced.
To further emphasis the important of geographical regions in Italian wine, we need to discuss the wine laws of Italy. Don’t worry, I will make it short and sweet, and you don’t have to pronounce them.
These are the 2 main governing wine laws of Italy-
Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita or DOCG.
Denominazione di Origine Controllata, or DOC-
There are 329 DOC wine areas and 77 DOCG. (Don't worry, we are not going to study all of them.) They are all geographically specific. Each area or region where grapes are grown, and the wine is made, has a guarantee to notate the origin of the wine in a sub-region and the wine production abides by the production laws within that particular DOC or DOCG
Chianti Classico is an example of a DOCG.
This can be a bit confusing but use the designations as a signal of authenticity of the wine from that place. DOCG has only been in existence since 1980 so there are some extra “quality” requirements in place. You don’t need to know what the different laws are in the DOCG either, just that they are there for a purpose.
If you are not sure if the wine is under a particular law, it is always printed somewhere on the label of the wine.
Anything that does not fall into the either of the DOC or DOCG requirements they can notate as IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) or IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica).
This lets the consumer know the wine in that bottle is from Italy even though it doesn’t come from a DOC or DOCG area.
One might ask, why all this government intervention and wine laws like DOC or DOCG?
It actually benefits the consumer, a great deal. The Italian wine industry sets the standards for their particular DOC or DOCG. Things like how much wine can be made or how much irrigation is permitted, if any, etc.
There are rules in place that let the consumer know that the wine contains the sanctioned grape(s) juice from that region and not from another region or country.
That it fulfills the standards of quality and consistency. That it contains (in Chianti for example) Sangiovese and not 50% Merlot from Piedmont or Pinot Noir from Chile.
You the consumer can know the different brands of Chianti Classico will have their nuances, but because of the DOCG you will be comfortable buying the wine knowing it is still Tuscan Sangiovese and abides by the laws of that DOC or DOCG.
Having said all that about wine laws and the labeling of the wine, one might assume that if the wine is a IGP or IGT, it isn’t as good as the DOC or DOCG wines. That is not true. It is just different. Here is a good example.
Felsina is a terrific producer of Chianti Classico. They have an excellent line of wines.
They have a vineyard known as Fontalloro that lies in two different DOCG regions. (picture of it at the top of this page)
It is half in Chianti Classico and half in Chianti Colli Senesi. The laws won’t allow them to put either region on the label, as the wine contains Sangiovese juice from both regions.
Felsina calls the wine Fontalloro, (after the vineyard) and they give it the IGT classification. The wine is excellent, and worthy of the higher price.
Another good reason for the IGT is it allows the producer the freedom to do whatever the winemaker wants to do, without restrictions of the DOCG or DOC laws.
It could be adding a different grape, or different percentages of grapes, etc.
Perhaps you have heard of “Super Tuscans”? These generally are wines from Tuscany with either Sangiovese and a higher percentage (more than 15%) of Cabernet, or Merlot or Syrah, or a combination of each. It could be just Cabernet & Merlot without the Sangiovese too! The grapes are grown in Tuscany, so it can be labeled IGP Tuscany. They are stronger and have more body than the Chianti, thus the “Super Tuscan” nickname.
The goal of the wine laws is to protect their industry from fraud, and to protect the consumer from random lapses in quality & consistency. Each designation allows the consumer to understand the fundamental aspects of the wine based on the area and the requirements of that area in producing that wine.
A good example of an industry without a unified code or “law” that needs one is the Olive Oil industry. Olive Oil sold as “Italian” olive oil can have oil from other countries, and even be comprised of non-olive oil like canola, creating a smoother, milder taste and reduce the quality of the oil. Hopefully you will get lucky and find 100 % Italian olive oil.
Does this mean my Chianti Classico or any other wine with a DOC or DOCG label will taste the same- year in, year out?
The wines, or in this case, the vines are subject to all the variables of a growing season! Temperature fluctuations and moisture levels are just two of the things that can affect grape development and consequently, the quality of grapes, creating subtle differences in the wine from year to year. A year of less than optimum conditions can affect grape development and thus (for example) make the wine not as fruit forward or maybe more acidic.
Not a good or a bad thing, just different.
Every year is different. That is one of the reasons they put the vintage (year of the harvest) on the bottle label.
You might read about the different vintages from a wine producer to provide context to that vintage for their brand. The wine critics rate the different vintages too. However, general rating of a vintage isn’t a across the board indictment of every producer in the area.
Some wine makers can have a fantastic quality vintage eventhough the consensus of the area was not such great quality.
There are so many variables in making wine, thus each year should have some differences without being totally out of character for the region or area.
Some winemakers may “declassify” their wine in a bad year. If the Barolo was not up to standards, they bottle and label it is either a “rosso” or a grape+ area designation such as “Nebbiolo- Langhe” instead of Barolo.
Not all Grape + area designations on a label are about a bad vintage.
Some DOCG's may have a limit to the amount of grapes that can be harvested.
On a year where there is an abundant harvest, lots of good fruit to make wine, there might be too much grape production for the Barolo DOCG.
They will bottle it under another DOC (Nebbiolo-Langhe).
As delicious as Italian wine is by itself, it is enhanced with the right food, and it can enhance the flavors of the food too!
Generally, Italian wines are more acidic than wines from the Americas. The acids in food combined with the acids of the wine neutralize each other, bringing out more fruit of the wine.
Now this is where the fun kicks in!
Get some cheese, or meats, and nuts and chocolate and open some Italian wine and taste the wine with the different food flavors and notice how the different foods impact the wine, if at all!
It’s not necessarily good or bad, just different.
You don’t have to be an expert to taste the variables of the food with the wine. In my wine appreciation classes everyone is surprised on the differences in the flavor of the wine with the introduction of food.
Anyone can do it. Eat, drink, Eat. drink…. it’s easy to do!
Italian culture is all about food and wine. Usually, the foods of the region match very well with the wines of the same region. The wine and food compatibility are by design and by necessity.
If you are drinking Italian wine without food, you are not getting the full flavor potential the wine can offer.