A while back, my husband, the Italophile, requested that I write about Italian wine labels. He figured that it would be a good chance for him to learn more about Italian wines, and it would force me to dive deeper into the subject and strengthen my weakest area of wine knowledge. I thought it was a great idea, but procrastination set in and I have been avoiding the subject since his suggestion about two months ago. I’ll be the first to admit it – Italian wine laws are more than a bit daunting. In addition to being in a foreign language, the label style changes from the north to the south, they grow grapes there not seen anywhere else on the globe, not to mention that occasionally the same term will be used as a grape and a region in different areas. I’m not going to let Italian wine labels get the best of me…. it’s time to jump back in and figure these wines out.
First off, it’s no wonder that Italian wine laws are loosely correlated throughout the country – Italy was a bunch of warring provinces until 1861, national wine laws didn’t come about until 1963, and only about 10% of the wine produced in Italy ever makes it out of Italy. As with many things Italian, local tradition is more important than national regulation. As Italy begrudgingly enters the 21st century, producers are refining Italian wine laws, tweaking them to better represent the local vinoscape. The good news is that the wine labels are gradually becoming more consistent and easier to understand. The bad news is that as I type this, the information is becoming obsolete, as new regulations come to pass.
With the wine laws that have been passed in 1963 and extensively refined in 1980, here is a rough breakdown of Italian wine classification. The wines fall into a four-tier quality scale as follows:
Vino da tavola – Table wine.
The label will only indicate the color (rosso or bianco) and the producer. Prior to 1996, some of the most sought after wines of Italy were labeled as Vino da tavola because the local wine laws were not compatible with the wines being made. More recently though, little vino da tavola is exported, as most of it is local, everyday, bulk wine.
Indicazione geographica tipica (IGT) – Indicative of the growing area
This is a broad sweeping classification that includes many fine wine producers that do not feel that the restrictions of the higher classifications suit the wines that they wish to make. The classification of IGT does not indicate inferior quality to DOC or DOCG wines (the two highest classifications of Italian wines, see below), but more a producer’s desire not to conform to wine laws.
Do not assume that these wines will be cheaper than ‘higher’ classified wines, because some of the priciest wines in Italy are IGT. But at the same time some reasonably priced, everyday-drinking wines are sold as IGT. Like I said, Italian wine is a bit flummoxing.
For IGT to appear on a label, the wine must come from an officially sanctioned wine growing area, but cannot claim origination in any of the zones or villages within the wine region.
Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) – Denomination of Origin
Wines labeled as DOC are made from approved grape varieties, produced within specific geographic regions. There are around 250 DOC zones in Italy, and Denominazione di origine controllata will appear on the label below the name of the zone. The specific regulations of the DOC zone are variable, some control length of aging, some control vinification method, but all regulate the permitted grape types, maximum allowable yield, and total production.
Denominazione di origine controllata e garantita (DOCG) - Guaranteed Denomination of Origin
This is the highest distinction available within Italian wine, but it doesn’t necessarily represent the highest priced wines, as is often the case. However it is the easiest to visually identify, as an official, numbered tag is placed on top of the capsule (green for white wines, purple for reds), either over the top of the bottle, or around the neck.
DOCG wines are the most stringently regulated within the Italian wine market, and the most representative of the finest wines historically made in that region with traditional grapes. There are around 35 DOCG regions throughout Italy.
Though not the most expensive wines, DOCG wines can be thought of as the most traditional wines. The price scale of DOCG wines is probably the most expansive of any country’s highest classification ranging from the ten dollar range up into the several hundred dollar range.
Sadly, this is only the very tip of the iceberg that is Italian wine law. I think this will have to continue tomorrow with more discussion of regions and quality indicators. While Italian wine is delicious with food, its regulation is awfully hard to swallow!