I think the single most perplexing thing about Italian wine is how it’s named. There is no consistency across the country let alone within regions. In Italy a wine can be named by the place the grapes were grown, eg Chianti; a combination of the grape type and the region, eg Moscato d’Asti; the varietal if the wine is 100% one grape, eg Pinot Grigio; or a proprietary name like Ornellaia. So how do you ever know what you are getting in your bottle of Italian wine?
The short answer – you won’t, unless you learn a lot about Italian wines. The slightly longer answer – there are a few tricks that will help you to discern which type of label you are looking at, but without a baseline knowledge of Italian wines you won’t always be able to figure out what is in the bottle. Can you start to see why I have sort of left Italian wines as a delicious mystery?
Let’s take a look at the four different ways to name a wine, and I’ll share with you my cheats for remembering what I can about the convoluted Italian wine laws.
Typically, if the place name is on a label it means that the wine is from a place of note, often a DOC or DOCG zone. In these instances you will find the words Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) or Denominazione di origine controllata e garantita (DOCG) on the label.
Now that you’ve figured out where the wine is from – what does that mean to you. Well, unfortunately not too much unless you learn what grapes are permissible in which regions, or unless you learn that you really like Orvieto, Valpolicella, or <insert you favorite wine region here> wines. The place name will simply tell you where the wine is from and what style it is made in. It’s up to you to do the leg work of tasting all the regions and figuring out which you like best.
In addition to the place name you may find a whole host of other terminology on the label, indicating the style of that DOC or DOCG zone.
Classico – indicates that the wine is from the heart of that region
Secco - the wine is dry
Abbocato - a slightly sweet version
Recioto - made from semi-dry grapes, typically show concentrated, raisinated flavors
Riserva - the wine is aged longer
Superiore - higher alcohol (at least 1% higher than the norm), not an indication of superior quality
Frizzante - lightly sparkling
Spumante - sparkling
With a quick Italian lesson, you can actually learn more about the style of the wine from the DOC or DOCG name when it’s modified with these terms. There is a whole lot more Italian terminology on the labels, but little of it will tell you much about the wine, so we’ll stick with the short list for now.
Combo Grape and Place Name
This label style give you a little more info, and is fairly easy to spot. It always comes in the format of grape name di place name. In the instance of a place name beginning with a vowel (which there seem to be an inordinate number of wine regions beginning with the letter ‘A’), the di is shortened to d’.
From these label types you learn the grape the wine is made from and the wine region of origin. So if you love Barbera, try both a Barbera d’Alba and a Barbera d’Asti and see which region you like better.
There is one hiccup in this label type, and it is the bane of my organizational existence - the Montepulciano wines. If you have been in an Italian wine aisle, you have no doubt seen Montepulciano on the occasional wine label, but is a grape name or a place name?
Well, the confusing answer is both!! In the case of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, the grape is Vino Nobile (a local name for Sangiovese) and the place is Montepulciano (a small town southeast of Florence). In the case of Montepulciano d’Abruzzi, the grape is Montepulciano (a spicy red grape grown throughout Italy) and the place is Abruzzi (a region on Italy’s Adriatic Coast). Confounded Italians!
Most of the wines labeled with only the name of the grape and the region come from the Trentino Alto-Adige and Fruili regions in the Northeast of Italy, and it’s rather easy to figure out what you are getting, as it is boldly stamped across the label. Here you find Pinot Grigio, Pinot Biano, Chardonnay and some Pinot Nero (aka Pinot Noir) labeled as such.
These are the wines that typically carry some of the heftiest price tags of the Italian wine market, and they also represent the producers that do not follow local tradition or local wine law. Often the bottles will be classified as Indicazione geographica tipica (IGT) wines, and often the wines will be labeled as Super Tuscans (read more about Super Tuscans here). The proprietary names include Ornellaia, Sassacaia, Tignanello, Luce, Serena, and Summus.
These producers have carved out a name for themselves and feel that their proprietary name is all the marketing collateral they need. Proprietary wines are typically more ‘new world’ in style, meaning that they are very fruity, often tannic, and often pleasing to the American wine-drinker. Regularly the wines are made with non-traditional grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc. Occasionally these wines will be blended with more traditionally Italian grape varieties, like Sangiovese.
This covers the basics of Italian wine laws and labeling, but we have yet to really address any of the wines of Italy. Perhaps the convoluted nature of Italian wine is why I prefer to drink it rather than study it.
Read more about Italy’s wine regions in part 3.