Wines of Italy

Italian Flag

In Italy, wine with food is a way of life. Italians have been making wine for thousands of years, and know a thing or two about enjoying it. There's nothing quite like a loud Italian dinner with great food and friends, where everyone is slightly more animated than usual from the four glasses (each) of Chianti.

There are also great practical advantages to Italian wine, mostly due to the popularity and abundance of good Italian restaurants in the United States. What else but Italian wine for your Italian dinner?

Wine quality in Italy has improved dramatically over the last century or so, when Italians decided to export competitive fine wine. In the past, the focus was on making a whole lot of wine from whatever was available so the entire family can get drunk and argue loudly at dinner, so the wine was relatively unremarkable (with exceptions, of course). Modern Chianti is much bolder and zestier than old Chianti (the blend proportions have changed: it used to be nearly a third white wine; now it is almost entirely red Sangiovese), because of the modern focus on really getting quality from the grapes instead of just making a whole lot of wine.

Italian Wine Labels

Compared to France and Germany, which make sense after a while, deciphering an Italian label is black magic. Italian wines may be labelled in several different ways, instead of the region-first rule that dominates most of Europe.

First, like the rest of Europe, Italian wines may be labelled by the region they come from. For example, Chianti and Soave are named by the region.

The wines may also be labelled by the grape variety. Barbera and Pinot Grigio are grape varieties, and you may see wine labelled as such. Sometimes you will also see a region designation appended, like d'Asti or di Montalcino (the d' and di mean "from").

The wine may also be labelled by a traditional name, which tells you absolutely nothing. You may see these labelled as "Est! Est! Est!" or "Vino Nobile" because that's what people have been calling it for hundreds of years. There are often great stories about how these names came to be, but every winemaker tells a completely different version, and likely none of them are true. For example, the story behind "Est! Est!! Est!!!" that I was told involved some high-ranking church official who was traveling through the area and who instructed his servant to scout out the taverns with the best wine, with instructions to chalk "Est" ("this") on the tavern with the best wine. But apparently one tavern in Montefiascone had such good wine that the servant wrote "Est! Est!! Est!!!" (as a single Est was insufficient) and the name stuck (and said church official spent the rest of his days in Montefiascone drinking the wine). Such are the stories behind Italian wines.

You can also find wines with trademarked names, like "Rubesco" or "Summus." These also mean absolutely nothing except that some marketing weenie thought it sounded good. Unlike the traditionally-named wines, they haven't been around as long (and thus aren't as cool) and can be used by only one producer.

On top of all this, there are the regulatory designations, which can apply to any of the labelling types above. The regulatory designation is often the only mark of sanity on the label, but even that doesn't help much. The possible designations are:

Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG)
This is the top designation; it means that the wine was made using appropriately traditional methods and appropriately traditional grapes (for weak definitions of traditional; current Chianti is quite unlike the Chianti of a hundred years ago). DOCG wines must also pass a taste test by the government regulators.
Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC)
This means that the wine is basically what it claims to be, assuming you can decipher the label. The wine must be produced in the usual manner using the usual grapes and methods that are appropriate to the wine and region.
Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT)
This is the designation for quality wine that isn't DOC or DOCG, usually because of the use of nontraditional methods or grapes. A region is named somewhere.
Vino da Tavola
This is the lowest grade table wine, with no interesting designations whatsoever.
Vino Spumante (Aromatico) di Qualita
This unusual designation is used for sparkling wines where secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle. The "Aromatic" wines (I am told this includes moscato, malvasia, and brachetto) require at least one month, the others at least 9. VSQ/VSAQ is only used if the wine does not qualify as DOC/DOCG, typically due to nontraditional grapes or grapes sourced outside traditional zones (as in the case of VSAQ Prosecco)

The government regulatory seal (usually around the neck, going over the cork) on the bottles of DOCG wine is actually color-coded. Green is for white wine, red is for red wine, and pink is for sparkling.

You might also see something like VQPRD on a bottle. This stands for Vino di Qualita Prodotto in Regione Determinata (Quality Wine Produced in Determined Region) and is a EU labeling thing roughly corresponding with AOC/DOC/DOCG.

Grape Varieties

Italy grows varietals that are grown nowhere else (well, almost nowhere, although Sangiovese has become fashionable among New World winemakers wanting to do Something Different) in the world.

  • Nebbiolo (in Barolo, Barbaresco, and elsewhere in Piedmont)
  • Sangiovese (Chianti, "Super Tuscans" and others)
  • Aglianico
  • Barbera (Barbera d'Asti and others)
  • Dolcetto
  • Malvasia
  • Montepulciano (not to be confused with Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, which is actually Sangiovese)
  • Moscato (which the French grow as Muscat)
  • Tocai Friulano
  • Trebbiano (all over the place, and in balsamic vinegar)

Don't concern yourself too much with these, as you'll be buying by label name anyway. The two most interesting ones are Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, which are used to make good red wine.

Wine Regions

Italy has many wine-growing regions, but three areas stand out for producing the finest wines of Italy.

The region of Tuscany (Toscana), around the city of Florence (Firenze), is famous for producing red wines, primarily from the Sangiovese grape. The most famous wine from Tuscany is the most famous wine from all Italy: Chianti. You will also hear of other famous Tuscan wines, including Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Carmignano. There are also the non-traditional "Super-Tuscans," bold experimental red wines that are often highly regarded (Super Tuscans are merely IGT on the label because they aren't traditional, but can beat DOC in quality).

The region of Piedmont, in Northern Italy close to the French border, produces the greatest variety of fine wine in Italy. This is where the red Barolo and Barbaresco come from, as well as the sparkling Asti.

Lastly, the regions around Venice (Venezia/Veneto) are well known for producing white wines, including Soave and Pinot Grigio.

The Wine

What follows is a very non-exhaustive list of the more common types of Italian wine you're likely to encounter.

Chianti (Tuscany)
Chianti is a Sangiovese-based red wine and is easily the best known wine of Italy. The region of Chianti is broken down into several subregions; the best known are Chianti Classico (supposedly the best and most traditional) and Chianti Rufina. The winemaker's consortium in Chianti uses a black rooster sign as a symbol of quality, so you should look for it. Chianti that is labelled as "Reserva" must have been aged at least three years.
Brunello di Montalcino (Tuscany)
Brunello is a Sangiovese variant that is grown in Montalcino. This wine must be aged a full four years to qualify (five for Reserva).
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (Tuscany)
This "Noble Wine of Montelpulciano" is a blend of several grapes, of which Sangiovese is dominant.
Barolo (Piedmont)
This wine, made entirely from Nebbiolo, is a very rich and complex red wine, if occasionally too tannic and astringent. The Barolo region is tiny.
Barbaresco (Piedmont)
More Nebbiolo-based wine, and a bit more balanced and harmonious than Barolo. The Barbaresco region is also tiny.
Moscato d'Asti (Piedmont)
This is a very light (6% alcohol), slightly effervescent white wine from the Asti region, made from Moscato grapes. It's more a fun party wine than a stern and serious wine. I've been using this as a "gateway wine" for people who claim to not like wine; invariably, they like this one and that gets them started on the path to oenophilia.
Asti (Piedmont)
This is sparkling wine from Asti made from Moscato. It is made sweeter than French Champagne. You may also see this called Asti Spumante or just Spumante
Soave (Veneto)
Created in Venice (well, near Venice) from Trebbiano and other grapes, this white wine has a more floral fragrance and is one of the most popular Italian export wines.
Pinot Grigio (mostly Northern Italy)
This varietal produces a light, dry white wine. It is also known as Pinot Gris, and is widely grown outside Italy (especially California) because it has a cool name.
Barbera (mostly Piedmont and Lombardy)
A medium body, fruity red wine
Super-Tuscan (Tuscany)
This is nontraditional red wine made in a more international style (bigger and more forward), often from a blend of several varieties including Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. While some of these wines are of top international quality, they cannot qualify for DOC or DOCG designation because they operate outside the rules.

Red Wines

Red Banfi, Chianti Classico Riserva 2000 (DOCG Chicanti Classico)
29 June 2007 Rich and spicy, with leather, tobacco, and tar notes and firm tannin. Big and very smooth.
$17.50 / bottle
Red Castello Banfi, Chianti Classico Riserva 1998 (DOCG Chianti Classico)
27 March 2002 Bold fruit impression followed with a strong spicy flavor. Very strong and long finish, with moderate astringency. Very dry. Has wood flavor closer to incense than oak. Good.
$16 / bottle
Red Castello Banfi, Col di Sasso Toscana 1999 (IGT Tuscany)
27 March 2002 Fruity and spicy, somewhere between merlot and cabernet in flavor, but fruitier. Dry, long finish, and rather astringent. Medium body. This is a young wine and is sonewhat soft. Blend is 50/50 sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon.
$10 / bottle
Red Ruffino, "Modus" 2007 (IGT Toscana)
9 June 2011 Powerful and bold fruit with nice chewy tannins. Hints of cherry, currant, incense, and vanilla. Sangiovese/Cabernet/Merlot in 50/25/25 ratio.
$28 / bottle
Red Notalusa, Nero d'Avola 2007 (IGT Sicilia)
7 July 2011 Potent fruity plums and incense. Young peppery tannins with cigar smoke and tobacco on the finish. Feels headier than it is. Like an unsubtle Rhone-varietal wine.
$10 / bottle
Red Gaetano D'Aquino, Valpolicella 2010 (DOC Valpolicella)
8 August 2011 Pleasant potpourri, figs, and tea notes. Slightly stemmy finish. Very smooth and mellow.
$7 / bottle
Red Piccinini, Rosso Toscana 2009 (IGT Toscana)
16 July 2011 Plump fruit with tones of peppers, tobacco, and barbecue smoke. Not terribly sophisticated but very pleasant and easy-drinking.
$6 / bottle
Red A Mano, Primitivo 2006 (IGT Puglia)
16 July 2011 Dark cherries and blackberries with sawdust and vanilla. Robust tannins and a whiff of incense on the finish. Powerful.
$12 / bottle
Red Cantina di Casteggio, Sangue di Guida 2009 (DOC Oltrepo Pavese)
19 July 2011 Sweet cherries, raspberries, and strawberries. Effervescent with no jamminess. Medium-bodied with some tannins on the finish.
$15 / bottle
Red Podere il Palazzino, "La Pieve" Chianti Classico 2000 (DOCG Chianti Classico)
13 April 2004 Dense earthy and vegetal flavors with wood vanilla. Lively on the tongue but not too astringent.
$13 / bottle
Red Cantina Maestra Enrico Serafino, "Diauleri" Nebbiolo d'Alba 2007 (DOC Nebbiolo d'Alba)
09 October 2011 Tart attack with refreshing acidity that turns into softness on the tongue. Light-bodied cherry fruit with hints of roses and jasmine tea, with bits of rustic perfume.
$35 / bottle
Red Bartenura, Valpolicella 2007 (DOC Valpolicella)
26 February 2010 Light fruit with rich incense and rose on the palate.
$15 / bottle
Red Bartenura, Barbera d'Asti 2006 (DOC Barbera d'Asti)
14 April 2009 Big bold fruit with a slightly stemmy finish and hints of licorice. Somewhat heady and minimal tannin and wood.
$11 / bottle
Red Castello di Cesare, Rosso Toscano 2005 (IGT Rosso Toscano)
27 February 2009 Subdued fruit with somewhat murky tannins. Rather undistinguished.
$13 / bottle
Red Aldegheri, "Le Pietre" Santambrogio (IGT Rosso Veronese)
?? Dark crushed peppers over wood incense, with plum, currant, and bell pepper. Rich, smooth, and contemplative claret-style wine.
$15 / bottle
Red Fattoria del Cerro, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 1999 (DOCG Vino Nobile di Montelpulciano)
2004 Rich jammy fruit in spicy incense. Very dry but lively. A dark potpourri of flavor.
$23 / bottle
Red Salcheto, Chianti Colli Senesi 2000 (DOCG Chiant Colli Senesi)
20 November 2004 Deep plum and incense aromas, filled with smoke and barbeque. Moderate to heavy and chewy tannins but still very smooth.
$?? / 375ml
Red Masseria del Pilone, Primitivo di Salento 2000 (IGT Salento)
27 March 2002 Extremely fruity, featuring strong berry flavors. Pleasant but rather simple, and tending toward softness. Long finish.
$8 / bottle
Red Luna di Luna, Merlot Cabernet (60/40) 2001 (IGT Delle Venezie)
2004 Moderately heavy pepper and spice, with faint plump fruit. Rather thin, fleeting, and insubstantial finish.
$10 / bottle
Red Elvio Cogno, Dolcetto d'Alba 2000 (DOC Alba)
27 March 2002 Bold fruity flavor with mint undertones. Dry with ridiculously long finish. Amusing vegetal flavors. Certain to be unusual.
$18 / bottle
Red Michele Chiarlo, "Le Orme" Barbera d'Asti Superiore 2002 (DOC Barbera d'Asti)
14 October 2007 Round fruit, moderate stemmy tannins with light leather and raisin notes.
$12 / bottle
Red Castello di Fonterutoli, "Foggio alla Badiola" 2002 (IGT Toscana)
?? Bloody yet smooth, fragrant woods over ripened grape skin. Soft and well structured.
$15 / bottle
Red Villa Doria, Barolo 1997 (DOCG Barolo)
27 March 2002 Spicy earthy and very floral flavor, like roses and tulips. Long dry finish with oak aftertaste. Very complex. Excellent.
$20 / bottle
Red Tedeschi, "Capitel dei Nicalo" Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2003 (DOC Valipolicella Classico Superiore)
27 March 2008 Dark fruit, with plums and cherries. Mellow smoky flavors of tobacco. Very drying.
$22 / bottle
Red Tommasi Viticoltori, "Vigneto Rafael" Valipolicella Classico Superiore 2000 (DOC Valipolicella Classico Superiore)
2004 Sharp and bloody attack, with tar and leather. Very drying. Moderate finish.
$13 / bottle
Red Riunite, Lambrusco NV (IGT Emilia)
14 May 2010 Fizzy and effervescent with sweet grape, rose, and Robotussin notes. A thirst-quencher.
$6 / bottle

White and Sparkling Wines

White Bollini, Pinot Grigio 2001 (DOC Trentino)
?? Moderate grassy flavor with light citrus fruit. Sharp acid. Pleasant.
$10 / bottle
White Casalfarneto, "Fontevecchia" Verdicchio del Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore 2002 (DOC Verdicchio del Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore)
14 October 2004 Very crisp and clean, with light apple, melon, and apricot flavors . High acid but pleasant.
$13 / bottle
White Ricossa, "Antica Casa" Moscato d'Asti 2009 (DOCG Moscato d'Asti)
2010 Sweet peaches, melons, and effervescent tropical fruit. Very good!
$15 / bottle
White Luisi, Moscato d'Asti 2009 (DOCG Moscato d'Asti)
31 December 2010 Bright and very crisp with fruit citrus and peaches. Sweet but not sticky finish, with light honey flavors.
$14 / bottle
White Rashi, Moscato d'Asti 2005 (DOCG Moscato d'Asti)
12 September 2007 Sweet and fruity nectarine, orange, and honey flavors. Pleasant.
$13 / bottle
White Rashi, Moscato d'Asti 2007 (DOCG Moscato d'Asti)
24 October 2009 Sweet peach and citrus with a slight touch of honey. Minimal effervescence.
$14 / bottle
White Arnaldo Caprai "Grecante" Grechetto del Colli Martani 2006 (DOC Colli Martani)
13 September 2007 Heady and lively tropical flavors. Dry and crisp.
$17 / bottle
White Ruffino, Orvieto Classico 2008 (DOC Orvieto)
25 June 2010 Crisp and acidic, with grapes, citrus, and pears. Short mineral finish.
$10 / bottle
White Lamura, Bianco di Sicilia 2008 (IGT Sicilia)
19 June 2010 Crisp attack with surprisingly plump mouthfeel. Slightly heady citrus and green apples. Made from organic Catarratto grapes.
$10 / bottle
White Fontana Candida, Frascati Superiore Secco 2007 (DOC Frascati)
21 May 2010 Grassy nose with shockingly crisp mouthfeel with strong mineral flavors. Thin fruit.
$9 / bottle
White San Silvestro, "Dulcis" Moscato d'Asti 2006 (DOCG Moscato d'Asti)
?? Pleasantly sweet peachy fruit, otherwise unexceptional.
$11 / bottle
White Frattina, Pinot Grigio 2002 (DOC Lison-Pramaggiore / Veneto)
?? Heavy and woody, with slight citrus tones. Soft texture.
$15 / bottle
White Falesco, Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone 2000 (DOC Montefiascone)
?? Light grassy flavor with tropical fruit giving way instantly to cream. Light.
$9 / bottle
White Castello di Cesare, Bianco Lazio 2007 (IGT Latium Album)
23 October 2009 Straightforward grape and citrus with a hint of honey. Crisp but mellow with a short finish.
$11 / bottle
White Banfi (Vigne Regalia) "Principessa Gavia" Perlante, Gavi 2003 (DOCG Gavi)
20 November 2004 Very bracing acidity, with a lively mouthfeel over melon, apple, peach, and rose.
$16 / bottle
White Risata, Moscato d'Asti NV (DOCG Asti)
23 December 2009 Light fruity peach-melon sweetness with a faint floral taste. Nearly clear and minimal effervescence.
$17 / bottle
White Bartenura, Moscato 2008 (IGT Provincia di Pavia)
13 November 2009 Sweet and effervescent, with a slight hint of peach. Somewhat thin.
$15 / bottle
White Bartenura, Moscato 2006 (IGT Provincia di Pavia)
26 June 2007 Effervescent peach and honey, thin fruit, short finish.
$13 / bottle
White Bartenura, Moscato 2005 (IGT Provincia di Pavia)
31 December 2007 Light and fizzy, faint and simple fruit and moderate sweetness. Short finish.
$12 / bottle
White Bartenura, Moscato d'Asti 2003 (DOCG Asti)
24 July 2004 Light and fizzy, with very sweet peach and apricot with a touch of mineral.
$12 / bottle
White Bartenura, Moscato d'Asti 2001 (DOCG Asti)
2002 Very melony fruit, very sweet, almost syrup in texture. More like a good dessert wine.
$10 / bottle
White Banfi (Vigne Regali) "Principessa Gavia" Perlante, Gavi 2000 (DOCG Gavi)
27 March 2002 Sparkling wine with unusual earthy and herbal flavors. Strong initial fruit impression featuring pineapple, giving way to grape. Off-dry, very pleasant, a good apertif wine.
$17 / bottle
White Pieropan, Soave Classico 2002 (DOC Soave Classico)
5 August 2004 Green apples over a buttery texture and a healthy dash of citrus. Very crisp and clean.
$15 / bottle
White Michele Chiarlo, "Nivole" Moscato d'Asti 2003 (DOCG Moscato d'Asti)
22 May 2004 Syrupy sweet melon with a touch of woodiness. Fat.
$10 / 375ml
White Marchesi di Barolo, "Le Lune" Gavi 2001 (DOCG Gavi)
30 September 2003 Light and herbal, followed by a layer of butter and cream. Grape skins, apple, and starfruit. Very green.
$12.50 / bottle
White La Spinetta, Vigneto Biancospino, Moscato d'Asti 2001 (DOCG Asti)
2003 Extremely light but very sweet. Effervescent sensation and strong honey/melon flavors and low subjective acidity. Like soda, but better.
$13 / bottle
Rose Bartenura, Malvasia (rose) 2009 (IGT Salento)
18 March 2011 Bright and sweet cherries with a hint of peach and a jelly finish. Rather sweet, borderline sticky finish.
$15 / bottle
Sparkling Bartenura, Prosecco Extra Dry NV (VSAQ)
27 May 2011 Fizzy pear jelly with a creamy mouthfeel. Pleasant but undistinguished.
$20 / bottle
Sparkling Cinzano, Prosecco NV (DOC)
26 October 2011 Crisp and refreshing with jelly and pear, with apple and citrus on the finish. Fruity.
$16 / bottle
Sparkling Tenuta Santome, Prosecco Brut NV (DOC Treviso)
2010 Crisp and effervescent citrus with a strong mineral finish.
$14 / bottle
Sparkling Primo V, Prosecco Extra Dry NV
27 February 2010 Bright and off-dry with strong pear flavors backed by a hint of apple. Fun.
$15 / bottle
Sparkling Banfi, Brut (Metodo Traditionale Classico) 1997 (Piedmont, Italy)
1 May 2002 Effervescent, prominent toasty beer-like yeast flavor. Smooth and creamy, with light pear and citrus flavors. High acid, long finish.
$18 / bottle