Italian wine: A beginner’s guide

Italian wine
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To appreciate Italian wine, all you have to do is drink it.

But if you want to get a little under the grape skin, whether you’re new to wine or an expert looking to brush up on the fundamentals, bookmark this page as an easy and quick reference guide.

Italian wine brands

Understanding Italian Wine

Italian wines are as classy as they come, and they are not difficult to appreciate. After all, can we expect less from a nation that boasts over 800 varieties of wine grapes and hundreds of years of winemaking experience?

So, if you have a lot of vino importato dall’Italia (wine imported from Italy) sitting in your dad’s wine cabinet, here’s a guide on where to start.

Italian wine labels

How to read an Italian wine label

Wine labels can be hard to read, especially those from Italy. A few keywords can help you grasp the meaning of the vocabulary on your bottle.

  • DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita): It is the highest level of classification for Italian wines. All aspects of production are governed by strict rules.
  • DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata): Is one level lower than DOCG. The rules that govern development and style are less strict than those that govern DOCGs;
  • IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica): This classification, allows winemakers to use grapes and craft styles that are not permitted under DOC and DOCG regulations;
  • VdT (Vino da Tavola)/Vino: The most basic level of Italian wine. Before the creation of the IGT category, all wines that did not meet the DOC/DOCG criteria were placed in this category;
  • Riserva: A wine that has been aged for a slightly longer period than average;
  • Classico: A wine from a zone within a region (i.e., Chianti Classico);
  • Superiore: A higher-quality classification, usually linked to a regional name (i.e., Soave Superiore);
  • Azienda Agricola: A farm or estate that produces its own grapes for wine production;
  • Vendemmia/Annata: A specific harvest or vintage;
  • Produttore: Producer;
  • Vigneto: Vineyard;
  • Tenuta: Estate.

Italian Wine Map

Italian Wine Map

From full-bodied reds in the hills of Tuscany to crisp sparkling wines in the northern lakes region and one-of-a-kind varietals at rustic island wineries in Sicily, Italy’s twenty wine regions have something for anyone.

Let’s explore five Italian wine regions – from Piedmont to Sicily – and the best wines produced in each.

Piedmont

Italian wine regions

Piedmont (Piemonte) is located in northwest Italy, at the foot of the western Alps. The climate is influenced by both cold mountain climates and the warm Mediterranean.

The star grape is Nebbiolo, with high tannins and crisp acidity, that produces the region’s most famous wines: Barolo DOCG and Barbaresco DOCG.

Io adoro il Nebbiolo,

I adore Nebbiolo,

But Piedmont is home to a variety of other excellent grapes, the majority of which are more reasonably priced for daily consumption.

Other reds to try include Barbera, Dolcetto, and less well-known but delicious grapes like Freisa.

In Piedmont, you can also find the best Italian wine brands producing the softly sweet and sparkling Moscato d’Asti.

Tuscany

Tuscanys wines

Tuscany (Toscana) is home to some of Italy’s most beautiful vineyards, verdant rolling hills, and the country’s most well-known wine, chianti.

Tuscany’s wines are strongly based on the Sangiovese grape, bottled as Chianti, and range in quality and price. Super Tuscans are a distinct “renegade” wine made from Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.

Vernaccia and Vermentino are also important white wine grapes and there is also a fair amount of Chardonnay. Canaiolo and Colorino are two other local red grapes that are allowed in Chianti in limited amounts.

Veneto

rich wine

Bubbly is the name of the game in Veneto: Prosecco, Italy’s answer to French champagne, was invented here.

Veneto is also famous for the Valpolicella area, which produces Amarone della Valpolicella. Aside from the excellent red blends of Valpolicella made from Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara, there are many excellent Merlot-based IGT wines in this area.

Garganega is the white grape used to produce Soave, a rich wine similar to Chardonnay.

Emilia-Romagna

red wine

The big, fertile Emilia-Romagna region stretches nearly the entire length of central Italy, from east to west, and is one of the country’s oldest wine-producing regions.

It is famous for producing Lambrusco, a sparkling red wine produced from a grape of the same name that was first cultivated by the ancient Etruscans. Malvasia, Trebbiano, Barbera, and Sangiovese are also common varieties in the area.

Sicily

wine varieties

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Sicily (Sicilia) includes the entire island at the toe of Italy’s boot. It includes Palermo and Catania. Because of the warmer climate than in the mountains of northern Italy, the wines here mature very richly, darkly, and fruitily.

Catarratto (white) and Nero d’Avola (red) are the first and second most planted grape varieties, respectively. But this is yet another area with a range of intriguing grape varieties.

In addition to dry still wines, Marsala, the island’s popular fortified wine, is made from these two grapes, as well as Cataratto, which is abundant on the island in varying degrees of quality.

Italian wine glasses

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Types of wine glasses

You can drink wine from any vessel you want: Italian wine glasses, coffee mugs, or mason jars.  If you want, you can also skip the glass entirely and drink straight from the bottle.

However, using the right glasses improves the taste of wine.

E non ti costeranno una fortuna.

And they will not cost you a lot.

(Unless you’re obsessed, of course…)

Here is a short but effective video guide on how to pick the right glass for your Italian wine.

Wine culture

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Conclusion

Despite their relaxed attitude toward wine, Italy produces some fantastic wine varieties that can be enjoyed by everyone. Wine culture can be puzzling, but also interesting and thrilling.

Instead of focusing on the complexities and attempting to comprehend everything, the best way to begin is to dive into a glass and choose your favorite.

Alla salute!

Cheers!

Still translating in your head? Wanna speak Italian for real? Check out Stefano's courses to think directly in Italian and become fluent fast!

Maria

I was born in Italy but after graduating from University I decided to travel around the world. I loved Asia and that’s why I decided to move, first to South Korea and then to China where I am currently working as a teacher.

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