The Naked Vine Italian Wine Primer
As such, each region’s wine varieties tend to be fairly
consistent as far as the basic flavor profile goes. I wouldn’t choose to drink a lot of them on
their own for one reason or another, but line up some steamed mussels next to
an Italian pinot grigio or a Sangiovese with marinara-sauced pasta and you’ve
got yourself a little slice of heaven.
The trick, though, is figuring out which of these heavily
vowel-labeled bottles is the right wine.
Like France, Italy’s gotten
a little bit better about putting the names of grape varietals and/or
descriptive blurbs in English on the bottle for the “ordinary American
consumer.” For the most part, however, the traditional convention still holds.
The names on the bottle are generally the producer and the region. The grape is
often nowhere to be found. As I’ve mentioned before, I spent most of my
pre-Vine life thinking that “Chianti” was a grape varietal instead of a region
Further confusing matters are exceptions to this rule. Some
Italian wines do put the name of the grape on the label as a matter of course.
The name of the grape is usually followed by the name of the locale, so you’ll
see wines like Moscato d’Asti, Barbera d’Alba, etc. The first one, for
instance, translates as “The Moscato (grape) from Asti (the town).” You’ll even run into
“Montepulciano d’Abruzzo” vs. “Vin Noble di Montepulciano.” The first is a
fruity, easy-drinking table wine made from the Montepulciano grape. The second
is a somewhat complex Sangiovese-based wine from the town of Montepulciano.
But why? Why stick to an antiquated, confusing system of
nomenclature, especially now that the world has grown much more wine savvy? Why
not just label the bloomin’ bottles with whatever the heck is in there? The
There are at least 2,000 indigenous grape varietals
Gaining an encyclopedic knowledge of all the grapes in the Boot that go into
their bottles of yummy would be next to impossible. So, how do you know what
The Italian government simplified matters for us a little.
They created a classification system somewhat similar to the ones in France. If you
look at most bottles of Italian wine, you’ll see “DOC” or “DOCG” somewhere on
the label. Without going into too much detail, the DOC/DOCG designation shows
that a wine was made in a certain region using pre-determined methods containing
certain grape varietals. This usually aligns with the geographic region, but a
grape will sometimes be included in the designation if the varietal is a
specialty of the area – like the aforementioned Moscato d’Asti, et al.
In my experience, Italian wine is an experience where you
largely get what you pay for. This isn’t to say that there isn’t really good
inexpensive wine from Italy.
Think about it this way -- if you blindly choose $30 Bordeaux, there’s a chance that you’ll end up
with a wine inferior to the $10 dollar one on the rack nearby. Italian? $15
Chianti will be perfectly drinkable, but also usually consistent with its
brethren of the same price point. If you splurge on a $30 bottle, you can
usually tell a difference in quality (although you may not feel that difference
was worth the extra moolah).
There are hundreds of DOC/DOCG growing regions, but many of
them are extremely small and you probably won’t run into them very often. Here
are some of the more common regions and DOC/DOCG designations you’ll run into
at the local wine stores for your reading and drinking pleasure…
Common wines you’ll
see: Taurasi, Fiano, Falerno
Major grapes: Aglianico,
Piedirosso, Primitivo (red); Falanghia (white)
General info: Campania is the region around Naples. The best known wine from there is a
robust red called Taurasi made from the Aglianico grape. Fiano is a
seafood-loving white and Falerno is another big wine made from Primitivo
(Zinfandel). Much of the rest of the wine from there has traditionally been
known as fairly generic, although it’s improved greatly in recent years.
Common wines you’ll
see: Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Vin Noble di Montepulciano, Rosso di
Montalcino, Rosso di Montepulciano, IGT Toscana
Major grape: Sangiovese
(red – not many whites in Tuscany)
General info: Ah,
Tuscany – home of some of the most famous reds
wines in Italy.
Most Tuscan reds are backboned by the Sangiovese grape. Brunello di Montalcino
is also Sangiovese, but a specific clone of that particular grape. There’s also
“Vin Santo” – a sweet dessert wine. You’ll
also find “super Tuscan” wines that are bigger and heartier. These are
almost always Sangiovese blended with a non-indigenous varietal like merlot or
cabernet, often to please an American palate. If you see “IGT Toscana” on the
label, it’s probably a Super Tuscan of some stripe. The wines tend to be very
flexible, since Tuscan cuisine is some of the most varied (and delicious) food
in the world. However, in my opinion, these wines are not the best to drink by
themselves. They need food to show their full potential.
Common wines you’ll
see: Barbaresco, Barolo, Barbera d’Alba, Barbera d’Asti, Dolcetto d’Alba,
Dolcetto d’Asti, Moscato d’Asti, Gavi
Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Moscato (red); Cortese (white)
General info: Piedmont is the mountainous region in the northwest
corner of the country. The bulk of Italy’s hearty reds come from this
region – especially Barolo and Barbaresco. They’re some of the most famous of
the world’s wines. Barbera is a big, juicy red and Dolcetto is a lighter,
acidic red – both of which make excellent everyday wines in their “generic”
form. The versions from “named” places (like Barbera d’Alba for instance) have
more complexity. Gavi is a crisp white made from the Cortese grape (not to be
confused with Dan Cortese) which makes an interesting contrast. Piedmont wines
are built to stand up to heavier meats and sauces. Even the whites handle cream
sauces easily. There’s also Moscato d’Asti – a low alcohol, sweet sparkling
wine which may be the best brunch wine in the world.
Common wines &
grapes you’ll see: Cannonau (red); Malvasia, Vernacchia, Verdicchio, Moscato
General info: The
islands of Italy
usually end up putting the names of the grapes on the label, so you can
generally run with those. Both islands, especially Sardinia, produce quantities
of dry, crisp white wines made from Vernacchia, Malvasia, and Verdicchio that
go perfectly with shellfish. Sicily
produces a huge amount of dessert wine. The most common red is made from
Cannonau, which is currently getting a great deal of publicity for its
hypothesized life-extending properties. Cannonau is similar to Grenache and
often makes for powerful wines, but on the islands, they’re made in a much
lighter, more aromatic style.
Common wines you’ll
see: Bardolino, Valpolicella, Soave, Prosecco
Corvina, Sangiovese (red); Prosecco, Garganega (white)
General Info: The
region around Venice
cranks out a huge amount of wine. The reds are usually blends backboned by the
Corvina grape. These reds tend to be some of the lightest bodied in the
country. Many are often served slightly chilled, much like Beaujolais.
There’s actually a “Bardolino novello,” made in a similar style as Beaujolais
Nouveau. The whites, like Soave are usually fruity and more or less dry. The Valdobbiadene
district is the home of Prosecco,
famous sparkling wine. It resembles Spanish cava
in many ways. Interestingly, with all the light reds produced in Valpolicella,
it’s also home to the most powerful red wine in Italy: Amarone. Amarone is made
from raisinated grapes, which yields a concentrated, potent (upwards of 15%
alcohol), tannic, tasty wine.
There are 14 other major wine growing regions in Italy and literally hundreds of DOC & DOCG designations. It’s worth it to explore. Ask for your Italian wine expert at your local store. There’s usually one major “Italophile” in every shop. They’ll usually steer you correctly. But for basics, this should take care of you for right now. Hope it helps!