What you may see on the label of a bottle of Italian wine is fairly similar to that on French wines. Like France, Italian wine laws specify two levels of ‘table wine‘ and two levels of ‘quality wine‘.
At the lowest end of the spectrum we have Vino da Tavola, a fairly large chunk of Italian wine production. Wines in this classification may not state the grape varietal, its geographical source nor the vintage.
The next level up is termed Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT). This category is approximately equivalent to the Vin de Pays of the French system and is wine made from grapes sourced from a relatively large area. You can still get some excellent IGT wine. Sicily, for instance, has very few ‘quality wine’ regions, yet still produces some excellent ‘table’ wines. Sourcing out the quality stuff is a matter of becoming familiar with the producers.
Some of Italy’s most expensive wines, Super-Tuscans – so called because of their high quality and superstar status – are only allowed IGT status. This is because they flout the traditional rules of the Tuscan wine regions by allowing a large percentage of ‘international’ grapes such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Their success has encouraged many producers in other parts of Italy to make quality, non-traditional wines.
Like France, Italy has two levels of ‘quality wine’. Unlike France, however, both of these classifications are readily used. The lower of the two is named Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC). The law specifies things such as the geographical area from which grapes may be sourced, the grape varietal, the manner of production, whether the wine is red, white, sparkling or sweet, even the ageing process of wines. There are more than 250 DOCs currently in Italy.
The highest level, called Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantia (DOCG), is very similar to DOC, but the wines must also be bottled in the region the grapes are grown in. The wines are also tested for quality and taste by the Minitry of Agriculture. There are 47 DOCGs currently.
As Italy has an enormous history of winemaking, many of the DOC and DOCG regulations are to legalise a sense of tradition. This tradition has evolved and provided the backbone for Italian wine over the last 3000 years.
As with all these complicated European wine classifications, it can be hard to get past the alphabet soup! And unfortunately, those hallowed letters DOCG on a label do not guarantee you a fantastic bottle of wine. The most surefire method of getting an enjoyable bottle of wine is to get to know and trust producers, or to take the advice of professionals and enthusiasts who know what they are talking about.
Other Labelling Terms
If you’re stuck, however, there are a number of other terms on a bottle of Italian wine that may be useful to know.
Many Italian wines are labelled by place. Barolo is an example of a town that has given its name to a (rather famous) wine region. The wine Moscato d’Asti is an example of a grape (moscato) and a place (Asti) in combination. Others are labelled by an historic term that often dates from Roman or Greek times. Chianti is one such example.
The word Riserva is used on some wines to indicate that this wine has undergone a minumum ageing period before release to the public. Unfortunately, and perhaps misleadingly, it is no indicator of quality.
Classico is another term unrelated to the quality of the wine. It is generally used to indicate the original regional boundaries of a winemaking area before an expansion (which likely took place before the current legal structure was put in place). Thus we have Chianti Classico and Chianti Rufina which are two separate (but neighbouring) wine districts.