The Best of Italy

As a follow-up to my post outlining how to get to grips with Italian wine labelling, I thought I’d illustrate the approach with a few examples of the finer and more common Italian wines seen on the export market.

Wines at a small producer in Chianti

North West Italy

Beginning in the north-west, Barolo is the name of a red wine that originates from the vicinity of the town with the same name in the district of Piemonte. The wine is made 100% from a grape called nebbiolo and produces a fine, light-coloured wine with a complex, inimitable perfume. It is considered by many to be the finest Italian wine (and is certainly one of my favourites!) and draws comparisons with the very best Burgundy. Unlike pinot noir, however, nebbiolo produces wines with enormous tannic structure – quite surprising when one considers the light colour of the wine.

Barbaresco neighbours Barolo and produces similar wines from 100% nebbiolo. There was a time when Barbaresco was considered to be less interesting or complex than Barolo, however, today the best examples from both regions are more or less on par. Both Barolo and Barbaresco are DOCG wine regions.

Gavi di Gavi is a white wine made from the DOCG region around the town of Gavi, not too far from Barolo and Barbaresco. Cortese is the name of the only grape this wine is allowed to be made from. I enjoy these wines, although they have a certain ‘grassy neutrality’ that may not be to everyone’s taste. They are light and refreshing and go very well with white fish and scallops.

Moscato d’Asti is a perennial crowd-pleaser. Light, fruity, sweet, sparkling and low in alcohol, it is a quaffable dessert wine. I’d pair this with pavlova or another fruit and meringue dessert. This wine is made from the grape moscato bianco, and is from the Asti region, a relatively large region in the Piemonte district.

North East Italy

This is the home of the ubiquitous, cheap pinot grigio (a.k.a. pinot gris) found discounted in supermarkets all around the UK. The cheaper wines will not necessarily be from a DOC or DOCG region, though the grapes are likely to come from the Fruili-Venezia Giuli district, which extends from the Adriatic Sea to the mountains of the Austrian border. The better pinot grigio will come from the DOCs of Collio or Collio Orientali del Fruili, which are small regions near the Slovenian border. However, you will need to find a specialist merchant to track down these, and such wines may include other, more local white grape varieties.

Soave is the name of a rather neutral white wine made from the gargarnega grape. It comes in an inexpensive, nondescript form and a higher-priced incarnation with subtle floral and herbal tea notes. Soave is a small part of the wider Veneto district, which encompasses Venice, Verona and extends into the mountains and to the Austrian border.

Next-door to Soave lies the DOC of Valpolicella. This region produces red wine primarily from the corvina grape. Slightly confusingly Valpolicella comes in three quite distinct styles. The normale wine is a fairly light, fruity and simple wine. Amarone della Valpolicella is made from dried (passito) grapes, thus the wine has an intense aroma of raisins, but also chocolate, almonds and black cherries. It’s usually full bodied and high in alcohol. Finally, ripasso wine is a hybrid of sorts of the above two styles. There is some dried-fruit character, but the wine is a lot less heavy and alcoholic as amarone.

North-East Italy is also home to Italy’s prime sparkling wine: Prosecco.


Tuscany is home to some of Italy’s finest red wine exports. Many wine estates have been in the hands of the same family for hundreds of years, thus there is an undeniable sense  of tradition and quality.

The traditional Chianti bottle, complete with its wicker basket.

Chianti is the name of Italy’s most exported red wine. It is made predominantly from sangiovese – a grape variety that dates to the Etruscan settlement of Tuscany 3,000 years ago. The style of Chianti is enormously varied as up to 20% of the wine may be any grape variety. ‘International’ varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are becoming popular. There are a number of different DOCG regions that are named Chianti, all with similar legal standing. Chianti Classico is by no means the ‘best’ of these, however, it is considered the ‘original’ home of Chianti.

In the mid-20th century, a number of producers struck out against the rigid rules of the Tuscan regions and started to produce wines from Bordeaux blends. Today, these wines are named ‘SuperTuscans‘ and are considered some of the finest Italian wines (and most expensive). The appetite for SuperTuscans has expanded over the last 60 years, and there are now many producers making red wines in as many different styles. In general, these wines focus on using classic Bordeaux grapes along with sangiovese, and are often found on the Tuscan coast, where the maritime climate suits Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Unfortunately, there is no specific label ‘giveaway’ to tell you a wine is a SuperTuscan. As these wines don’t fit into a classic DOC or DOCG category, they are technically IGT Toscana, although many producers will omit this classification and rely on their reputation.

Near the town of Sienna lies the DOCG of Brunello di Montalcino. This region produces a very fine wine made entirely from sangiovese. Many consider this on a par with Barolo for Italy’s finest red wine.

Rest of Italy

The above examples are some of the more classic wines you may find in a wine store, however it must be borne in mind that Italy produces an enormous variety of wines. Sicily in particular produces some very good, very reasonably priced wines in many different styles. Puglia is perhaps best known for its primitivo – a very close relation to zinfandel which has made its home in California. The small region of Marche is known for a white wine made from verdicchio.

For much of Italy’s wonderfully diverse wine scene, there is little you can do to assess a wine on its label. Instead, take the advice of people you trust and try some out!

Nero d'Avola - a classic Sicilian wine - with a view of the Sicilian coast.


About James

Dr James Flewellen is a biophysicist, award-winning wine writer and educator based in London. Keep up to date with his writings and tastings at
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2 Responses to The Best of Italy

  1. Barry Flewellen says:

    Oh! that back ground looks so familiar, with the township of Scopellio nestling down there.
    With the wave of that warm North African wind blowing over the Mediterrean sea and brushing up into the foot hills, the villa was so perfectly place and the wine appreciated.
    I will be looking forward to reading the “Best of Western Australia”.

  2. Pingback: Sassicaia 1995 – one of the greats | The Oxford Wine Blog

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