Italy, the largest wine producer in the world, has remained an enigma when it comes to the quality of its wines. The Mediterranean temperament blazes in the most sensuous table wines and brave winemaker revolutions. It blows up in an unpredictable legislation intent to develop an appellation system that takes the fun out of the ancient vine. And it sure makes you question the purpose of setting rules when it comes to tasting the noble grape!
So how do we cope with this? Granted Italian wine laws are not cool. But don't give up. There is some mean stuff appearing on U.S. markets. Some of Italy's red wines belong to the world's best. You just need to know what, and what not, to expect.
How to approach Italian wines.
It helps to know that in Italy wine is like daily bread and has been produced there for well over 3,000 years. For centuries there were no wine laws, no clear labeling regulations, and yet there were thousands of winegrowers totally dedicated to their art. With rural and simple technology, wine was not a business but a lifestyle. Wines never traveled. They were drunk in the village where they were made. In short: Italians love their wine.
But then, in 1963, following the rest of Western Europe, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), a government-sponsored agency patterned after the AOC in France, set out to control minimum standards and regulate wine production. Also that year the government initiated an even higher quality category called Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), which added "guaranteed" to "controlled," a label which was intended to be reserved for the country's elite wines. But how do you control Italians who do what they do with a passion? Frustrated, the DOC tightened the laws further in 1992.
That was an enormous mistake. While there is now a road map to categories and appellations (wine zones), and while most of Italian labels are readable these days, the DOC, politically entrenched, has merely defined the rural tradition of old and robbed artisans of their freedom.
How did the winemakers respond? Same way as you would, probably: The hell with laws. Personal priorities are now winning over an inefficient legislation. The only problem is that superb growers, faithful to freedom of expression, are not allowed to use DOC labels and must market themselves simply as table wines. So on one hand you have great winemakers who are loyal to their art but their label can't tell you so, and on the other hand you have poor winemakers riding the coattails of well-promoted DOC names.
So what this all basically comes down to is: Don't take Italy's appellation zones too seriously.
To the degree that there is some consistency and insights to be gained, let's take a closer look at this country named the largest single vineyard in the world.
Italy's wines come under 2,000 different labels, and are produced in 20 regions, subdivided in 96 provinces. The official DOC appellation system is the same as elsewhere, circles within circles, with the best wine supposedly coming from a small inner circle, like a vineyard, and lesser wines coming from anywhere in the larger surrounding area.
Vino da Tavola: A table wine coming from anywhere in Italy and not defined by rules. Even grape varieties are up to the producer. As mentioned, some of the best new Italian wines fall under this category, having lost their right to a more dignified appellation name. Italy's worst wines also fall under this category, by the way.
Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT): A new category of wines with a clearer identity than table wines, and subject to some production limitations.
DOC: A wine from one of the 290 Denominazione di Origine Controllata zones, representing, if not a superior wine, at least a consistent wine in the traditional style. Only 12-15 % of Italy's total wine production is DOC. Strict laws govern levels of alcohol, total acidity and extract, along with ceilings on yields, viticultural and winemaking practices.
DOCG: A wine from one of the 18 Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita districts nestled in the heart of DOC zones. Allegedly better than DOC wines and for sure more expensive.
Vigna: A wine from a specific vineyard within a DOCG zone.
Prominent reds varietals: Sangiovese, nebbiolo, barbera and dolcetto.
Prominent white varietals: Pinot grigio, trebbiano, vernaccia, malvasia and moscato.
About two-thirds of what Italy produces is red. Its whites (including Spumante) have never reached similar luscious heights. The great independent proud growers experiment freely with cabernet, chardonnay and other new-world grapes these days.
Of Italy's 20 regions, Tuscany, Piedmont and Veneto offer most of what you'll find in the United States.
Tuscany holds six of the 18 DOCG zones in Italy and is home to the famous wines of Chianti. The prominent grape here is sangiovese. Chianti Classico, with stricter production laws than regular Chianti, is a DOCG zone within the Chianti classification. To be labeled Chianti the wine must contain at least 75 percent sangiovese, while Chianti Classico is often made with 100 percent sangiovese.
Piedmont also counts six DOCG zones. Regardless of earlier comments about Italy's wine laws, the DOCs Barolo and Barbaresco (both made with the heavyweight nebbiolo grape) truly offer the coolest of wines.
Veneto, the region around Verona, produces vast amounts of export wine. You've probably heard of these three DOCs: Valpolicella, Soave and Bardolino. Easy-going wines, nothing to get excited about really, and the grapes are Italian and private. Veneto also makes Amarone, a wine made of half-dried grapes.