A Beginner's Guide to Italian Wine
More Wine Basics
During my semester studying abroad in Florence, my favorite restaurant was a tiny place tucked away just around the corner from the sprawling Mercato Centrale. I always ordered the same thing: ribollita, a traditional Tuscan soup made with day-old bread, cannellini beans, and cavolo nero. Now, every Christmas, my husband and I make ribollita and there is always a bottle of Italian wine to accompany it. It's an old saying, but in Italy, what grows together truly goes together. If you love Italian food like I do—the pasta, the prosciutto, the olive oil—exploring Italian wine is a fun next step.
The boot-shaped country is varies widely when it comes to climate and terrain. Most of the northern regions have very hot summers and super-cold winters. The high altitude vineyards near the Alps in the north are known for wines with lots of acidity and freshness because of the huge shift in temperatures from day to night. As you move down the peninsula, the Mediterranean Sea is the largest influence on the growing regions. As you go south of Emilia-Romagna, the winters are more moderate and the summers are hot and dry. All that sunshine really comes through in the ripe, lush wines of the south, such as those in Puglia.
What's On The Label
When you're looking at a bottle of Italian wine, you might see the name of the place without a hint of what grape is in the bottle. But sometimes you'll see both the grape and the place—Fiano di Avellino, for example, is a wine made from the Fiano grape in the province of Avellino. Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is Montepulciano wine from Abruzzo, Barbera d'Alba is Barbera from the town of Alba, etc.
There's a hierarchy of Italian wine classifications, and with each step up, wines come from a more particular place, bound by more stringent restrictions. At the entry level, you have 'Vino'—that's simple table wine. If you order the house red or white at a trattoria in Rome, this is what you get. One step up, and the bottle will have the letters IGT: this stands for Indicazione Geografica Tipica. These wines follow broad rules about production and what grape varieties are allowed from the area the wine comes from. If you see DOC on the label, it's another step up: certified Denominazione Origine Controllata. At the highest level, Italian wines will be labeled DOCG: Denominazione Origine Controllata e Garantita. DOCG is meant to represent the most legendary wines in Italy.
Ready to get to know Italian wines? Let's start with some bubbly to whet our appetites, and then make our way through a few of the major grapes and the Italian regions where they're usually found.
Italian Sparkling Wines
Italy's highest-quality sparkling wines come from Franciacorta, located in the region of Lombardy just west of Milan. Sparkling wines from Franciacorta are made with Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) and Chardonnay—just like Champagne—but they can also include Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc). The wines will be labeled with their style: non-vintage, rosé, Satén (a sparkling white made with only white grapes, known as Blanc de Blancs elsewhere), or millesimato (a vintage wine).
Franciacorta wines get their sparkle from the same method as Champagne—they call it the metodo classico. This means the wine undergoes a second fermentation in the very same bottle that comes home with you from the store, creating the fizz that makes the wine elegant and festive.
You may be more familiar with Prosecco, the sparkling wine from the Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia. Prosecco is almost always made in the Charmat Method, which is a little different than that of Champagne and Franciacorta. With this method, the bubble-forming second fermentation takes place in a big tank instead of each individual bottle. There's no labor-intensive riddling or disgorgement process, and there's no time-consuming aging on the lees, so Prosecco can be priced a little lower. Without the lees contact, these wines aren't as complex as Franciacorta, but they're a great way to kick off a meal or party.
You'll see a few other bubbly wines in Italy, including Lambrusco and Moscato d'Asti, which are also usually made with the Charmat method. Lambrusco is available as a sparkling red or sparkling rosé, mostly made in Emilia-Romagna. Lambrusco is the name of both the wine and the grape. Good versions of Lambrusco, such as those from Lini and La Collina, are fruity but not too sweet, great for enjoying with another of Emilia-Romagna's specialties, Prosciutto di Parma.
Moscato d'Asti is a lightly sparkling white wine made from the highly aromatic Moscato grape near Asti in Piedmont. This sweet wine can be of varying quality, but at its best, it can be delightfully indulgent and a perfect way to finish a meal with a fruit-based dessert.
A Few Major White Grapes
Pinot Grigio is used to make white wine, but the skins of these grapes are actually rosy-blue in color. Pinot Grigio is most often found in the northeastern part of Italy in the regions of the Veneto, Trentino, and Alto-Adige. There are plenty of bland bottles out there, but in good hands, Pinot Grigio can be up there with the classics of the world. At its best, it will be dry with hints of melon and peanut shell and will retain its signature slightly golden color that puts the 'Grigio' in the name. Bottlings by Venica & Venica in Friuli or Elena Walch in Alto Adige will show you how good this stuff can be.
If you are scared to pronounce this grape, go with Soave instead; this is the name of the wine that's made from Garganega (sometimes with Verdicchio, Pinot Bianco, and Chardonnay blended in.) If you like to drink Chardonnay, you should seek out some good Soave: it's similarly fresh, with apple and peach flavors and sometimes a bit of creaminess from oak aging. A couple tried-and-true producers to look for in a wine shop are Inama and Pieropan.
Trebbiano is one of the most planted white grape varieties in Italy, alongside Sicily's Catarrato. This family of grapes gets quite confusing as there are many "Trebbiano Somethings" (as wine writer Jancis Robinson calls them) and while grapes with Trebbiano in the name can be similar, they are not always actually the same. Two important types to start with are Trebbiano Toscano and Trebbiano d'Abruzzo. Trebbiano Toscano is found in Tuscany and Umbria. At one time it was required to be blended in with Chianti. As those rules changed, its importance diminished. It is now usually found as a fresh, citrusy white wine and in Vin Santo, a traditional Tuscan dessert wine best served with almond biscuits called cantuccini. Trebbiano d'Abruzzo is, as advertised, found in the region of Abruzzo. It can make wonderful wine, especially in the hands of the legendary producer Valentini, whose wines evoke peaches, honey, and white flowers mixed with button mushrooms.
Two Vs: Vermentino and Verdicchio
Vermentino and Verdicchio are both frequently encountered in a wine shop and can both offer a great value—they're just the thing to have around as your 'house white'. The salty, citrusy Vermentino pops up all across Italy, with appearances in Tuscany, in Piedmont as Favorita, and under the name Pigato in the coastal Liguria. It is also the most planted white grape on the island of Sardegna. Verdicchio finds its best expression in the Marche on the eastern coast, its fragrance and flavor might remind you of meyer lemon, white peach, and almond.
A Few Major Red Grapes
Nebbiolo-lovers are obsessed. They will pay astronomical prices and wait patiently for decades to let these wines reach their potential. What's all the fuss about? The thing that always gets me is Nebbiolo's intoxicating smell. Stick your nose in a glass of this red wine and you'll be captured by dried cherry, rose petals, and truffles. Nebbiolo's powerful tannins can make it not quite friendly when young, but some braised lamb pappardelle alongside it will help you on your way to happiness.
You might have heard the names Barolo and Barbaresco: these are the most famous spots for Nebbiolo, both near the town of Alba in Piedmont. The Nebbiolo grape is perfectly suited to the soil and climate of these areas. Barolo wines are more structured and powerful, while Barbaresco tends to be more floral and elegant. (Of course, there are loads of exceptions to those generalizations.) Both areas put the name of the vineyards on the label, with some spots commanding higher prices than others. Each appellation's rules have an aging requirement—meaning that these bottles can't legally show up on shelves until years after harvest.
There's Nebbiolo beyond Barolo and Barbaresco, too, and some other spots allow you to skip the frustrating wait. Without the fancy Barolo and Barbaresco brand on the label, you might find great deals on these wines (note that some will allow other grapes to be blended into the mix.) Roero, Langhe, Ghemme, and Gattinara offer softer tannins that still complement the classic cherry and rose petal flavors of Nebbiolo. The Valle d'Aosta, high up in the Alps near Mont Blanc, calls the Nebbiolo grape Picotendro, and makes a lively, fresh version. Valtellina in northern Lombardy on the Swiss border offers high altitude Nebbiolo, dubbed Chiavannesca by the locals—it's not cheap, but these wines still offer bang for your buck.
Barbera's lush purple fruit and dried herb flavors make it one of Italy's friendliest red grapes. It's not a very tannic wine, so it's easy-drinking and ready to pop open immediately. While Barbera is grown all over Italy, the highest quality versions are from Piedmont. Barbera d'Asti and Barbera del Monferrato Superiore are excellent examples from the Piedmontese hills, though you'll also find Barbera-based wines as far south as Campania and Puglia. Pair with a roast chicken and mushroom risotto.
Sangiovese reminds me of a big bowl of pasta mixed with sundried tomatoes, oregano, thyme, and drizzled with a little bit of balsamic vinegar. While some Sangiovese has significant tannin, its markedly high acidity balances that out out. Sangiovese is the most commonly planted red grape in Italy, but the most famous examples come from Tuscany.
Around the towns of Florence and Siena lies Chianti, a region that has finally moved past its awkward teenage years when its wines were cheesily packaged in a straw-covered basket called a fiasco. While Chianti is mostly made from Sangiovese, the addition of the local Canaiolo and Colorino grapes is allowed, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Within Chanti is Chianti Classico, a zone that has been formally recognized for its especially high quality since way back in 1716. With the Chianti Classico label comes some more restrictions, like how long it must be aged and what percentage of other grapes can be added to Sangiovese.
Travel south of Chianti, and you'll hit Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, surrounding the town of Montalcino. Wines from Brunello di Montalcino are powerful and concentrated, made from 100% Sangiovese, and aged for at least five years after harvest. Rosso di Montalcino is Brunello's little brother (also made from 100% Sangiovese) and can be an excellent way to experience the wines without the price or the wait.
International Varieties: AKA, the 'Super Tuscan'
When learning about Italian reds, you are inevitably going to come across the term 'Super-Tuscan'. These wines don't wear capes or have super powers: they're bottlings from Tuscany that incorporate grapes that are found around the world, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, rather than those native to the area, like Sangiovese. Italian wine law wasn't designed to allow these grapes, so at first, these newcomers were just classified as lowly table wine. One of the first and the most famous was from Tenuta San Guido, a winery that made a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc called 'Sassicaia' in 1968. The wine reached international acclaim all while having the same classification as the Italian equivalent of Franzia. Since then, rules have changed and producers of Cabernet and other international-variety wines have newer, higher classification levels they can use on the label.
Just to make things difficult, Montepulciano is a grape that has nothing to do with the Sangiovese-dominated region called Vino Nobile di Montepulciano in Tuscany. The grape can be a juicy, structured red that you'll frequently see in a blend with Sangiovese. In Abruzzo, it is often released as Montepulciano d'Abruzzo DOC. Many Montepulcianos won't knock your socks off, but producers like Emidio Pepe have used their considerable talents to make some amazing (and expensive) outliers. Montepulciano makes a great weeknight wine, with more cherry, strawberry, and baked earth flavors than you'd see in our other weeknight fave, Barbera, which tends more toward blackberry and black tea notes.
Aglianico joins its southern friends Negroamaro and Primitivo in the warm, sun-kissed south of Italy. Aglianico is often referred to as the "Barolo of the South" and for good reason—this powerfully tannic wine is incredibly complex and worth sticking in your cellar for a few years. The volcanic soil where Aglianico grows is mirrored in the wines and blends with hints of plum, chocolate, and spice. It's yummy. Top-quality examples are usually from Campania and Basilicata, but Aglianico can also be found across Molise, Puglia, and Calabria.
The island of Sicily was once primarily known for the dessert wine Marsala. Now, many passionate winemakers are turning that around and truly giving the dry red wines of the island their due, with Nero d'Avola standing out. Nero d'Avola can take on dark plum and chocolate flavors, especially when blended with Syrah, Merlot, or Cabernet Sauvignon. Other producers choose to show its lighter side by adding lovely, perfumed Frappato. COS and Arianna Occhipinti near Vittoria in the southeast are producers to look for, as well as the more affordable Planeta.
This grape is mostly found in the Veneto right next to Soave, and is used to make one of the great wines of Italy, Amarone della Valpolicella. To make Amarone, the grapes are picked and then allowed dry out to raisins, concentrating the flavor before being fermented. The result is a full-bodied, high alcohol wine with notes of cherry, plum and almond. It's a perfect wine for for that braised short rib recipe you've been meaning to try out (mix the jus with olives and bacon for bonus points).
The Amarone process, called appasimento, can be expensive and that cost is reflected in the wines. A way to try Corvina without taking out a loan is with Valpolicella Ripasso. Producers take the grapes they've already used to make Amarone and referment wine over them to extract extra alcohol, body, and flavor. If you just see 'Valpolicella' on the label, it's another, lighter-bodied wine made from Corvina, without the processes above.
What Are Your Favorites?
With hundreds of different varieties of grapes in Italy, we've barely scratched the surface. There are so many other Italian wines to discover and enjoy. Got a favorite grape or region in Italy? Please share it in the comments below!