This may be a good time to take a step back from discussing the specific wines of Italy and discuss some of the terms that others and I have been bandying about in these articles. More importantly, this discussion will be useful when trying to read the label on a bottle of Italian wine that you may be contemplating either buying or drinking. Specifically, I would like to address the Italian wine laws that create classifications for wines based upon geographical location.
As in France, and most of Europe, Italian wines are classified based on where the grapes were grown and the wines produced. Unlike the United States and Australia, Europe emphasizes geography over varietal. While this may be frustrating for the new world consumer, there is a reason for this system. Sense of place is very important to the Europeans. Many vineyards have histories dating back hundreds if not thousands of years. During this time, the owners and consumers have developed a relationship with the land, the culture and the foods. All of these factors meld into one seamless experience. Some areas have developed a reputation over time as producing quality wines. It is therefore important to protect the reputation these regions have taken so many years to develop. Possibly the most famous of these names in Italy is Chianti. When someone sees Chianti on the label, they have a right to know what they are getting.
The “problem” with this from the American consumer, and indeed many others, is that while Chianti may be well known, other areas with rich histories and traditions are unknown. Still others are relatively new. New world consumers are used to seeing the varietal name on the label i.e. Merlot, Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. Indeed as used to seeing the name “Chianti” on a label, many consumers think the Chianti is, in fact, the name of the grape (and have no idea that it is made from Sangiovese). Unfortunately, the only real way around this is to learn the wine areas of Italy (or France, Spain, Germany, etc.).
It is helpful to understand the classification system. In Italy this means being familiar with the terms abbreviated as DOC, DOCG, IGT and VdLT. Italy’s modern classification system goes back only to 1963 when the Denominazione di Origine Controllata was formed. This can loosely be translated to Denomination of Controlled Origin and is referred to as DOC. This legislation, based on the French A.O.C. system, places rules on the use of place names for wines. This is somewhat of a truth in advertising law. The regulations include which grapes may be used, how they are vinified or made into wine, how long the wines must be aged both before and after bottling, and how they are labeled. The consumer of any wine bearing a DOC name is sure that they are getting the wine as defined under the law.
A producer must submit samples of each wine to the Ministry of Agriculture each year. These samples are reviewed thru tasting committees which approve (or not) the use of the DOC name on the bottle. About 25% of all wines made in Italy carry a DOC label. While not a foolproof way of ensuring a great wine, it is a pretty good way to eliminate some wines. As a matter of practice, very few people know the rules involved for any particular DOC. What is important is that most DOC wines should have a minimum level of quality and a consistency.
At the same time the DOC was created, another, more explicit, classification was incorporated. Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita or DOCG is a category of the best of the best. These are the wine areas that have proved themselves over time to produce the best wines. The first of these wines to receive DOCG status was Brunello di Montalcino. Brunellos had been made in Tuscany, from the same grape as Chianti for a hundred years and were and are recognized as being some of the best wines made in Italy. There are many more zones and new ones are being created all the time. Some of the more famous names include Barolo, Barbaresco, Chianti, and also Sagrantino di Montefalco. The fact is, even a DOCG wine may be substandard. However, your odds have again increased by making purchase of a wine bearing the DOCG on the label. Moreover, a consumer should be able to count on a certain consistency in the wine in terms of flavor and style.
But that is not the end of the story. In some countries like France, there is a general acceptance of the rules. For those who either choose or are unable to meet the rules, the wines are labeled as table wines and are thought less of. But, in Italy, where rule breaking is accepted and even part of the culture, things can be a bit different. I do not mean this as a slight at all. It is one of the more charming aspects of Italian life. Some of the greatest wines in Italy do not carry DOC or DOCG status. . As was discussed in my article on Soave, some producers opt out of the DOC system because they feel those regulations are not strict enough to guarantee quality wine.
Accordingly, in 1992, another category was created to accommodate the interest in creating quality wines outside of the scope of the DOC rules. The Indicazione Geografica Tipica or IGT is a classification of wines, from geographical areas that is a step up from “mere’ table wine. IGT wines are from a specified geographic area but may or may not contain the grape varietals and production methods normally associated with that area. Although this is often thought of a bridge between table wines and DOC wines, that would be incorrect. In fact, the IGT label carries with it its own set of restrictions. One consumer friendly feature to these wines is that many will list the grape varietals on the label. In the end though; the IGT is another method of indicating where the wine is from. Nothing more can be gleaned from this and consumers need to know the wine they are looking for.
Finally, Italy has a broad label of Vino di Tavola (VdLT) or table wine. This includes the vast amounts of wine being produced that do not meet the more stringent requirements. Most of this wine is either sold in bulk to be consumed locally or used as blending grapes for other wines.
Sometimes, however, wines are labeled a VdLT because they owners and creators of these wines want to experiment and make wine using international grape varieties. Some of the most famous “Super Tuscans” got their start this way including Sassicaia, Ornellaia and Tiganello.
In the end, there is no foolproof method for picking an unknown wine. Choosing a wine from a DOCG is a start. Sticking to the best “known” vintages (i.e. 1997, 1999, 2001, 2004) increases your odds. And is true the world over, the best producers consistently create the best wine regardless of vintage. Sticking to the producers you trust or those recommended on these pages, is a good strategy. On the other hand, by being experimental, by looking to some of the lesser-known regions, one can often discover a great value for an outstanding wine. If you find a type of wine that you enjoy, the odds are more in your favor to buy other wines bearing that mark. There may be more room for discovery in the Italian section of you local store than any other wine section. Sometimes, that is more fun!
I hope you all go out and try a bottle or two and let me know what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.