Italy is one of the world’s premier wine exporters. It is practically a nation of vines, and yet, the majority of the selections produced are largely unfussy, simple table wines meant to be enjoyed with meals. Still, changes in the last 25 years have finally occurred, and it is in the heart of this boot-shaped country that some of the pure stars of the wine universe are produced. Wines from Italy are changing their image, and wine consumers are noticing.
Italy is the world’s largest producer and consumer of wine. Vines carpet all 20 of its regions, from the snow-covered peaks of the Alto Adige to Apulia, the forgotten toe of Italy, even offshore to the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. The statistics are staggering: 4,000 years of winemaking history, 20 wine regions, 96 provinces, 1,000-plus grape varieties, 4,200 or more wine styles and over two million wine producers. Add to these head-spinning numbers that there is no simple way to decipher an Italian wine label. The most prominent name on the label could be a town, a grape variety or a producer.
The geography and climate of the nation is as diverse as its culture. From the chilly Alpine area in the north to the southern tip of the boot that is on the same latitude as North Africa. The Apennines mountain range runs down the center of the country, providing slopes of every conceivable altitude, soil, drainage and exposure. This produces a wide range of options and styles in Italian wine that are as exciting as they are varied. Even the geographic regions eschew consistency; each of the 20 regions is an entity of its own, with certain powers that tend to stray from national winemaking standards and laws. Each region is subdivided into provinces that take their names from the principal village they occupy.
Wines from Italy are marked in a classification system that has roots dating back centuries. The ancient Romans defined the original production areas. In 1716, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany redrew those zones, and they remained constant for the next few centuries—a brief period in the overall history of Italian wines. The governing body for quality designations is the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC). This means the area in which the vines are grown and wine produced is a protected area. Wines of even higher quality are given DOCG status, which stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata Garantita, or “guaranteed in the style and regional authenticity” of the wine. Italian DOC laws differ from their French counterparts in the AOC in that Italy requires aging of the wines and that there are no Premier Cru or Grand Cru systems in place for classification. At present, there are over 300 DOC appellations, which account for approximately 20 percent of the total wine production, and 25 DOCG wine appellations, over half of which are in two areas: Tuscany and Piedmont. The most recent laws, from1992, promoted much of the finer vino de tavola (table wine) to the category of Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT). IGT-designated wines are classified by color, grape and varietal typology from the larger regions. With over 115 appellations, IGT wines are the Italian equivalent of the French Vin de Pays wines. Furthermore, all wines now carry on their labels the wine’s generic name, producer’s name and location, alcohol content by volume and classification status (DOCG, DOC, IGT or simple vino de tavola). DOCG wines must also carry a government seal, which is a paper strip placed over the capsule or cork as a seal of guarantee.