With over 800 wine grape varieties, 20 uniquely designated winegrowing regions, and hundreds of years of winemaking history on the books, Italy’s wine scene is a glorious adventure from grape to glass. Tuscany and Piedmont represent Italy’s hot shots in terms of regional recognition and production, with the collective Tre Venezie (meaning the “three Venices”) of Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli rounding out the dominant Italian wine region players.
Piedmont: Known for the big, burly wines of Barolo and Barbaresco, Piedmont sits high and tight in Italy’s northwest corner. Home to some heavy duty red wines and the ever popular, light-hearted bubbles of Moscato, this particular Italian wine region is dominated by three key grapes: Barbera, Nebbiolo, and Dolcetto. The highly concentrated, ultra dry red wines of Barolo and Barbaresco (named for the towns their grown around) are both built on the late-ripening grape of Nebbiolo.
Tuscany: Where the wine magic happens. Most folks think of Italian wine and immediately images of Tuscany come to mind. Rolling hillsides, medieval castles, walled cities, and endless vineyards all collide to create collective images of the Tuscan wine region. Tuscany’s wines are based firmly on the Sangiovese grape, bottled as Chianti, and come in various levels of quality and price. Super Tuscans represent a unique “renegade” wine that’s blended with Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot (as well as other Bordeaux varietals).
Alto Adige: Tucked into the base of the Italian Alps, locally dubbed the Dolomites, the wine region of Alto Adige has to be home to the world’s most stunning vineyard views. White wines reign in this DOC with Pinot Grigio leading the charge. Cool, crisp nights and warm sunny days allow for impressive temperature changes between day and night and give rise to excellent acidity in the grapes.
The wines of Alto Adige impress with a medium body, dry, crisp styles, and bright aromatics.
From Sangiovese to Trebbiano and the wide viticultural variations that lie in between, navigating the wine shop shelves to find an Italian wine that will complement a Friday night lasagna can be a fun-filled experience – if you are armed with a little Italian wine knowledge.
While Italy has successfully planted the vast majority of the dominant international grape varietals, the country’s domestic vines are what offer the true flavor characteristics that have made Italian wines world renown for ages. With literally hundreds of wines produced in Italy annually, it is no wonder that selecting Italian wines can be a bit intimidating. Deciphering Italian wine terms and names, interpreting Italian wine labels, learning Italian wine classification systems, understanding regional grape growing zones, and discerning grape varietals that do not always fall into the “familiar” category are all part of the Italian wine adventure.
Generally speaking, Italian wines can be divided into two main categories: Table Wines and “Higher End” DOC or DOCG Italian Wines. Italy’s table wines tend to be less expensive red or white wines that are produced to be consumed in the easy-going atmosphere of an Italian-style family dinner.
Sometimes they are sold in larger jugs other times it’s in a basic 750ml bottle, either way, they are the mainstay of an Italian dining table. Table wines are often fruit-forward wines, some are sparkling, most are light-medium bodied and all carry an affinity for regional Italian fare.
High-end Italian wines range in quality designations, from good to superior. With over 2000 native grape varieties covering varied terrain, growing in forgiving climates and all packed on one outstanding peninsula, you can imagine that the resulting wine combinations would be just as diverse as the subcultures that surround them. Super Tuscans, Barolo, Barbaresco, Chianti Classico Riserva, and Amarone will lean towards the higher price points.
Italian wines are made for Italian food.
The two go hand in hand, and like a good marriage, both are typically enhanced by the other. The wine to pair with everything from spaghetti and meatballs to backyard BBQ fare is Chianti. Or consider Dolcetto d’Alba as another solid red table wine that is made for Italian fare. If you are looking to crank on some steak or other heavy red meat, then take a turn with Piedmont’s Barolo or Barbaresco wine finds. Both are built to handle high fat, high protein with full flavors, powerful tannic structure, and incredible acidity. While not cheap, they are perfect for special occasions where the meat dish is presented front and center. Pinot Grigio is Italy’s most popular white wine variety and for good reason. It highlights incredible acidity and makes for easy food pairings. Perfect for seafood, an assortment of appetizers and favorite poultry picks, Pinot Grigio is Italy’s go-to white wine.
High-end Italian wines range in quality designations, from good to superior. With over 2000 native grape varieties covering varied terrain, growing in forgiving climates and all packed on one outstanding peninsula, you can imagine that the resulting wine combinations would be just as diverse as the subcultures that surround them.
Super-Tuscans: Comprised of mostly Sangiovese, blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot or Syrah, typically quantify quality, and are thus on the upper end of the price spectrum. Due to unique blends and varied growing terroirs , Super-Tuscans cannot be easily pinned to one style or stereotype. Super-Tuscan producers to scout for include: Sassicaia, Viticcio, Antinori, and Tenuta dell’Ornellaia.
Barolo and Barbaresco Wines: Good Barolo and Barbaresco wines, derived from the noble Nebbiolo grape are typically reserved for Sunday dinners or celebrations.
Amarone Wines: The vast majority of Amarone wines come from the Valpolicella area, in Italy’s northeast corner. They are typically considered one of Italy’s big, bold red wines, Amarone has fruit-forward flavors of cherry, raisins, plums, and spice. They are made from grapes that have been partially dried and historically have had higher alcohol contents (14-16% range). Top Amarone producers to consider are Masi, Spirit, and Allegrini.
Pinot Grigio: As for better quality Italian white wines, often Pinot Grigio comes to mind. For Pinot Grigio, Alto Adige has it going on. Deeply aromatic, vivid white wines with flavor and presence – try one of the Top 20 Pinot Grigios from Alto Adige, the white wine for summer sipping. Consider Elena Walch, J. Hofstatter, Santa Margherita and Weingut Niklas for some stellar Pinot Grigio finds.
Whether you are looking to expand your wine horizons or just hoping to grab a good Chianti with dinner, Italian wines are a cornerstone of today’s wide world of wine.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘And now I would like to wet my mouth with that Prosecco with its apple bouquet’ wrote Aureliano Acanti in 1754. But Prosecco was already produced as far back as Roman times using the Glera grape which initially grew near the village of Prosecco on the Karst hills above Trieste and was then known as Puccino.
In the 18th century, cultivation of Glera expanded throughout the hills of Veneto and Friuli as recorded in Roccolo “This perfect Prosecco from Monteberico” and in Collezione Ampelografica provinciale Trevigiana “thanks to their aromatic quality, some of the best white grapes suitable for producing a wine with a fine sensory profile”.
Production then spread to the neighbouring lower lying areas of Veneto and Friuli. And this is where the Prosecco we know today was first produced at the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to the introduction of new secondary fermentation technologies.
If it had not been for man and his technical expertise, production of Prosecco DOC would never have got under way. A document dated 1937 has this to say: “Prosecco in barrels is sold at the beginning of the spring and is bottled where it becomes sparkling”.
Specific technical and scientific knowledge regarding production came in leaps and bounds in the 20th century, thanks in part to the School of Oenology in Conegliano Veneto which perfected the production method, enhancing the exceptional qualities of Prosecco. 8159 wine estates, 269 sparkling wine producers and 200 million bottles: these are the latest figures from the Prosecco world.
And, with Controlled Designation of Origin status granted in 2009, the quality of the most famous Italian sparkling wine in the world is guaranteed.