Beginner’s Guide to Italian Wine

Beginner’s Guide to Italian Wine

Though only half the size of France, Italy makes more wine than any other country on earth. Here's what you need to know to get started with Italian wine.

Though only half the size of France, and less than three quarters that of California, Italy makes more wine than any other country on earth. But Italy matches quantity with quality, and in particular, with value at all levels. It makes enjoyable cheap wines, excellent mid-priced wines, and its most collectible and prized labels are still bargains compared to coveted American, Spanish and French peers. Even the bubbly is good – better than ever.

Wine is made in every nook and cranny of Italy, from heel to calf, mountains to islands, with vines terraced on improbably steep cliffs overlooking the ocean, on the slopes of volcanoes, everywhere. But the most widely available quality wines for visitors to seek out come from a handful of essential regions.

Chianti

Italian-wines-on-shelfItaly’s most famous wines have really come into their own in recent decades following revised quality standards that increased consumer reliability and weeded out the notorious “jug” wines of the Sixties and Seventies. The Chianti region (just outside Florence) covers much of Tuscany, Italy’s most beloved tourist region. The region produces several wines including its namesake, a dry red made almost entirely with the Sangiovese grape (80% Sangiovese is the legal minimum for Chianti, but many are 100%). These are great food wines, accompanying the flavors of the Tuscan palate, from the signature dish, a hearty olive oil-enriched steak known as bistecca fiorentina to pastas, aged cheeses and salumi.

Chianti Classico: This is the best known sub-region, and the better wines from here bear the famous logo of the Chianti Classico Consortium on the neck, a black rooster (gallo nero). Almost all Chianti bears at least the government’s DOC quality designation, but the higher DOCG label is worth looking out for, as even the best Chianti is inexpensive. There are two even higher standards, aged Chianti Riserva (aged for a minimum of 38 months) and Chianti Superiore, a relatively new designation of the highest quality.

Brunello di Montalcino: Chianti’s longtime king is not its namesake: the region’s most coveted wine is Brunello, a close cousin that has DOCG designation and must be made from 100% Sangiovese in the best vineyard region around the town of Montalcino. These wines are deeper, richer and extremely long lived, among the best storing reds. Quality is consistent enough that it is hard to go wrong, but the single most revered Brunello label, Biondi-Santi, (Mr Biondi-Santi pictured with his wines right), is among the most collectible of all wines. Rosso di Montalcino, a younger version nicknamed “Baby Brunello,” offers great quality and value at less than half the price. A bit lighter and easier drinking, it is a great all-purpose food wine, also 100% sangiovese and aged at least one year. Made in a neighboring area, Vino Nobile de Montalcino is another DOCG wine very similar to Brunello, less expensive and a bit softer.

The Super Tuscans: In the last few decades a new contender has risen to challenge Brunello’s dominance in these parts, the ‘Super Tuscans’. These are not a classic geographic designation with DOC or DOCG status, but rather an attempt to emulate the careful blending of Bordeaux-style wines and create something more refined, layered and complex, using Sangiovese as the base rather than Cabernet, the choice in France and Napa Valley. Super Tuscans are individual and unregulated wines, so there is no guarantee of quality, but the best are very, very good. The most famous are Ornellaia, Sassicaia (an exception in that it has its own DOC status), Solaia, and Tignanello, all world class collectibles, and all exceptional fine dining wines. In 2001 Ornellaia became the first wine from the region to win Wine Spectator’s rare perfect 100-point score, along with the status of “Perhaps the greatest Tuscan red ever.” Ornellaia makes a more affordable and more available second label, Le Serre Nuove, which is still an elite world-class wine. Another more affordable standout is Ruffino’s Modus.

Vernaccia di San Gimignano: The only notable white in the greater Chianti area is Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a fruity young wine that is great to drink on its own, especially in hot weather – a perfect poolside white for your villa. You could easily enjoy an entire trip to Italy drinking nothing but wines from the Chianti area, but we must move on…

Piedmont

Piedmont-regionFor collectors, Italian wine centers around the lesser known Nebbiolo grape, found in the mountainous northwestern region of Piedmont. The grape is used to produce two revered styles of wine, Barolo and Barbaresco. Both are required to earn the DOCG appellation to be labeled as such wines. These are Italy’s answer to California cabs, big, robust, tannic and full bodied wines made for meat. Barolo is a bit heavier and, like good Bordeaux or Cabernet, benefits greatly from aging, often lengthy, while Barbaresco offers a slightly lighter take on the same rich qualities at a younger age – drink older Barolo in restaurants, take younger ones home, and drink Barbaresco on vacation. While there are a handful of collectible Super Tuscans and a few more Brunellos, there are many excellent Barolos, probably the priciest single wine category in Italy, making them a prize for those with deep cellars.

Sicily

This island’s wines are suddenly hot, but they been producing here for thousands of years, even before the Greeks arrived – it’s a great place for grapes. Famously fertile volcanic soil abounds, there are more than 300 sunny days annually, an absence of frost, and consistent ocean winds that curtail mildew. The last two decades have seen a quality revolution led by one indigenous grape in particular (there are 19 uniquely native varieties), Nero d’Avola, which has risen to global cachet.  It is best experienced like Shiraz, in big, food versatile, sometimes spicy reds. Look for Nero d’Avola wines labelled DOC or DOCG. Planeta is the single most famous producer, with multiple wineries on the island.

Prosecco

Prosecco-ItalyUnlike high-quality sparkling wines elsewhere, Prosecco is not made in the same fashion as France’s Champagne (there are also still Prosecco wines but the vast majority are bubbly). While the methode champenoise calls for secondary fermentation in the individual bottles to produce bubbles, Prosecco typically uses the charmat method, where it is fermented in tanks and then bottled. This method is easier, less expensive and typically employed by low quality sparklers, but Prosecco is an exception. All good American sparkling wines are fermented in the bottle, and by law, Spain’s Cava and South Africa’s Cap Classique must be). In any case, it is the unique grape variety, Prosecco, that makes it special, and the wines are entirely produced in the northeast’s Veneto region, between Venice and Trieste.

Sustainable Future: Like many great Italian wines, the quality of Prosecco has been improving dramatically, and the producers comprising the Prosecco DOC Consortium just announced that they are collectively going ‘beyond organic to become 100% sustainable.’ It is one of the world’s best value sparklers even when purchased in its highest quality, which it should be. Look for Prosecco Superiore DOCG on the label, which comes in three regional variations: Conegliano Valdobbiadene, Valdobbiadene, and Asolo. At the minimum, look for DOC Spumante on the label. While Champagne is one of the longest-lived wines and improves with age, the opposite is generally true for Prosecco, which should be drunk young. Lower in alcohol than champagne and most other bubblies, it is fresh, fruity and obvious, rather than complex and layered with secondary tastes, and is another great poolside choice, or served with un-aged cheeses and light bites.

Where to stay in Italy

Images: canbedone/Shutterstock.com; Jeremy R. Smith Sr. / Shutterstock.com

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