Italian Wine Basics

Over the next 20 months, I will be trying to break down the wines by region which is hard enough. For this introduction to Italian Wine Basics, we will discuss the wine law structure which is at least something fairly consistent across the country.

Denominazione: How Italian Wine is Classified

Italy follows what’s called a “classification system.” All this really means is that there are laws in place regulating the following:

  • What kind of grapes can be used
  • Where the grapes are grown
  • How the grapes are grown
  • How many grapes are grown
  • How the wine is made and aged
  • How much wine can be made

When a wine producer meets the legal requirements outlined in a classification, the wine qualifies for a certain designation, otherwise known as a denomination, or in Italian: denominazione.

These denominazioni are where things can start to get tricky for wine buyers.

Italy is considered a producer of “Old World” wines. For “Old World” wines, the designations are usually the name of the place where the wine is made (sometimes known as an “appellation”). For example: Barolo DOCG wine is made from the nebbiolo grape in the region of Barolo in Piedmont. The region, not the grape, is what’s highlighted on the label. “New World” wines like those produced in California and Australia also have a classification system, but usually have looser regulations as to what can appear on the label – so you might see the kind of grape instead of or in addition to the name of a place.

When it comes to places and grapes, then, a little research and memorization come in handy. But what tasty research!

Levels of Italy’s Wine Classification System

In 2009, European law kicked in requiring all new wines to fall under the general DOP naming structure. All this means really, is that there is another layer of labeling you may encounter looking at labels.

Italy’s classification system is broken down into levels, starting with the most strict:

  • DOCG: Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita – a wine with this classification follows all of the laws of its designation and is also tasted by a panel to guarantee the wine is “correct” for its type and quality. You will find the words or abbreviation on the label but you will also find a red or greenish-yellow band around the neck of the bottle. These bands are numbered and are issued in limited quantities to each registered producer.
  • DOC: Denominazione di Origine Controllata – a wine with this classification follows all of the rules of its designation. There is no tasting panel at this level and does not have a registered banding system.
  • IGT: Indicazione Geografica Tipica – a wine with this classification has much looser regulation broadening the rules. An IGT wine can take the name of the region if 75% of the wine is made from typical grapes of the region. Otherwise, the name of the wine can be created by the winemaker.
  • VdT: Vino da Tavola – A wine produced outside of any set legislation. The label is not allowed to state a vintage or the grapes used, only rosso (red), bianco (white), or rosato (rose).

The new system is just making everyone in Europe adjust to the standard labeling structure.

  • Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) / Denominazione di Origina Protetta (DOP) 
  • Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) / Indicazione Geografica Protetta (IGP)

One would think that maybe DOP would be equal to DOCG and IGP would be equal to DOC, but….of course not. DOCG and DOC can now use DOP designation if they want to. 408 wines potentially can be DOP. However, in practice, a DOCG label carries a bit more clout so no wine I’ve seen has used DOP.




Here is what the marriage looks like in the end:


These are other words that might appear on an Italian wine label, and what they indicate:

  • Classico: Made in the historic zone of the appellation
  • Riserva: Has been aged longer than the “regular” version
  • Superiore: Has more alcohol than the “regular” version

Sample Italian Wine Labels

docgfinal_small vdtfinal_small
As you can see from these Il Palazzone wine labels, the information is generally the same, it just might be in different places. Although it may be awhile before you see a Twitter name on most Italian wine labels – the left label is clearly ahead of its time!

Buying Wines in Italy

How do all of those acronyms defined above help you buy a wine while traveling? If you come to Italy with something in mind to buy, it can help a lot. If you’re simply exploring, they mean very littleIn other words, if you absolutely love every Chianti Classico DOCG you’ve ever had, you’re a fan of wines made from the sangiovese grape. Knowing which DOCGs and DOCs use a majority of sangiovese will make your selection process much simpler.

If you’re up for experimentation, the reputation of the producer can be more important than the classification. When a good winemaker chooses to play, they tend to play outside of the regulation and those wines tend to fall under the IGT or VdT category. A lower classification does not automatically mean a lower quality wine.

With all of these restrictions, logic says the DOCG wines are the most expensive because they are the most restrictive. That’s not always the case. When shopping, you can’t automatically assume that every vino da tavola will be inexpensive. The term “super Tuscan” came about in the 1970s when those good winemakers started making excellent wines outside of the regulation. These wines were vino da tavola and yet were not bargain wines. Like wine itself, value for the price can be a personal decision. If it’s only 2€ a gallon but you don’t like it, is that a good deal? If it’s 50€ a bottle but you love it, is that a bad deal?

So, what is the best strategy for exploring wine to buy in Italy? Start at home! It’s always great to have a relationship with a good wine shop, be it for Tuesday night’s dinner or your next trip to Italy. The questions to ask the shop should start with what you usually buy. Maybe you want to find something similar – or completely different – either way, they should be able to help. Ask if they know of any great producers that are not imported in your area, or what your favorite producer might be making in small quantities that might only be available at the cellar door.

With a little pre-planning, the bottles you bring home from your Italian holiday will have richer story attached to them. When you share those special wines with family and friends you will have a better appreciation of the journey you took to get those bottles.


**a version of this post originally appeared on Italylogue**

Italian Wine Basics | Vineyard Adventures


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