Long before the country of Italy became unified in 1865, wines were made within its beautiful boundaries for over 2,000 years. Many of the first plantings were done by the Etruscans, who lived in the region which later became Tuscany, from the 8th to 3rd century BC. When the Roman culture developed between 1 BC and 1 AD, new citizens brought winemaking skills with them from ancient farming regions in Greece, Spain, Turkey, and Persian.

To help this cause, Julius Caesar and his troops brought back cuttings of grape vines from different countries that were added to the estimated 2,000 indigenous grape varieties already in place. But until the 18th century, most of the Italian wines were consumed by locals or sold on the bulk market. That changed when the number of exports picked up at the turn of last century.

Today, there are more grape varieties grown in Italy than any other country in the world. To help further define the winegrowing regions within the Italian borders, a new system was put in place to gauge the levels of quality of the contents inside the bottle during the early 1960s. The first designation is the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), which measured the quality of the unique wines made in different regions throughout the country.

The second is the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), a guaranteed stamp of approval given to ultra-premium wines made with fruit from small elite regions within the borders of larger DOCs. The wines that receive DOCG status are analyzed by government officials. Upon passing inspection, the wines are bottled with a government seal of approval on the neck of the bottle. Currently, there are over 70 DOCGs in Italy, with the highest concentrations being in the sub-zones of Tuscany, Piedmont, and Veneto.

In addition to DOCG, DOC and the more generic DO (Denominazione di Origine), wines labeled as Indicazione Geograpfica Tipicia (IGT) represent the typical style of a region that is similar to the Vin de Pays system used in France. In contrast, wines referred to as “vino di tavolo” on the labels are often higher-end experimental style wines which blend native red and white grapes with international varietals like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay.

Currently, Italy is the largest producer of wines in the world and the largest percentage of export wines sold in the U.S. market.

Grape Expectations: Italian Wine

Whites: Catarratto, Malvasia Bianco, Moscato, Trebbiano, Verdicchio, Vernaccia, Vermentino, Pecorino, Greco de Tufa, Bombino Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Shiava, Grechetto, Passerina, Prosecco, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay. In addition to making dry or off-dry styles of white wines, some of the white grape varieties are used to make sparkling wines and sweet wines as well.

Reds: Sangiovese, Montalpuciano, Canaiolo, Mammola, Barbera, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, Sagrantino di Montefalco, Negroamaro, Primitivo, Aglianico, Lagrein, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah.

Taste Sensations: Italian Wine

White Wines: The best white wines from Italy have unique flavors which reflect where the grapes are grown.  If you like aromatic wines, try wines made with grapes like Moscato, Malvasia Bianco, Shiava, Riesling and Viognier. For brighter, acid-driven wines, try Pinot Grigio, Catarratto, Verdicchio, Vermentino, Pecorino, and Sauvignon Blanc. And for more complex, minerally styles, try Greco de Tufa, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, and Chardonnay from Umbria.

Red Wines: For young, fresh and expressive red wines, try Dolcetto d’Alba, Rosso di Montalcino and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. For medium to full-bodied wines with notes of fruit and spice, great offerings can be found in wines labeled as Chianti, Barbaresco, Negroamaro, Primitivo and Cabernet Franc. And for more complex full-bodied wines, try Sagrantino di Montefalco, Barolo, Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, Amarone, and the higher-end vino de tavola wines.

Food Pairings: Italian Wine

With white Italian wines, try oysters, stuffed artichokes, green olives, prosciutto and melon, seasonal salads, tomatoes with fresh mozzarella and olive oil, prawns, pasta with white sauce, grilled fish, pork medallions, and poultry. With red wines, try antipasti, hard cheeses, flatbreads with wild mushrooms, truffle risotto, pasta with hearty red sauce, seared duck breast, suckling pig, veal, grilled steaks, roasted meats, and slow-cooked stews.

Tuscany, Italy: Italian Wine

Located at top of “the boot” in Central Italy, Tuscany is home to some of the world’s most famous wines. In essence, think of it as a magical place where natural landscape, ancient history, architecture, art, fashion, music, fine cuisine and wine are all fused together.

Well known for its rugged terrain, the landscape is undulated, hilly and mountainous. Many of the vineyards are wrapped around the steep slopes that are accentuated by ancient stone buildings, olive groves, cypress trees, and forests.

Native grapes have been used to make wine since the Etruscans settled in the region from the 8th to 3rd century BC. In the 15th century, the city of Florence became the economic capital of Europe. As the size of the city rapidly grew to 90,000 inhabitants, a large number of prosperous families reinvested their money to develop vineyards in the country, with intentions to make noble wines.

Many of the successful renaissance pioneers went on to make their high-class wines with Sangiovese, an indigenous grape known for its dark red hue, deep flavors, high acidity, and ability to produce wines that could be aged in the cellar. However, it wasn’t until the 18th century that these special wines were exported outside of Italy. Today, the largest percentage of wine made in Tuscany is exported to the United States.

Grape Expectations: Italian Wine

Whites: Trebbiano, Vernaccia, Malvasia Bianca, Vermentino, Moscato, and smaller plantings of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc in the warmer or more elevated areas.

Reds: As a native variety to the region, Sangiovese is the main grape used in classic Tuscan red wines, including Chianti, Chianti Classico, Chianti Ruffino, Rosso di Montalcino, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Smaller portions of Sangiovese grapes are combined with smaller portions of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah to make expensive “vino de tavola” wines or experimental “supertuscan”  blends, particularly near the small coastal town of Bolgheri, the Sant’Antimo subzone of Montalcino, and Montecarlo near Lucca in the northwest corner of the region.

Taste Sensations: Italian Wine

White Wines:  When done right, Trebbiano can be light, crisp and refreshing with flavors of melon, citrus, and mineral. In Tuscany, the grape is sometimes used to make Vin Santo dessert wines as well. Currently, Vermentino is climbing in popularity, particularly the fresh fruity styles of wine made with the grapes in the coastal regions of Tuscany. Another tasty option is to try a glass of Vernaccia di San Gimignanco, a special strain of the ancient Vernaccia grape grown near Siena, which features distinctive notes of apple, stone fruit, lilac, citrus peel, and tangy acidity.

Red Wines: If you like yummy and affordable wines, then try Chianti or Rosso di Montalcino, which are typically released young to capture the fresh aromas and bright fruity flavors interlaced with notes of spice, earth, and balanced tannins.

For stronger, more full-bodied wines, Chianti Classico wines typically features deep flavors of red fruits, violets, herbs, and firm tannins. A fine Brunello is equally concentrated with elegant and complex flavors of ripe cherry, plum, black olive, sarsaparilla, chocolate, roasted nuts, mineral, firm tannins and structure that make these wines worthy of aging in the cellar. And for a more elegant style, try Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which often features notes of truffle, dark cherry, wild berries, licorice, and spice.

Food Pairings: Italian Wine

With white wines, think shellfish, soups, salads, pasta with fresh tomatoes and herbs drizzled with olive oil, grilled fish and chicken. With medium-bodied red wines, serve antipasti, mushroom soup, gourmet sandwiches, gnocchi, grilled fish and pork. While the heavier, more complex wines work wonders with fresh pasta in rich red sauce, lasagna, roasted game, grilled red meats, and hearty stews.