We finished France by explaining the apparent blank spots on the map, those regions where wine is not produced. We do not have to do this with Italy. Italy has twenty regions. Out of these twenty regions, twenty produce wine. The Italian wine map has no blank spots. Grapes grow along highway dividers, in back yards, behind supermarkets, any place that has not been paved. The diversity of growing environments, wine styles, and indigenous grape varieties in Italy is matched nowhere else on the sphere we call earth.
Italy lacks the tradition of consistent appellation configuration and wine nomenclature so distinctive in France. Yes, it has a structure. The equivalent to the French AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) is the Italian DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), but then again the equivalency is not exact. Italy also has a senior form of DOC, the DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), supposedly with more stringent requirements as to vineyard yield, appellation boundaries, grape varieties allowed and wine production methods (but elevation to DOCG status may just depend on political considerations.) The DOCG system could make up for the fact that Italy has no Grand or Petit Cru special quality status as do a number of French regions, but the parallel is not exact, since DOCGs extend to entire regions and French Grand Crus apply to individual vineyards.
Layered on this system are three label designations that tend to connote quality.
- The term Classico, used in regions such as Chianti, Soave, Valpolicella, Bardolino, Gambellara, and Orvieto, refers to the “original” core of a region. During the 20th century, many regions were expanded for economic and political reasons, diluting the brand equity of the original region, which was often on hillier terrain. By delineating a classico area, the growers are indicating that “this is the good stuff.”
- The term Riserva refers to a wine that has undergone an extra period of aging, in cask, bottle or both. Rules for this vary from region to region. Spain has a reserva system (note the slight difference in spelling) in many of its regions also, but the American term “reserved” has no legal meaning.
- The term Superiore connotes that the wine has been created using more stringent vineyard and winery techniques than a wine that is merely normale. Superiore wines usually must have a higher level of alcohol than normale wines. That’s not just to give drinkers a headache or make them drive in an unsafe manner. The higher alcohol indicates quality. If a wine has higher alcohol than normal, it means yeast had more sugar in the grape must (juice) to turn into alcohol in the first place. The extra sweetness in the grapes is usually the result of later harvesting, a tricky procedure given the possibility of autumn rains, and the vagaries of labor availability.
Like France, Italy has a lower rung for names covering whole regions rather than their constituent parts: the IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica or “Indication of a typical geographical region”) wines. In Italy, one cannot make the assumption that these wines are inferior to wines with narrower geographical focus, or that they will command lower prices. The rise of the “Super Tuscan” wines is one instance in which producers have chosen to use the regional name instead of the local denomination because the rules for allowed grapes are less strict. These wines command high prices.
IGT is gradually being replaced by the new European Union term Indicazione Geografica Protetta (IGP) meaning “Protected Geographical Origin”. The lowest level is Vino (simply, wine) or Vino d’Italia, replacing the old Vino da Tavola.
Yes, Italy has its DOCs and DOCGs, but it is not consistent in how these designations are named.
- In some regions, the DOC or DOCG is named after a place, as in France: Barolo, Barbaresco, Valpolicella, Bardolino, Soave, Chianti
- In other regions, the DOC or DOCG is named combining a grape name with a place: Barbera d’Asti, Dolcetto d’Alba, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Brunello di Montalcino
- In other regions, the DOC or DOCG is named after the wine type only: Prosecco, Lacryma Christi, Est! Est!! Est!!!
- Some wines carry a brand name: Super Tuscans are one example