The wines of Italy are celebrated for their quality and incredible diversity. Today, Italy’s wine culture is more vibrant than ever. There is a greater diversity of grapevines grown in Italian soil than anywhere else in the world. Well known for its bold, age worthy red wines, Italy also produces terrific reds made for everyday drinking and an impressive array of white and sparkling wines. Here’s your ultimate primer on Italian wine. Whether you’ve just begun to explore wine or are an expert who seeks to brush up on the basics, here is a quick reference guide.
How to Read an Italian Wine Label
European labels can be difficult to read, especially those from Italy. A few key terms can help you understand the implications of the language on your bottle.
DOCG: An abbreviation for Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. It’s the top classification for Italian wines. Strict rules govern all aspects of production. They include where the grapes can be grown, what varieties are allowed and how wines can be aged. There are 74 DOCGs in Italy, with the latest addition in 2011.
DOC: An abbreviation for Denominazione di Origine Controllata. It’s one step below DOCG. Rules govern production and style but aren’t as stringent as those for DOCGs. There are 334 DOCs in Italy, with the most recent additions approved in mid-2017.
IGT: An abbreviation for Indicazione Geografica Tipica. Introduced in 1992, this classification allows winemakers to use grapes and craft styles not allowed under DOC and DOCG regulations. There are currently 118 IGTs in Italy.
Riserva: Denotes a wine aged for significantly longer than usual, though rules vary among the denominations.
Superiore: Denotes a higher-quality designation, tacked on generally to a regional name (i.e., Soave Superiore).
Classico: Denotes wines from a zone within a region (i.e., Chianti Classico) considered the original area of production.
Azienda Agricola: A farm or estate that produces its own grapes for the production of its wines.
Annata or Vendemmia: A specific harvest or vintage.
Italian Wine Regions
Worldwide, consumers love Italian wines for its diversity of styles, protection of indigenous varieties, food-friendliness and, quite often, great value. Romantic landscapes don’t hurt Italy’s brand, either. While there are seemingly endless granular idiosyncrasies of Italian wine, this broad overview of the country’s 20 regions will get you started, ordered from north to south.
On the northwestern border shared with France and Switzerland, this Alpine region doesn’t produce much wine. The region’s main focus is red wines, and the primary grapes are Nebbiolo and Pinot Nero, as well as little-known Petit Rouge and Prié Blanc. Other varieties include Fumin, Moscato, and Petit Arvine.
Located in northwest Italy, Piedmont sits at the foot of the western Alps. The climate is influenced by chilly mountain climes and the balmy Mediterranean. It creates the perfect growing conditions for Nebbiolo, the black grape that produces the region’s most famous wines: Barolo DOCG and Barbaresco DOCG. Two other red grapes, Barbera and Dolcetto, are also well known and enjoyed for their more accessible price points and drinkability in the short term.
Piedmont white wines are less common, but don’t overlook Cortese and Arneis grapes. The former is the sole grape in Gavi DOCG, while the latter thrives in Roero DOCG. Even casual wine fans know the gently fizzy and sweet sparkling wine Moscato d’Asti, made in the Asti DOCG. Other varieties include Brachetto, Freisa, Grignolino, Nascetta, Ruché, Timorasso, and Vespolina.
Along the Mediterranean between France and Tuscany, this small coastal region focuses largely on white wine. The dry whites made from Vermentino and Pigato comprise the bulk of exports from this area. The key red is Rossese, found in the fruity, fragrant Dolceacqua DOC. Other varieties include Ciliegiolo, Dolcetto, and Sangiovese.
Located in north-central Italy, Lombardy is home to some of the country’s most beautiful lakes. The cooling influence of the Alps makes it a sparkling wine haven. Franciacorta DOCG, along Lake Iseo, is one of the premier metodo classico (traditional method) wines from Italy made from Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Nero. For red wines, Nebbiolo is the main grape in Valtellina Rosso DOC, Valtellina Superiore DOCG and Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG. Other varieties include Barbera and Croatina.
Home to the spectacular Dolomites, Trentino-Alto Adige is a mash-up of Italian and Austro-Hungarian influence. A unique cadre of grapes ripen in this sunny, high-elevation region. For reds, Pinot Nero, Schiava and Lagrein are well known. For whites, Pinot Grigio rules. Chardonnay is also popular, especially as a base for traditional-method sparkling wine from Trento DOC. Other varieties found here include Gewürztraminer, Kerner, Müller-Thurgau, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Teroldego.
Rich in history, beauty and wine, Veneto offers a breadth of grapes and styles due to numerous microclimates. Consider its natural contours. It boasts Alps in the north, Lake Garda in the west and the Adriatic Sea to the southeast.
Though Veneto turns out many storied wines, it’s the volume of Pinot Grigio and demand for Prosecco that have made it famous. Great versions of the latter come from Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG and Cartizze DOCG. The red wines of Valpolicella DOC and Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG are both based largely on black grape Corvina, as are the rosé and red wines of Bardolino DOC. East of Verona, Garganega is the main white grape in Soave DOC, while Trebbiano dominates in the white wines of Lugana DOC on the southern shores of Lake Garda. Other varieties include Cabernet Franc, Corvinone, Merlot, Molinara, and Rondinella.
In the far northeast corner that borders Austria and Slovenia, Friuli’s landscape juxtaposes the Alps against the Adriatic’s coastal flatlands. The unique climate provides optimal conditions for a range of white and red grapes.
More than 75% of the production is white wine, focused on Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Ribolla Gialla and Friulano. Reds from Merlot, Refosco and Schioppettino are delightful, if less well-known. Other varieties include Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Picolit, and Verduzzo.
Considered the country’s food capital, Emilia-Romagna is also a prolific wine producer. The region is best known for Lambrusco, a sparkling red wine. Trebbiano, a white grape, is the other key player. Other varieties include Albana, Malvasia, and Sangiovese.
Tuscany is centrally positioned along the Tyrrhenian Sea on the west coast and stretches inland across rolling countryside. For reds, its most famous Sangiovese-based wines are the Chianti, Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino DOCGs. Many wines are labeled as Toscana IGT because they don’t conform to traditional production rules. These wines can be 100% Sangiovese or with blends of international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah. For whites, the most famous appellation is Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG. Other varieties include Canaiolo Nero, Trebbiano, and Vermentino.
This small region in central Italy, due east from Tuscany, is overshadowed routinely by its neighbour. But this hilly landscape, fringed by the snow-capped Apennines, produces tannic, ageworthy, reds from Sagrantino de Montefalco DOCG. The companion white, Grechetto, is dry, crisp and ready to be enjoyed while young. Other varieties include Canaiolo, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Trebbiano.
Marche, pronounced mar-Kay, sits along the eastern coast in central Italy. It’s home to Rosso Cònero DOC, based on black grape Montepulciano. Other varieties produced here include Passerina, Pecorino, and Trebbiano.
Lazio is home to the capital city of Rome but also has a rich wine legacy. The region has a reputation for easy-drinking, youthful whites. While great wine is made here, the top exports are dry and crisp styles from Frascati DOC and Orvieto DOC, which straddles the border with Umbria. Other varieties include Cesanese, Merlot, and Sangiovese.
Next to Lazio on the Adriatic side, Abruzzo is a mountainous region rich in ancient winemaking traditions. Abruzzo is fifth by volume in production, known predominantly for the Montepulciano grape, not to be confused with the Tuscan region that focuses on Sangiovese. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC is the region-wide denomination for red wines made from the grape, while Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo DOC is the denomination for the region’s rosé wines made from the same variety. Trebbiano d’Abruzzo DOC is the main white grape of the region. Other varieties include Chardonnay, Cococciola, Passerina, Pecorino, and Sangiovese.
Below Abruzzo sits tiny Molise, a mountainous region in south-central Italy. The region is mostly known for Trebbiano and Montepulciano from the Biferno DOC. Other varieties include Aglianico, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, and Tintilia.
Most known for Naples and the Amalfi Coast, Campania’s wines are becoming more well-known in the U.S., especially as volcanic wines rise in popularity. For reds, the most famous are Taurasi DOCG and Aglianico del Taburno DOCG, both based on the red grape Aglianico. For whites, Fiano di Avellino DOCG and Greco di Tufo DOCG are best known, based on Fiano and Greco, respectively. Other varieties include Caprettone, Falanghina, and Piedirosso.
Located in southern Italy, Basilicata’s wine production is miniscule compared to more famous regions. A mostly landlocked, mountainous region tucked into the arch of the boot, it’s flanked by Campania to the west and Puglia to the east. Though it has few DOCs, the most famous one is Aglianico del Vulture, based on the full-bodied black grape Aglianico. Other varieties include Fiano, Greco Bianco, Malvasia Bianca, and Moscato.
This southern region has grown in popularity for its wines of good value based on indigenous grapes. The warm Mediterranean climate lends itself ripe, fruity, robust reds based on Primitivo (a.k.a. Zinfandel) and Negroamaro. Other varieties include Chardonnay, Bombino Bianco, Bombino Nero, Moscato, Nero di Troia, and Susumaniello.
Located on the coast of southwestern Italy, Calabria juts out between the Ionian and Tyrrhenian seas, separated from Sicily by the Strait of Messina. The wines reflect the coastal climate. Calabria is home to Cirò DOC, which produces mostly reds based on the tannic Gaglioppo grape. A small amount of white wines are produced from a blend of Greco Bianco and Montonico Bianco. Other varieties include Nerello Cappuccio and Nerello Mascalese.
The largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily’s dry, warm climate and copious sunshine are perfect for viticulture. There are fruity, medium-bodied red wines made from Nero d’Avola and juicy, peachy white wines made from Grillo, which are most prolific from the Sicilia DOC. In the south, Nero d’Avola is blended with Frappato for Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG. The red grape Nerello Mascalese and the white grape Carricante produce sought-after wines from the Etna DOC. Marsala DOC is the fortified wine from the west. Other varieties are Catarratto and Inzolia.
This island in the Mediterranean is better known for beaches and Pecorino cheese than wine, but more producers now export than ever. Wines to look for include Cannonau, the local name for Grenache, and Carignano or Carignan. Salty, floral Vermentino comes from the northeast. Another variety is Monica.