Buying wine can be a daunting task for many. Deciding on where your ideal wine should come from, or the grape you should select (Verdicchio, Barbaresco, etc) and what price point would seem acceptable to others, are all grounds for throwing in the wine buying towel. The deciding factors could be endless, so when faced with the complex wine labels found down the Italian aisle of the wine store, many wonder “where does it end”. Our goal today is to try to demystify Italian wine labels so as to take away one of the dreaded wine purchasing tasks.
Though you’ll find other text on an Italian wine label, the below is really what you need to know to make a wise wine buying decision. Given the appellation rules around naming conventions, the below also stands as a standard guide to reading an Italian wine label, regardless of if you are looking for a good Amarone, Barolo or Pinot Grigio.
The items on the list below are indicated on the wine label image to the right:
1. Type of wine
2. Wine appellation
3. Additional denomination
4. Vintage year
5. Name of the wine
6. Color of the wine
7. Alcohol content by volume
Italian Appellation System
Much of what is shown above on the label is somewhat self-explanatory, but where confusion can lay is in understanding the Italian Appellation System; why some wines are adorned with a DOCG classification and others with a DOC for example. The first thing you should know is what an Appellation System represents. An Appellation System is the country’s way of ensuring the quality of the wine is stated on the wine label, allowing the consumer to make an educated choice, and it also stands as a valued component for wine-makers as it speaks to the price a bottle could fetch. To better your understanding on Italian Appellations, our friends at Made In Italy have surmised the list below:
Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC)
DOC was introduced in 1963 with the aim of encouraging wine producers to focus on quality and to protect the international reputation of Italian wine by ensuring that wine exported met the quality standard required. DOC wines must be produced according to strict guidelines, ensuring that the wine is made from permitted grape varieties and meets the legal requirements to be designated as a wine from the region it represents.
Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG)
The DOCG category is reserved for the highest quality wines from Italy. In addition to the conditions required for DOC, the wines must be “guaranteed” by passing a blind tasting test, and since 1992 there have been additional limitations on permitted yields and natural alcohol levels, to ensure that the wines that meet the criteria for this prestigious category are undoubtedly the best that Italy has to offer.
Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT)
A third category, the IGT classification, was introduced in 1992, in order to acknowledge the wines that did not fit into the DOC category, but were of superior quality to Italy’s table wines. In particular, the new breed of “Super Tuscan” wines that were made from non-Italian grapes, and therefore could not be considered for DOC according to Tuscany’s wine legislation, required recognition. This has also provided an opportunity for winemakers to experiment with grape varieties that are perhaps not native to their region, and some truly interesting wines have emerged under the IGT classification.
Vino da Tavola
Vino da Tavola indicates table wine, the most basic wine available. This is genuinely mass-produced wine that is intended for local consumption and is generally not suitable for ageing. There are no specifications as to what grapes may be used, the only stipulation being that wine labelled Vino da Tavola must have been produced in Italy. A substantial quantity of bulk wine made in Italy is shipped in large vats for bottling in other countries. While this is something that is often regarded with disdain by wine industry professionals, in fact it generates a great deal of revenue and quality has vastly improved.
Our advice is to not sweat it and hone your wine detection skills by just trying wines from different regions and of different classifications. As stated above, we’ve had many Italian wines classified as an IGT that were fantastic. Further, in our travels in Italy, there were endless wines classed as Vino da Tavola that I would line up to try again. Italian wines have so much to offer, don’t be put off by the label. Instead, view each sip as a chance to try some lovely wines under the guise of a learning experience.