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A Brief Guide to Italian Wine Classifications
Wne "where it's from" is more important than "what it is"

Almost all of Italy is perfect for wine grape cultivation and they have over 350 indigenous vinifera grapes. Etruscan and Greek settlers produced wine in Italy before the Romans started their own vineyards in the 2nd century BC. Roman grape-growing and winemaking was prolific and well-organized, pioneering large-scale production and storage techniques like barrel-making and bottling.

If you thought French wine labels were hard to understand, wait until you have spent some time with Italian wines. As in France, most Italian wines are seldom labeled by grape varietal, but instead by geographic origin. As a result, Italian regulations tend to stratify wines into fixed classes of perceived quality. As in France, this creates a self fulfilling prophecy for wine producers. For example, if you make wine from the Sangiovese grape in the zone of Tuscany, you must be within the region of Chianti to be called a "Chianti." But, you can never aspire to be a Chianti Classico unless you are within the physical boundaries of the regulated Classico region within Chianti. Does being grown across the valley make it better? In every vintage?

Italy is divided into 20 wine zones, which are the same as their political regions. Within those regions, Italian law further designates four classifications of wine quality based upon its place of origin. Look for one of these classifications on every bottle of Italian wine.

DOCG - Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita
This means regulated and guaranteed place-name - only 17 of these designations exist. For instance, Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino are both DOCG regions in Tuscany where the wine is made from Sangiovese grapes.

DOC - Denominazione di Origine Controllata
This means regulated place-name - 286 of these place name designations exist. For example, the Zenato Ripassa Valpolicella DOC is a wine made primarily from Corvina grapes, by the Ripassa method in the Valpolicella region located in the zone of Veneto. The Allegrini Palazzo Della Torre, one of the best Ripassa currently made in Valpolicella, is made by the Allegrini family who got fed up with "unreasonable regulations" that prevented them from blending certain grapes. With this vintage, they have chucked their DOC designation and are now officially classified as an IGT.

IGT - Indicazione di Geografica Tipica
These are table wines with a geographic place of origin on the label. These tend to be broad regional designations - 128 IGT designations exist. Di Majo Norante Sangiovese is an IGT wine from the zone of Molise. You can tell that they have targeted this wine for the US export market since they have actually used the grape varietal name on the label.

Some of Italy's most famous and expensive wines, "Super Tuscans," are also forced into this classification because indigenous grapes like Sangiovese have been blended with international grapes like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Table Wine
Table wine carries no geographical indication on the label except Italy. For example the Taurino Notarpanaro wine is identified only as red table wine. It is made by the Taurino family from a vineyard named Notarpanaro in the zone Puglia, that either does not lie within an approved geographic area or the Taurino family, like the Allegrinis, have chosen not to use the official designation.

Confused yet? The good news is that the word "reserve" actually means something in Italy. Each geographic area has its own complex and often arcane set of rules: but in Chianti, Reserva are aged in oak and may be released only after two years at the winery.

Here is quick guide to seven of Italy's most famous wine regions and primary varieties of grapes used there.

In the far North Western corner of Italy, home to the unique combination of soil and climate that produces the difficult Nebbiolo grape
Barolo and Barbaresco - from the Nebbiolo grape
Lighter red wines from the Barbera and Dolcetto grape like Barbera d' Asti and Dolcetto d' Alba among others.

Italy's most famous wine producing region located on the Northern Western coast.
Chianti, Chianti Classico, Chianti Rufina, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano from primarily Sangiovese grapes. Carmignano and other unclassified Super Tuscans are made from Sangiovese and international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon.

Home to the intense Amarone, Veneto is located far North Eastern Italy.

Soave, a white wine from Garganega and Trebbiano grapes
Reds, Valpolicella, Amarone and Bardolino from Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grapes.

Trentino/Alto Adige
Italy's coolest growing region in the North East corner on the Austrian border

Famous for its white wines including Pinot Grigio, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Tocai.

In central Italy, Umbria is where many a red wine bargain can be found.

Famous for its white Orvietos
Reds from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese and the native Torgiano and Sagrantino.

Italy's warmest growing region located in the very heel of the boot
Bold, powerful reds from Primitivo (our Zinfandel), Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera.
White from Verdeca, Bianco d'alessano, Trebiano Toscano and Malvasia Bianca.

This island is Italy's largest growing region with a very California-like climate

Whites from the native Insolia, Chardonnay and many other varietals as well as Catarratto Bianco used in Marsala and Vermouth.
Reds include the native Nero d'avola as well as Merlot and many other international varietals.

Wine is made everywhere in Italy, much of it from grapes you have never heard of. As the importance of export continues to rise, look for more and more good varietally labeled wines to come out of Italy. And, while the serious students of Italian wine turn up their noses, we'll find more great bargains like the Di Majo Norante Sangiovese.

Remember the secret to Italian wine is that it is designed for food, so try something you have never had before with dinner tonight.