An Overview of Italian Wines

Italy, although not the motherland of vinifera, is credited with first bringing vinifera vines to the rest of Europe during the Roman Empire. The history of wine in Italy actually goes back 4000 years ago when the ancient Greeks came to the southern peninsula and discovered the Etruscans practicing the art of winemaking. Ancient writings by Pliney the Elder, Cato the Elder, and Columella portray a rather advanced picture of winemaking, with archeology supporting these claims with vessels and other artifacts.

The Romans propagated the wine trade by bringing their vines and their knowledge of winemaking to the rest of Europe. Saint Benedict, founder of the Benedictine order of monks is credited with establishing the modern vineyard as we know of it today. Born in 480 A.D., and studying in Rome, Benedict felt his calling to the monastic life. Spending several years in seclusion some neighboring monks invited him to become their abbot. His discipline was so severe that they tried to assassinate him by serving him poisoned wine. It is said that when Benedict raised his glass, he made the sign of the cross and the cup shattered, thus sparing his life. He would eventually establish another monastery at Monte Cassino, in central Italy, which would emphasize the farming of grain, olive oil, and wine. The monasteries lofty reputation won them a measure of peace from the violence that swept Europe. Lay workers in search of sanctuary would come to work the vineyards at the monastery. Benedictine monasteries remain a monument to the widespread development of modern European winemaking.

Italy offers a diversity of microclimates and soil types. 30% of the workforce is employed in the winemaking trade. In the north, the regal wines, Brunello, Barolo, and Chianti are produced in the mountainous regions and in the south where it is hot, they produce the whites and more acidic, higher alcohol reds.

Map of Italy Regions

Developments in the Italian Wine Tradition

Experimentation and tradition dichotomize winemakers across Italy today. The Super Tuscans were created by experimentation, whereas the “Black Rooster Consorzio” was created to establish uniformity in the region of Chianti. The consorzio in an effort to protect and strengthen themselves created the classification system (DOC, DOCG, etc.) and a national protectorate which would define and regulate the industry.

  • Indicazioni Geografiche Tipiche (IGT) – Recently established in 1995 for wines having a specific character resulting from typical soil type and climate, as well as approved vine varieties within a specific geographical locale. Similar to the Vin de Pays in France.
  • Denominazione Di Origine Controllata (DOC) – To qualify for this classification, the wines must conform to production rules laid down by the consorzio for each particular region or locale of origin. The regulations also govern bottling, alcohol levels, and aging requirements. There are currently 230 DOC designations.
  • Denominazione Di Origine Controllata E Garantita (DOCG) This is the highest category in Italian wine classification. This guarantee comes from the consorzio and the national government to assure quality standards are maintained. Terms such as Classico, Superiore, Vecchio, and Riserva are used for these wines to show excellence.

Experimentation with French varietals and new winemaking techniques has created a whole new market. Joint projects (e.g Luce between Frescobaldi and Mondavi) can sometime put International winemakers and Italian winemakers together for interesting results. Tignanello, Sassicaia, and Ornellaia are some results of modern day experimentation that have proved very successful and sometimes even exceed the traditional winemaking rules set down by the consorzio.

Basic Glossary of Italian Label Terms

  • Annata – year or vintage
  • Fattoria – vineyard estate
  • Classico – center of a particular DOC zone
  • Recioto – wine made from dried grapes
  • Riserva – aged longer in barrel and/or the bottle to improve quality
  • Superiore – higher in alcohol strength
  • Vendemmia – Vintage
  • Passito – wines made from late-harvest grapes
  • Casa Vinicola – negotiant
  • Secco – dry
  • Amaro – very dry
  • Dolce – very sweet
  • Vecchio – old or aged
  • Podere – small farm or estate
  • Tenuta – farm or estate
  • Spumante – sparkling wine, sometimes sweet and sometimes dry
  • Frizzante – fizzy or slightly fizzy
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