Understand Italian wine? Me neither! The country really is a vinous nightmare, with so many indigenous grapes and so many wine regions. The biggest problem with Italian wine is working out what is the region (usually on the label) and what is the grape (generally not!)… Except for Montepulciano, which is both, but the grape isn’t used in the wine that bears its name! So I’ve done some digging and tried to come up with a (fairly!) simple way of negotiating an Italian wine list.
The word “Classico” on an Italian label doesn’t necessarily mean its better, it just means the vineyard is in the originally defined area. The Chianti region, for example, has grown over time so “Classico” simply means it is produced in the original area. In the regions where the “Classico” area is often better I will mention it! “Riserva” on the label means it’s been aged before release… But the time required is different by region… And you thought French wine was difficult to understand!
I’ll start in the north and go through by region. I’ll then look at the more “famous” wines from each region, attach an area name and the principle grape(s). There are 20 regions in Italy and I’ve picked the 11 you might expect see on a decent wine list.
A stellar white wine region, using more international grapes such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Bianco (same as Pinot Blanc) and Gewürztraminer. Most of the wines in the region are produced by small, quality-conscious growers, making wines that really represent the grapes and the vineyards, so very mineral and very fresh and often very complex.
Some of Italy’s best wines come from the Friuli area. The area has the lowest yields in Italy and is a highly quality conscious wine region. The wines are mainly blends containing Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay (plus two local varietals Ribolla Gialla and Malvasia). What you’re looking for on the label is simply the region, Friuli. This is the area to look for if you’re into Pinot Grigio. I’ve had a lot of pretty poor Italian Pinot Grigio, usually because the yields are so high so there’s no concentration and zero complexity, but the grape is taken seriously here and can deliver some truly outstanding wines.
The region is home to the world famous Barolo and Barbaresco red wines, which are 2 adjacent regions, both made from Nebbiolo grapes. Barolo must age minimum 3 years before release, 5 years for Riserva (Barbaresco is 2 & 4). These wines don’t come cheap and are still very tannic when young but,given time, they can be absolutely amazing. Most Italian red wines are almost designed to be drunk with food, given the country’s fame and love of eating, so big tannins are to be expected.
Also look out for Nebbiolo from Alba and Asti, labelled Nebbiolo d’Alba or Nebbiolo d’Asti, for a bit more value. The other two red grapes to look for in Piedmont are Barbera and Dolcetto, again from the areas of Alba and Asti – Barbera d’Alba, Dolcetto d’Alba & Barbera d’Asti, Dolcetto d’Asti. These wines are far more approachable young, and have a softer edge.
The major white wine production is from the Gavi region. The wines are made from Cortese grapes, but you won’t see this anywhere on the bottle. Gavi di Gavi means “Gavi from Gavi”, so it is grown in the town itself but is not necessarily better than simply Gavi(their version of Classico). I’m a big fan of these wines and find the quality pretty consistent.
Valpolicella is probably the best known red wine from the Veneto region. Lots of fruity deliciousness and very approachable, like drinking a Summer Pudding. The main grape in the blend is Corvina with smaller amounts of Rondinella and Molinara. This is one area where you should go for Classico on the label as the Classico region generally does deliver a higher quality. If you want a sturdy, rich wine then go for Amarone della Valpolicella, which is made with the same grapes, but they are left out to dry for a period of 2 or 3 months. If you want the good stuff, don’t pay less than £20 for a bottle; it will be money well spent.
The most famous white wine area of Veneto is Soave, which is primarily made from Garganega grapes, often blended with up to 15% of other varieties. Like Valpolicella, most good Soave comes from the Classico region. These are often simple, fresh and delicious wines, very underrated and often the best value on a wine list. Another region to look out for is Lugana. Lugana is made from the Trebbiano grape, which often makes very flaccid and cheap but dull wine (it is the most planted white grape in Italy). But the wines I have tried from Lugana have been full-bodied, complex and delicious.
We can’t talk about Veneto without mentioning Prosecco. The full name of the wine is Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene. Prosecco is the grape variety, Conegliano and Valdobbiadene being the names of the two villages in the region. The second fermentation of this fizz occurs in big steel tanks, so it’s cheaper to produce and cheaper to buy than Champagne. Great party wine!
The home of the Chianti region, one of the most famous names in red wine. The principle grape in Chianti is Sangiovese, and has to make up at least 80% of the blend. The two sub-regions I look for are Classico and Ruffina – both produce excellent wines. But also look out for Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, both regions within Chianti, and both made using Sangiovese. In the case of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Montepulcciano is the town, not the grape! There is also a Chianti Superiore, where the winemakers have to adhere to stricter rules on which grapes can be included, but it is not necessarily of better quality.
A development over the past 30 years in Tuscany has the appearance of the so-called “Super Tuscans”. These are wines that are produced using more “international” grape varieties, very often led by Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines are named after neither the grape nor the area, but they do have fancy brand names and very fancy prices. Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Solaia. If you get the chance to try one expect maybe more Bordeaux than Tuscany… and a call from your bank manager.
Orvieto is the main wine producing region of Umbria, making white wines using the Trebbiano and Grechetto (new one for me!) grapes. These are fruity and fun wines. Maybe not one for the connoisseur, but great with shellfish.
The region may not be a wine powerhouse but it does produce a white wine that most of you will recognise from the supermarket shelves – Frascati. The wine is made using Italian favourites Trebbiano, Greco and Malvasia and often delivers a lovely fresh wine, perfect for a sunny afternoon in the garden.
The most notable wine of the region is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo – this is the one made using the Montepulciano grape! You will often find this very close to the top (or bottom?) of a wine list, as it is relatively cheap and there is a lot of the stuff made. I find these wines very approachable, not overly tannic and delivering a good mouthful of deep, dark fruit. A pretty safe go-to wine on any list.
The two white wines that make Campania famous are Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino. And very handily, they give you the name of the grape (Greco and Fiano) as well as the name of the region (Tufo and Avellino)! Both of these grapes are capable of making big and strong flavoured wines. I was lucky enough to try an excellent Greco di Tufo at a recent tasting, which really made me think I need to try plenty more. Another white grape variety to be found in the region is Falanghina, another great match your spaghetti di frutti de mare.
Puglia is the “heel” of the Italian boot. Very hot, very dry and the perfect environment for producing concentrated and powerful red wines. The two main grapes in the area are Primitivo and Negroamaro. Primitivo is the same grape as Zinfandel and offers massive fruit flavours of blueberries and blackberries, with lovely hints of smoke and mocha. When I’m not sure what to go for on an Italian list this is often my default choice. Negroamaro makes some lovely, earthy and rustic wine with dark fruit flavours that taste of the sunny climate in which they were grown.
The fortified Marsala is probably Sicily’s most famous wine. Made using the native Grillo, Catarratto and Inzola grapes, it can be made in sweet and dry styles, and makes a nice alternative to Port or Sherry. Also used in lots of Italian cooking to give real vigor to sauces accompanying meat.
When I first came across Nero d’Avola in a local pizza restaurant, I thought it was Italian for table wine! Maybe this wasn’t quite such a ridiculous thought as it is often the cheapest wine on an Italian list. It happens to Sicily’s most important red wine grape and is indigenous to the island. The wines have sweet fruit and pepper flavours and are a great match for pizza and tomato-based pasta dishes.
So next time your contemplating whether go have the thin and crispy or deep pan, give a bit of thought to which wonderful Italian wine wine to pair with it.