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

If you thought California 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. Modern European Union regulations (a Euro oxymoron) have only served to perpetuate the mystery for anyone unfamiliar with European wine regions. 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?

I didn't grow up with 2,000 years of wine tradition, but I find the whole concept a little absurd. However, for absurdity it still can't compare to the French region of Bordeaux, where in 1855 a group of wine merchants were asked to classify the wine châteaus into a hierarchy of quality groups called "Growths." As a result the products of winemakers who have been dead for well over 150 years still control the pricing and prestige of the wineries in the region today.

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 - Demoninazion di Origine Controlla 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.

IGT - Indicazione di Geograficia 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.

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 offical 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.

Piedmont
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 di Asti and Dolcetto di Alba among others.

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

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

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

Trentino/Aldo Adige
Italy's coolest growing region in the northeast corner on the Austrian border
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Famous for its white wines including Pinot Grigio and Tocai

Umbria
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

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

Sicily
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 Cataratto 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.