I Love Italian Wine and Food – Launching a Series
Let’s start with a few statistics. Italy constantly fights with France for the title of the world’s biggest wine producer. Italy ranks number 3 in per capita wine consumption. As in many other European countries, Italians are drinking less wine, but better wine. Italy exports about 10% of its wine production to the United States. It is home to almost one million registered vineyards, and more than one thousand grape varieties, the majority of which are found nowhere else on earth.
Italy is the king of microclimates: 40% of its territory is mountainous and another 40% is hilly. Such territory can often be ideal for vineyards, even if of little value for other agricultural products. The country is surrounded by five bodies of water; the Ligurian Sea in the northwest, the Tyrrhenian Seas in the southwest, the Ionian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea in the south, and the Adriatic Sea in the east. All these geographical factors mean that vineyards a few kilometers apart may yield vastly different wines.
Did you know that Italy is divided into twenty regions? Each and every one produces wine, its own distinctive style or usually styles of wine that accompany its regional food specialties. Almost all regions produce wine for export to North America. Of course some regions are doing better than others, but in many cases regions that were once known for their bland, and perhaps baked wines, have turned the corner and are now making some excellent wines. Because the public is not yet generally aware of these wine-making regions, there are still bargains to be had. Keep posted, I’ll be making specific recommendations.
Italy can be divided into three major sections: Northern Italy, sharing a border with four European countries (France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia), Central Italy, and the South, traditionally the poorest part of Italy.
Northern Italy is composed of eight regions: The Aosta Valley, Piedmont (whose capital is Turin), Lombardy (whose capital is Milan), Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, The Veneto (whose capital is Venice), Emilia-Romagna, and Liguria (whose capital is Genoa). Because wines from the first and last of these regions are quite difficult to find in North America, we are planning articles on only six of these regions.
Central Italy is composed of six regions: Tuscany (whose capital is Florence), Umbria, The Marches, Abruzzi, Molise, and Latium (whose capital is Rome). We are planning at least one article on each of these regions.
Southern Italy is composed of six regions: Apulia, Campania (whose capital is Naples), Basilicata, Calabria, and the islands of Sicily (whose capital is Palermo) and Sardinia. We are planning at least one article on each of these regions.
Each article will discuss the region and its distinctiveness. We’ll talk about the wines and the foods that characterize the region. We’ll taste at least one wine as we are preparing the articles, and sometimes refer to memorable wines that we have tasted months or years previously. When possible, we’ll taste the wine with an imported Italian cheese that typifies the region.
OUR WINE REVIEW POLICY While we have communicated with well over a thousand Italian wine producers and merchants to help prepare these articles, our policy is clear. All wines that we taste and review have been purchased at the full retail price.
Now back to the subject of Italian wines.
Italy has legally defined four wine classifications that presumably help the consumer make a selection when faced dozens of unfamiliar choices. In 1963 Italy devised the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (Denomination of Controlled Origin) wine legislation largely modeled on the French legislation. The goal of the DOC system was to classify and regulate wine production in given geographical areas and help these areas develop their own specific identity. Don’t get confused, in addition to designating the Italian wine classification system, DOC also designates the third classification level within this system.
While most wine producing countries have instituted official wine classifications, arguably the Italian system is the most controversial, some would say the most abused, and the most ignored by the wine producers themselves. Look for these classifications on the wine label. But be warned, a higher classification does not always mean a better wine.
VdT stands for Vino da Tavola, translated as table wine. These wines may be made from any grape, or mixture of grapes, anywhere within Italy. Usually table wines are pretty ordinary, and in Italy they are often served directly from the barrel. And yet on occasion VdT wines are excellent and priced accordingly. Why should these lowest-rated wines be better than their supposedly fancier competitors? Some innovative producers didn’t want to be told by government officials how to make wine (see DOC below). In essence they said, “We’ll do it our way and let the market decide.” The classic examples of outstanding VdT wines are Super-Tuscans, often going for $50 or more a bottle.
IGT stands for Indicazione Geografica Tipica, which may be translated as Typical Geographic Indication, in other words a wine that typifies its specific location. This classification was created in 1992 to provide a level of wine above table wine, and below DOC, described next. The IGT classification defines the wine’s geography but not its composition or production method. Once again, don’t jump to conclusions about the wine’s quality. I clearly remember drinking an exceptional IGT served at a public Italian wine dinner. It was a Rosso di Toscana IGT Croce di Bibbiano “Santo Chiodo” Super Tuscan that unfortunately is unavailable in my area. It costs more than most DOC and DOCG wines (see below) and in my opinion, this wine is worth it.
DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin. Each and every region has at least one DOC wine, for example, the Apulia region has 25 DOCs while its neighbor Bascilicata has only one. A given DOC defines the permissible grape or grape varieties as well as numerous details about the grape growing and wine making process. The first DOC wine dates back to 1966. About one fifth of Italian wine is classified DOC or better. Perhaps you can guess from this statistic that a DOC on the label is no guarantee of quality.
DOCG stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Guarantita, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin. Please realize that this letter G on the label is no guarantee of quality. For example, the first red wine to achieve DOCG status (in 1980), the Tuscan Brunello di Montalcino is quite highly regarded. In contrast, the first white wine to achieve DOCG status (in 1987 after considerable debate) the Albana di Romagna from the neighboring region of Emilia-Romagna is not highly regarded at all. I have never tasted this particular wine, but the best comment I have ever read it is that this wine is pleasantly fruity. In my opinion, such weak praise hardly justifies its top-of-the-line official status. Perhaps what is required is a DOCGG classification (I’ll let you do the translation.)