The long and extraordinary history of wine production in Italy can be traced back to 800Bc, with the Romans being the first to produce age-worthy styles using clay amphorae.
Italy was so renowned across the Mediterranean for the quality of its wines that the Greeks called it Oenotria.
Throughout history, Italian wines had always been about tradition and had not varied much in the styles produced. It is in the last 40 years that the country came to the forefront of quality wines again, by enhancing overall quality without compromising on the tradition.
Many producers are smallholders and part of the Italian character is to be creative, leading to the production of high-quality wines, in limited availability that are highly sought-after and expressive of their regions.
Throughout Italy, two winemaking approaches converge: traditionalist and Modernist. The former strives to produce wines that resemble those that have been produced for generations and the latter is looking at improving what is available by using modern techniques. Both have their own merits and have been important in the country’s wine history.
There are more than 350 grapes grown in Italy, most of them indigenous to the country. While there are designated wine regions, the reality is that almost the entire nation—except for its driest or most inhospitable mountainous reaches—is a wine region.
Vines grow everywhere in Italy, from the volcanic soils of Mount Etna with its local Nerello Mascalese, to the terraced slopes of the Alps, with the many natives Nebbiolo, Barbera, Pignolo and Refosco to name but a few. Down to the rolling hills of Tuscany where Sangiovese reigns sovereign.
Geography & Climate
With its iconic boot-like shape, Italy is unmistakable on the map.
But the key to understand this unique country is to acknowledge that it is a group of regions rather than a single homogeneous country,.
In general terms:
The Alps dominate the north of Italy, they create microclimates and altitude variations. Notable examples of Alpine influence are the wines from Trentino and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia.
The influence of the Alps is felt also in Piedmont and Veneto – they benefit from the protection that the mountains offer from winds and rains that come thought the centre of Europe.
The middle of the boot is blessed by the influence of both the Apennine Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. Many of the famous Tuscany appellations, namely Chianti and Brunello, are found on rolling hills at 200/300m above sea level, taking full advantage of the cooling breezes that come from the sea.
The south of Italy is fortunate with consistently bright sunshine and reliably moderate rainfall, a classic Mediterranean climate ideally suited to the production of wine grapes. Most Italian wine is indeed produced in Puglia and Calabria, where this influence is most obvious.
The islands of Sardinia and Sicily also have very particular terroir of their own. The combination of Mediterranean climate, maritime influence and volcanic soils make them some of the most fascinating regions in Europe.
Classification & Labelling
In order to fully appreciate Italian wines, regions and grape it’s important to understand how the country’s classification and labelling system works.
Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di origine controllata e Garantita (DOCG)
Introduced in 1963, it specifies not only the production area and production methods for each wine, but also guarantees quality standards.
Both DOC and DOCG are highly regulated in a way that the wines producers under those labelling represent a style. The grape varieties that need to be used, the winemaking techniques, the ageing process & length are all part of the regulating laws.
The difference between DOC and DOCG is that the quality of DOCG wine is guaranteed by the Italian Government which appoints a specialist agency to tests the wines before they are released to market. The name of the varieties used in DOCG wines is not present on the label.
Examples of DOCG are Barolo, Barbaresco, Chianti, Amarone and Brunello.
Wines with Protected Geographic Indication (IGP or IGT)
IGP stands for “Indicazione Geografica Protetta” in Italian. The IGT regulations emphasise the region that the wines come from, rather than focusing on a particular winemaking style. It is the terroir that makes them special.
Overall, the IGT rules are not as heavily regulated as DOC or DOCG, meaning winemakers have a lot more freedom to experiment. For example, Roero DOCG only allows one red grape (Nebbiolo) and one white grape (Arneis). But Salento IGT gives the winemaker freedom to use fifty grapes, as long as they are grown in Salento. There are, nonetheless, plenty great wines produced in Italy under the IGT classification, using both indigenous and international varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay etc.) or produced using winemaking techniques that do not conform to those of the higher appellation.
Country overview by
Sommellier at Petersham Nurseries and founder of Looking Into Wine Podcast