If you thought France was confusing, well that's only because you had yet to visit Italy. At least in France, the grape varietals are ones most of us have heard of. Not so here. On top of the unknown varietals is a labeling system that varies from region to region. The best wines come from strict areas labeled with the DOC designation, which is the governing body that sets the local quality standards. A wine with the DOCG designation is considered of the highest quality from that region, which will be reflected in the price. Some wines are named after towns/regions, leaving you to guess/know what the grape in the bottle is; others have the grape name right on the label. Each region is fairly strict about their laws, they just vary widely. The great thing about Italian wines is their price. Even the most famous exports can be quite affordable for the average drinker. Below is my attempt to condense and explain the most common regions/wines you may encounter.
There are (2) labeling terms that are useful to know: CLASSICO, which indicates a historic core of the region with typically better vineyard sites; RISERVA, which indicates that the wine has been aged for a specific, minimum period of time.
- PIEDMONTE: Nestled in the Northwest mountains near the borders of France and Switzerland. The main RED grapes grown Barbera, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo, which makes the region's most famous wines Barolo and Barbaresco. Any bottle with that title will be Nebbiolo. These are wines that begin around $40 a bottle and are ones that are meant to age (at least 5-7 years). Vintage matters and many can be bought on Futures. Barberas and Dolcettos will have the grape name and the town/village it came from i.e. Barbera D'Alba. They are what the Italians drink while waiting for their Barolos. The main WHITES grown are: Arneis, Gavi and Moscato, which is bottled into the region's most exported wine, the sparkling Asti Spumante.
- TRENTINO-ALTO-ADIGE: The country's northern-most region producing mostly WHITE wine from Pinot Grigio, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Riesling and RED wines from Merlot and two local varietals Teroldego and Lagrein. Wines from this region are generally pleasant, everyday types produced in the $10-$20 range.
- FRIULI-VENEZIA GIULIA: The extreme eastern region on the border of Slovenia. Both the white and red wines made here are light-bodied, with the WHITES made from mostly Pinot Grigio and Tocai Friulano, gaining the most acclaim. The best come from the Collio DOC, which makes some of the most expressive and elegant Pinot Grigios in Italy and that is reflected in their price (around $20). The REDS made of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Refrosco are rare to find outside the region.
- VENETO: This is the Northeast region surrounding Venice. It produces mostly WHITES: Soave (from the grape called Garganega), Prosecco (the region's sparkling entry) and Pinot Grigio. These are definitely wines to explore since their price point (around $10-$15) makes them great values for the quality. Trust me Italian Soave's are making a comeback, especially those labelled Classico and for those who love bubbles you can't get better bang for the buck than Proseccos. The main REDS from the region are labelled Valpolicella and Amarone. Made from the Corvina grape, the Valpols are lighter and drier in style, than the Amarones, which are dense, juicy, raisin-flavored red wines, produced from very ripe, dried out grapes. The process makes them rare and expensive ($45+).
- TUSCANY: The RED wines of this region are mostly made from Sangiovese in it's many permutations. The most famous version is Chianti, which had a bad rap for years, but is truly making a comeback. They are generally the lightest red wines made in the region. Morellino di Scansanos are wines that come from the area south of Chianti and are somewhat bolder in style and a bit cheaper. The region's most famous/expensive reds are its' Brunello di Montalcinos. These are highly extracted and tannic wines that are aged 5 years before being released and often need at least another five before being ready to drink. Their prices ($45-$100+) reflect their quality. If you'd like to test drive the type before you plunk down a lot of cash, try a Rosso di Montalcino. Same grape and region just not the top sites and only aged for two years before release. The WHITES are predominantly Vernacchia di San Gimignano (light & floral) and Orvieto, a blend of several local varietals that produces a crisp, light, green-apple flavored wine. Most versions of either are drinkable, but rarely memorable.
- SOUTHERN ITALY: Though this region is exporting a lot of wine, it is mostly of the IGT/table wine quality level from local red grapes such as Negroamaro, Primitivo (a.k.a. Zinfandel or at least in the same family) and Aglianico, which is the region's most acclaimed wine style. These wines generally aren't expensive because they're made to be everyday quaffers. The only DOC is Salice Salentino, which produces wines with more flavor and intensity then the IGT versions.