It is impossible to characterize Italian wine. From the Italian Alps to the island of Sicily the terrain produces a vast amount of grapes along with an equally broad amount of diversity, all of which has evolved throughout 3,500 years of constant husbandry.
Italian Wine Regulations
Italy produces and exports more wine than any other country in the world. Like all Western European wine producing countries, the Italian government has instituted a set of regulations designed to protect quality. At the top of the heap are the DOCG or Denominazione di Origine Controllata et Garantita. Below this ranking are the DOC or Denominazione di Origine Controllata wines. Generally these are the wines that are exported abroad. These labels are supposed to guarantee a certain authenticity relative to the region where they're produced.
To earn this label the wine must adhere to a set of minimum regulations, which vary according to the regional specifications. Below these two are the IGT or Indicazione Geografica Tipica classified wines, which generally mean that the wines are authentic and typical of the broad region from which they originate. One anomaly in this particular classification is wine of high quality that uses non-typical grapes or modern wine-making techniques.
Thus, some of Italy's most expensive wines, such as the Super Tuscans, share the same ranking as simple country wine. This has produced much controversy and presumably in the future a new separate category will be created for these high-quality non typical wines. The lowest denomination are the wines considered Vina da Tavola, which is rarely found outside of Italy.
Geographical Wine Zones of Italy
Italy has 20 distinct wine regions that roughly can be divided into four geographical zones.
Within this zone are the three regions: Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, which are known collectively as the Tre Venezie. Veneto is Italy's largest producer of D.O.C wines. All three regions are affected by the Alps which shield the zone from the cool, damp European weather.
Winemaking here is characterized by modern efficiency relative to other Italian regions. This adherence to quality standards has paid off with a booming export market for the Venezie. Like all of Italy, a wide variety of grapes are grown here with many native as well as international varietals. Some of the best known regions within this zone are Soave, Valpolicella, Bardolino and Prosecco.
Well known winemakers in this region include:
Most famous for the Piedmont region the Northwest also has the regions of Val d'Aosta, Lombardy, Liguria and Emilia-Romagna to its credit. Piedmont is famous for its Barolo and Barbaresco, both made from the Nebbiolo grape. Its Dolcettos and Barbera, both lighter and less expensive, should not be overlooked either. Emilia-Romagna is familiar to many Americans for its sparkling Lambrusco. Winemakers in this region include:
This zone contains six regions: Tuscany, Umbria, Marches, Abruzzo, Latium and Molise. The Sangiovese grape reigns supreme throughout this zone. Tuscany is without a doubt the most well known region within this zone with Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and the ubiquitous Chianti.
Trebbiano and Orvieto are perhaps the most favored white grapes in this zone. Recently international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc as well as Pinot Noir have been planted with favorable results. Notable winemakers include:
This zone contains the regions of Sicily, Apulia, Sardinia, Calabria, Basillcata and Campania. Both Apulia and Sicily compete for the highest volume producing region in Italy. Most of these grapes are used for non-wine products such as industrial alcohol. Quality has been improving recently as yields are reduced, however. Given the South's previous reputation for poor quality there are many good bargains currently on the market as producers focus on a better product for the export market. Well known winemakers include:
Exploring the wine of Italy is a lifelong journey that would require several lifetimes. Many of the exported wines are considered the best that a certain region has to offer but those who have traveled in Italy may disagree as many Italian wines are never exported. Considering that Italy is around the size of California, it's pretty impressive to consider that Italy makes the most wine, exports the most wine and also drinks the most wine.