Beginner's Guide to Italian Wine Tasting

Karen Frazier
Tasting wine in Tuscany, Italy

Whether you are hosting an Italian wine tasting party or just want to know more about the different types and flavor characteristics of wine from Italy, this easy to read guide will help you with the basics of Italian wine. Italy has a diverse wine culture, producing world-class Old World wines that stand up as some of the best wines in the world.

Italian Wine Is All About the Rossos (Reds)

As far as Italian wines go, the reds dominate the market. Yes, there are a few whites, but red wine is what Italy is known for. The following is a relatively short list of the many different types of red Italian wine.

Amarone

Amarone is short for Amarone della Valpolicella, red wine made from a blend of partially dried grapes including Corvina or Corvinone and Rondinella. The wine is produced in the Valpolicella region of Veneto. A good Amarone should be full-bodied, velvety, and well balanced. The flavor characteristics are that of dried dark fruit with a hint of oak and vanilla undertones.

Barbera

Many Italian table wines are made from the humble Barbera grape; in Italy it is considered the wine of the people because it is flavorful, affordable, and accessible. In Piedmont, it's known as Barbera d'Asti, and it's often grown on the north-facing slopes of hills that, on the south side, are planted with the Nebbiolo grape. Barbera is a medium to full bodied and full of bright, forward fruit flavors. Barbera has mellow tannins and a traditionally high acid content.

Barolo and Barbaresco

Made from the powerful Nebbiolo grape, Barolo and Barbaresco are wines produced in Piedmont. These wines often have powerful tannins that take years of aging to tame, although the result are lush, flavorful wines. Barolo is a masculine and complex wine. You will find deeply intense dark fruit flavors with hints of leather and tobacco in this wine.

Chianti

Chianti is a Tuscan wine made from the Sangiovese grape, Italy's most widely planted grape varietal. Chianti displays bright fruit flavors with a few subtle hints of spice.

Lambrusco

As close in flavor as wine can get to grape juice, Lambrusco is a "frizzante" or sparkling red wine with a light to medium body and bright cherry flavor characteristics. The wine is named for the grape varietal, and it's grown in several of Italy's wine regions.

Montepulciano

A dry, well-balanced medium-bodied Italian red with lush black cherry flavors, Montepulciano wines come from the Montelpulciano grape, grown in regions such as Abruzzo, Marche, and Puglia.

Sangiovese

This is the most widely planted grape in Italy. You'll find it in Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino as well as wines labeled as the varietal. Medium to full bodied, Sangiovese is full of ripe raspberry and dark cherry flavors.

Dolcetto

Another Piedmont wine grape, Dolcetto is a grape that produces wines with fruity flavors and licorice overtones.

Brunello

This is a big, lush, full-bodied wine full of jammy fruits and just a slight hint of spice. Brunello is made from the Sangiovese grape. Wondering what it means when a wine is described as chewy? Try a Brunello.

Italy's Biancos (Whites)

Italian wine tasting cannot be complete without the white wines.

Prosecco

Prosecco is often thought of as Italy's affordable answer to Champagne, but other than bubbles the two really have very little in common. Prosecco is produced in the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions, and while it may be sparkling or frizzante, there are also flat (or still) Proseccos made as well. Prosecco is made primarily from Glera grapes, although it may contain up to 15% of various other white wine grapes as well. Prosecco tends to be dry and crisp with flavors of apple, melon, and honeysuckle.

Two glasses of Prosecco

Moscato d'Asti

This lightly fizzy wine comes from Asti in the Piedmont region, and it's made from the Moscato Bianco grape. The wine is frizzante, that is, it's lightly fizzy, and it's also lightly sweet. Characteristic flavors include apricots, orange blossom, and pear among others.

Pinot Grigio

The most well known of all the Italian white wines, Pinot Grigio is dry, light bodied and full of citrus fruit flavors. You'll find the best examples of Italy's Pinot Grigio wines coming from the regions of Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

Soave

Similar to Pinot Grigio but slightly sweeter, Soave displays soft, melon flavors with hints of citrus and a bit of almond. Soave is the name of the growing region, not the varietal used in the wine, which is the Gargenega grape.

Verdicchio

Verdicchio is a white wine grape variety, grown primarily in Italy's Marche region. This medium-bodied white is full of lush pineapple and pear flavors. The high acid content of Verdicchio lends to its crisp flavors.

Arneis

A sweet, semi-dry Italian white wine grown in the Piedmont region, Arneis is full of lush peach, pear, and nectarine fruit. It's also a highly aromatic grape, so many of the wines made from this grape have a heavenly aroma.

Orvieto

Orvieto is the name of a DOC in Italy's Umbria region. The primary grapes in this white wine are Grechetto and Trebbiano, although you may find other varietals in blends as well. This wine is full of apple, plum, and pear flavor characteristics with a bit of earthy undertones.

Gavi

Wines from Gavi, also called Cortese di Gavi are a DOCG subregion of Piedmont. The main grape included is the Cortese grape, which produces dry, flinty, acidic wines. This dry white wine is available as a still wine and as a sparkling wine. Gavi displays pear and tropical fruit flavor characteristics.

Some Italian Wine Tasting Suggestions

Now that you know a few of the basics about Italian wine, here are a few suggestions for you to begin your Italian wine tasting. Ratings are aggregate from a variety of reviewers.

Reds

Year Name Varietal Price Rating
2010 Brigaldara Amarone della Valpolicella Classico $60 90
2015 Pio Cesare Fidas

Barbera d'Alba

$50 91
2013 Renato Ratti Marcenasco Barolo $50 93
2015

Fontodi Gran Selezione Vigna del Sorbo

Chianti Classico $90 96
2017

Lini 910 - "Labrusca"

Lambrusco

$16 N/A
2018 Cataldi Madonna Cerasuolo d'Abruzzo Montelpulciano $20 90
2017

G.D. Vajra Coste & Fossati

Dolcetto d'Alba $25 91
2009 Le Chuise Brunello di Montelcino Riserva $90 91

Whites

Year Name Varietal Price Rating
NV Mionetto Prosecco Superiore $20 N/A
2015

Marchese Dell'Elsa

Moscato d'Asti

$13 N/A
2017 Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio (Alda Adige) $20 N/A
2017

Pieropan

Soave $20 91
2017

Garofoli dei Castello di Jesi Macrina

Verdicchio

$15 N/A
2017

Rocca Felice Roero

Arneis $16 N/A
2017

Antinori San Giovanni Della Sala

Orvieto $24 N/A
2016 Villa Sparina Gavi $14 N/A

Explore Italian Wine on Your Own

Don't limit yourself to tasting only the wines on the above list. Many Italian wines can be found in every price range imaginable. Keep in mind that the Brunellos and Barolos are going to be among the most expensive of the bunch. So, take a trip to your local wine merchant, ask a few questions, and find the perfect Italian wine for you. After all, wine connoisseurs like Robert Parker know their stuff, but it doesn't mean they have the same tastes as you do. It's okay to branch out beyond wine ratings and say "I like this $10 bottle of Sangiovese better than the $50 bottle of Brunello." That's the beauty of wine tasting, there really are no rules.

Beginner's Guide to Italian Wine Tasting