Decipher an Italian Wine List
Italian wine could easily be considered the final frontier of wine knowledge. This is because there more than 350 common indigenous wine grape varieties in Italy.
Learn the basics of how to read an Italian wine list to order wine with confidence. You don’t have to know Italian wine intuitively to have a great time.
How to Read an Italian Wine List
Most wine lists do not give you very much information except for the price, producer and vintage. It’s wonderful when a wine sommelier is close by to help guide you. However, sometimes there’s no one to assist you. So where do you begin?
Start by decoding the pertinent information:
- The producer’s name can either be a single producer like Valentini, a cooperative such as Produttori del Barbaresco (56 member group) or a larger wine brand such as Ruffino. Knowing what type of producer can be helpful in understanding if the wine is rare or easy-to-find.
- Type of Wine
- Like France, Italian wines are often named after a region and each region is classified. For instance, a wine labeled Chianti Classico DOCG is from a sub-region of Chianti in Toscana that requires a minimum composition of 80% Sangiovese grapes. Alternatively, a “Named Wine” like Ruffino “Modus” on an Italian wine list (classified as IGT) is an atypical blend of unclassified grapes. Super Tuscan falls into this category.
- Each of the 20 Italian wine regions specialize in different types of wine and different grape varieties. Learning the basics of the leading Italian wine regions will help you read an Italian Wine list.
- Vintage variation greatly affects the produce of Italy. As a general rule, older vintages tend to have less prominent tannin.
What is Super Tuscan Wine?
A wine that “Supersedes” Italian wine law.
The term Super Tuscan was coined in the 1970’s by Italian wine producers and wine writers to describe a wine from Toscana produced with grapes that did not meet appellation law (ie DOC and DOCG).
Before 1992 wine from Toscana, made from grapes like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, were placed under the low quality Vino da Tavola classification. Producers like Antinori and his wine called Tignanello and Tenuta san Guido’s Sassicaia bucked the system by creating high-priced quality wines with the unsanctioned grapes. Super Tuscan wines now fall under a wine appellation called IGT.
Italian Wine Regions
Question: How Many Italian Wine Regions? Answer: 20
Italy is often regarded as having 4 distinctly different areas that contain the 20 unique regions.
- Valle d’Aosta
- Trentino-Alto Adige
- Friuli-Venezia Giulia
In the US, most Italian wine lists include wines from Toscana, Piemonte, Abruzzo, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, Alto Adige, Puglia and Friuli. The Italian wine regions that are more rare include Lazio, Liguria, Calabria and Basilicata.
The Many Names for Sangiovese
Sangiovese is Italy’s most popular wine grape. It has several clonal variants and many regional names.
- Regional Names
- Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Chianti, Morellino di Scansano, Rosso di Toscana, Rosso di Montepulciano, Montefalco Rosso, Montecucco Rosso, etc.
- Clonal Variants
- The main variations are Sangiovese Grosso (big grapes) and Sangiovese Piccolo (little grapes). Prugnolo Gentile is a mutation of Sangiovese Grosso that makes the 100% Sangiovese wines of Brunello di Montalcino in Toscana
9 Common Italian Red Wine Grapes
- A grape with many names planted throughout Italy. Sangiovese is the main grape of Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino in Toscana.
- A grape that is known for the age-worthy high tannin wines of Barolo and Barbaresco in Piemonte.
- A dark-skinned grape producing wines with lower tannin & high acidity grown mostly in Piemonte, Italy.
- A grape and also a region of Emilia-Romagna (and part of Lombardy) that produces a light bubbly red wine of the same name.
- A grape grown commonly in Central and Southern Italy. Easily confused with vino Nobile de Montepulciano which is actually Sangiovese from the city of Montepulciano in Toscana. Montepuliciano d’Abruzzo is a dark rustic wine with full body, black pepper spice and high tannin.
- A style of wine from Veneto made with a blend of grapes (Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara) that are partially dried to produce a richer, high alcohol wine with a hint of sweetness on the finish.
- Ripasso della Valpolicella is a style of wine from Veneto made with three grapes: Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. Produced by fermenting fresh juice with leftover pomice from Amarone winemaking to add richness.
- A grape from Southern Italy that is a close relative to Zinfandel.
- A Southern Italian wine grape sometimes blended with Primitivo to add tannin and structure. Wines from Puglia that are dominantly Negroamaro include Salice Salento Rosso, Brindisi Rosso and Squinzano Rosso.
9 Common Italian White Wine Grapes
- Pinot Grigio
- The most familiar zesty Italian white wine grape of French origin (Pinot Gris). It is actually a Pinot Noir mutant that is a pale red-gray colored grape. It is grown mostly in Alto Adige, Friuli and Lombardy, where it is known as Oltrepò Pavese.
- aka Ugni Blanc. Trebbiano is Italy’s most planted white wine grape and is the same grape used to make Cognac and Balsamic Vinegar. Trebbiano is found as a blend in white wines all over Italy. It’s called Orvieto DOC in Umbria.
- The white wine grape that makes up the majority grape in the regional wine called Soave (pronounced “Swah-vey”) in Veneto. Soave Classico DOC is often oaked in a style simliar to oaked Chardonnay with more almond-like aromas.
- The grape in the regional wine called Cortese di Gavi or just Gavi from Piemonte. A light citrus and floral high acid white wine in a similar style to Pinot Grigio or Chablis from France.
- A zesty and slightly bitter white wine grape grown most notably in Marche. Also used in Soave where it is called Trebbiano di Soave (not the same as Trebbiano).
- A Southern Italian white wine grape from Campania with floral, citrus and nutty aromas that’s commonly blended in white wines from the region along with Trebbiano. Fiano di Avellino DOCG is 100% Fiano.
- A grape from Piemonte region most notable for the regional white wine Roero DOC.
- A grape from Sardegna and also cultivated commonly in Toscana. A Vermentino wine is a crisp white, often similar tasting to Sauvignon Blanc with more bitterness not unlike Grapefruit pith.
- Moscato aka Muscat is a very aromatic grape most known for its sweet and bubbly version, Moscato d’Asti from Piemonte.