Misunderstanding Italian Wines


I love Italian wines. I’ll argue that the grapes and wines from Italy are among the most diverse and thereby, fascinating in the world. The wines are distinctly local…wines from Tuscany are not at all like those from Piedmont or Calabria or Veneto or Alto Adige. The grapes are seldom the same from one region to another, and even in the rare case that they are the same grape, they have different names. And even if they have the same name, they are different clones. (Italy’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, has documented over 350 grapes and granted them “authorized” status. There are more than 500 other documented varieties in circulation as well)

And while there are merely 20 wine regions, there are distinct growing areas within each and a complex set of rules. The most distinct wines are Vini DOP (Wines with Protected Designation of Origin): This category includes two sub-categories, Vini DOC (Controlled Designation of Origin) and Vini DOCG (Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin). DOC wines must have been IGP wines (often referred to as ‘table wines’ for at least 5 years. They come from smaller regions, within a certain IGP territory, that are particularly noted for their climatic and geological characteristics and for the quality and originality of the local winemaking traditions. They also must follow stricter production regulations than IGP wines. A DOC wine can be promoted to DOCG if it has been a DOC for at least 10 years. In addition to fulfilling the requisites for DOC wines (since that’s the category they come from), before commercialization DOCG wines must pass stricter analyses, including a tasting by a specifically appointed committee. Got all that? Currently, there exist 332 DOCs and 73 DOCGs for a total of 405 DOPs.

Furthermore, Italian wines are largely meant to be consumed with food, so the lush, sweet wines (yes, most California Cabernets and Chardonnays are lush and sweet!)  beloved by American wine critics are mostly non-existent (except for the so-called Super-Tuscans, made from international grapes in a style meant to appeal to the American wine press). Italian wines are often the ‘sauce’, necessary accompaniments to the table. In fact, the Italian wine consumer is unlikely to drink a glass of red as a cocktail; that’s barbaric!

So whenever you hear someone make a blanket statement about ‘Italian’ wines, you can count on them being wrong. And not just ‘difference of opinion’ wrong, but factually,demonstrably, verifiably wrong!

Trying to put the literally tens of thousands of wines from Italy in a measurable ‘box’ is not only insane but impossible. Quantifiable judgements demand comparison. And attempting to compare wines from Italy to each other (or, for that matter, the rest of the world) is like trying to compare colors. What’s better, blue or red? How many points do they each get?

So, to enjoy wines from Italy, one must put down the calipers and drop the scales. There is no measurement that has any merit beyond ‘did you like it?”

Which is precisely what I love about Italian wines.