Italian Wine 101 - Updated 2/10/19

Italy is the #1 wine producing country in the world. They have nearly 400 grape varieties. This wide range of grapes is made possible due to Italy’s varied topography and climate. They produce many of the best wines in the world. Italy is one of the oldest wine-producing countries. Some say they date back 4,000 years when the Greeks first came to southern Italy wine was already part of everyday life. The Etruscans and later the Romans took a great interest in winemaking. With the rise of Catholicism and the importance of wine as part of the sacrament, Italy continued to refine their winemaking techniques during the middle ages. By then they were internationally known for making a variety of excellent wines.

Today Italian wines are more varied and more popular than ever. Like many foods, many people today are concerned about where their wine comes from, and how it’s produced. Italy is one of a hand full of countries that have rigorous rules on wine production to ensure sustainability and environmental responsibility.

Climate change is also affecting winemaking. So much so that France has bought land in the U.K to begin new vineyards. Today researchers do not have enough data to adapt wine grape varieties to the effects of climate change. Europe has the advantage due to the 1,000 grape varieties to choose from and organizations like INRA’s Domaine de Vassal, that study this diversity and expertise in growing different varieties.

2017 was a bad year for wine production in Europe. The production levels dropped to those of the 1960s due to extreme weather events in Italy, France, and Spain, three of the world’s largest wine producing countries.

Let’s take a closer look at Italy’s wine regions. Italy has 20 main wine regions. They are Lombardy, Trentino Alto Adige, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Veneto, Valle d’Aosta, Piedmont, Liguria, Tuscany, Emilia Romagna, Umbria, Marche, Lazio, Abruzzo, Molise, Campania, Basilicata, Puglia, Calabria, Sicily, and Sardegna.

In the 1960s Italy established a wine classification system and labeling protocols. Strict labeling regulations provide the producer name, appellation, vintage, alcohol content and bottle volume.

Below is an example of Italy’s wine labeling system. 

Producer - IL Gridio Da San Felice





Appellation title - Chianti Classico is a sub-wine region in Tuscany



Volume - 750 ML

Alcohol Content - 13%


2012 vintage is denoted above Reserva. The terms Reserva, Riserva, Reserve, Grand Reserve and Vintner's Reserve are not unanimously defined in Italy. However, it usually means a superior wine and one that has been aged a minimum number of years.

The black rooster on the white background surrounded by a pink border is the symbol of the Chianti Classico Wine Consortium. The consortium protects and promotes the wines of this region, and prevents fraud.


In addition, Italy has a 4-tier wine classification system that denotes a quality hierarchy. The designations to look for are DOCG, DOC, IGT and Vino da Tavola.

The DOCG designation is the highest classification and means that the wine has undergone controlled production methods and is a guaranteed quality wine. The strict rules look at the allowable grape varieties, yield limits, grape ripeness, winemaking procedures and barrel/bottle maturation. This designation is presented to the highest quality Italian wines. To prevent counterfeiting the bottles have a numbered government seal across the neck.

DOC includes almost every traditional Italian wine style. There are nearly 330 individual DOC titles, each with a set of laws that govern its viticultural zone, permitted grape varieties and wine style. DOC is a step up from the IGT designation.

The IGT classification is relatively new having been introduced in 1992 to permit winemakers a certain amount of freedom. Before 1992 many of Italy’s wines failed to earn the DOCG or DOC label. This was not due to low quality but because they used a blend of grape varieties not allowed under the DOCG or DOC designation. The IGT label focuses on the region of origin instead of the grape varieties or wine styles.

The last classification in this hierarchy is the Vino da Tavola, which means ‘table wine’ in Italian. This is considered Italy’s most basic level of Italian wine. 

My apologies for opening the bottle before taking this photo. Look closer at the label and you will see the DOCG (the 'D' cut off) designation on the upper neck of the bottle. Noticed the numbered government seal across the neck to prevent fraud. 


So, now that we have some understanding of Italian wines I was looking for a hearty recipe for the Super Bowl and one I can use this winter.

While I lived in Kansas City some years ago I remember stumbling across an Italian restaurant that also grilled Italian sausage sandwiches in front of the building during summer. They were the best sandwiches I had ever had at that time and would try to recreate them at home. They included Italian sausage with grilled red and green peppers, onions and roasted potatoes on a grilled Italian bun. I can’t recall the entire recipe but it probably included tomato sauce and herbs. Anyway, the grill master outside told me that these sandwiches can be found from the street vendors in Italy and they usually add an egg over easy. Ok, the last ingredient I admit was not appealing to me and it appears they decided to Americanize the recipe. Still to this day I remember that sandwich.

So, it’s January 2018 and I’m looking for a hearty meal. What do you think is the first thing that comes to mind? You got it, an Italian Sausage sandwich. To no surprise at all Giada has a recipe called Italian Sausage, Peppers and Onions. It’s fabulous and I would highly recommend it anytime. However, it is especially good in the winter and at celebrations like the upcoming Super Bowl.

Dinner is usually easy for me to decide. It’s the list of Italian wines that I look for assistance. It so happens that Giada has already recommended a Sangiovese wine with her recipe. Sangiovese wines made from Sangiovese grapes are produced in several of Italy’s wine regions, but most notably in Tuscany. It is the most widely planted grape variety in Italy. Be aware that Sangiovese is known by many names in Italy. Synonyms include Nielluccio, Sangioveto, Sangiovese, Grosso, Sangiovese Piccolo, Brunello, Prugnolo Gentile, and Morellino.

Good quality Sangiovese is known for its high acid, firm tannins and balanced nature. Savory flavors of dark cherry and black stonefruit are characteristic and might include secondary notes of tomato leaf and dried herbs. Sangiovese is the only grape variety used in the prestigious vineyards of Brunello di Montalcino DOCG in Tuscany. It is also known as the backbone to Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and the popular wines of Chianti. The modern manifestation of Sangiovese is called the “Super Tuscans”. They are made under the Toscana IGT category. These wines permit the winemakers more freedom in blending indigenous Italian grapes like Sangiovese with other varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot.

Armed with information on quality, labeling, regions, etc. I went to a local independent wine store where the owner personally selects every bottle of wine. He happens to specialize in Italian, French and Spanish wines only. With his assistance, I selected the IL Grigio Da San Felice Chianti Classico DOCG 2012 vintage. It was the perfect wine to pair with Giada’s Italian Sausage sandwiches.

This is a great way to get through the winter. For those getting ready for the Super Bowl, may the best team win!

Grazie e saluti,


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