Lesson 13 – Intro to Italy

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Sommelier School

Lesson 13 – Introduction to Italy


Ah Italia. For many, this is where modern winemaking has its roots. Italy has been making wine for 4,000 years. While Italy didn’t invent wine, She was responsible for spreading it to much of Europe.  The ancient Romans were adept at many things. One of which was acquiring ideas, philosophies, technologies, etc. from other civilizations and making it their own. These then were spread throughout their empire. Wine is no exception. They took what the rest of the Mediterranean (specifically Greece) was doing and improved it. They then spread their grapes to anywhere in their empire that could support viticulture.

Italy makes upwards of 25-30 percent (the equivalent of France) of the world’s wine even though it is only 60 percent the size of France. And it is 75 percent the size of California. Depending on the vintage Italy is the number one or two wine producer in the world.

The problem is that Italian wine was really made for Italians for a very long time. They also lacked a classification system until the 1963 when they created the DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) system. The first French system was in Bordeaux in 1855 as we talked about before. The overall AOC system was in place in France in 1935. This has really caused Italy to lag in world recognition for wine.

There are a total of 20 wine regions or zones in Italy. These correspond to the 20 political zones of the country. Some of the most well known regions are in the northern part of the country. Places like Piedmont, Tuscany, and Veneto produce some of the best Italy has to offer. You’ll hear names like Super Tuscans, Asti Spumante, Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello, Chianti, Amarone, Soave, etc. These, like France, are place names for wines rather than grape varietals. And almost the entire country is covered in vines. From the northernmost part to the heel and toe of the country. And don’t forget Sicily and Sardinia. Both produce plenty of wine.

As mentioned before, Italy initiated its classification system in 1963. It created three levels or “zones” within the classification called Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Region (QWPSR). QWPSR is a European Union designation. The three levels within it are:

  • DO — Denominazione di Origine [seldom used]
  • DOC — Denominazione di Origine Controllata
  • DOCG — Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita – the highest level in this classification.

In addition to this the classification Vino da Tavola (VDT) or Table Wine. While in many countries, “table wine” is normally the lowest level of wine. In Italy, these are wines that can be the “bottom of the barrel” or actual quality wines that don’t meet the DOC/DOCG guidelines. To help with this, a higher level of “table wine” was created in 1992 called Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) which is roughly the equivalent to the French vins de pays. These are wines that are from a specific region in Italy that are higher in quality. This is where Super Tuscans are classified as they don’t adhere to the regulations of their DOC/DOCG “zone.”

In Italy, the laws that govern DOCs are as follows:

  • The geographical limits of each zone
  • The varietals that are allowed in each zone
  • The percentages allowed of each varietal
  • The maximum yield or amount of wine that can be produced per acre
  • The maximum alcohol content of the wine
  • How long a wine needs to spend in a barrel or bottle before being released

In addition to this, there are two terms to know; Classico and Risevera. In Italy, they actually mean something unlike some other countries. Classico refers to a part of a zone or region where a particular wine has been “traditionally” produced. Riserva denotes a wine that has been aged at least two years longer than normal for a particular type of wine. In many instances outside of Italy, a riserva or reserve wine is a marketing tool that has not legal meaning.

While Italy does grow some Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, etc. these are not the major grapes of the region. Italy, like many countries, has its own varietals. By some accounts there are over 500 specific varietals grown in Italy. That’s a pretty staggering number. Don’t worry, we don’t need to know all of them at this point. And even a Master of Wine might forget a couple if he isn’t an Italian wine specialist. Below are some of the better known varietals:

  • Reds
    • Sangiovese (aka Sango, Sanjo)
    • Nebbiolo
    • Montepulciano
    • Barbera
    • Corvino
    • Nero d’Avola
    • Dolcetto
    • Aglianico
    • Lambrusco
    • Primitivo (genetically equivalent to Zinfandel)
  • Whites
    • Trebbiano
    • Moscato
    • Pinot Grigio (probably the most well known as a grape varietal)
    • Verdicchio

There are plenty of other varietals from Italy that I could include above, but I narrowed it down to ones I’ve seen on wine lists or heard over the years. 

This should give us a basic introduction to Italian wine without getting into the specific areas of Italy. Over the next four weeks we will cover the actual areas of Italy. I’ll break them up into Northwest Italy, Northeast Italy, Central Italy, and Southern Italy/Sicily. Much if what will be familiar is in the northern parts of the country, but it will be important to know the rest.

I apologize for the delay of a week for this lesson. My schedule now includes a “day job” that requires me to make that my primary focus. However, I will be able to plan ahead to balance both so I can continue to produce Sommelier School weekly. I still plan on having Sommelier School on Thursdays. The reviews have switched to a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule to accommodate my new schedule, and also to really give the earlier episodes better coverage. I should have thought of that a couple months ago.

As always, I hope you found this information valuable in our pursuit of taking the Introductory Sommelier Exam. I anticipate this to finish up sometime in May or June. If you have any questions, corrections, or suggestions feel free to click the “email me” link at the top of the page and let me know!

Mark V. Fusco

Aspiring Sommelier in Training


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