May 16, 2011

Comprehending Italian Wine Classifications

Italy produces nearly a quarter of the world’s wine, and is home to the richest diversity of grape varietals and wine production methods anywhere. It’s simply impossible to get bored as a wine consumer here. But, understanding the wines and how they’re classified is frustrating at best, even for wine professionals. Let’s start with a simple fact. Italians are a creative people, easily associated with art or design (at least, by those of us who go beyond the stereotypes of pizza, pasta and the mafia). Beyond the arts, Italy is often cutting edge in engineering, architecture, and the sciences. Their creative capacity typically excels in niche industries where they can naturally think outside the box. They actually abhor the box. The box is Swiss or German, practically unnatural. Unfortunately, the Italian wine classification system is a box superimposed on a creative web of Italian traditions. In and of itself, it can be misleading and confusing. Italians will label and classify their wines both as the French might, according to region and traditional zone, and as New World producers might, selling wine by varietal type. To complicate (Italians rarely tend to simplify), they also invent fantasy names for their wines. We see wines given marketing names, place names, family names etc., but the label may never tell us what’s in the bottle. Yet, few deny the wines here warrant the seemingly herculean feat of understanding them and how they’re organized.  

How do you make sense of it all? All these generic classification styles seen on the labels of Italian wines actually fall into one of four legal categories. These four categories form a pyramid, which as you move up each level, less wines are produced and the governmental restrictions imposed upon the wine makers (in terms of how the wine must be made, classified and sold) become much more stringent. Every wine in Italy falls into one of these four categories and they must be clearly defined on the label (without exception and even if purchased outside of Italy). Moving up from the base, the categories are Vino da Tavola (or just “Vino”), IGT wines, DOC wines and DOCG wines. Why do we need to know these categories? Simply put, we don’t. Need is a strong word. However, for those who hope to understand Italian wine, the pyramid is your foundation. It is your reference point to go back and study each wine you try. Don’t study the wine zones and their classifications from a text, then go looking for certain wines you think you might like. It would be dull and it takes all the fun out of the learning process. Instead, work backwards. Pick up an Italian wine, any Italian wine and try it. As you’re drinking, look at the label and identify the category of the wine. Think about this in relation to the descriptions of the categories below. Knowing what you’ll soon know about the categories, make mental notes (real notes work even better!) as to whether the wine made a strong impression on you (negative or positive). If the wine impressed you, look up the classification online. In seconds you will have all the information you need about the zone or region that wine came from. Continue this process with every Italian wine you try, and with time, you’ll understand the Italian wines like a pro. Below are the categories, the rest is up to you!

As the pyramid’s base, Vino da Tavola, is simply translated as “table wine.” The category is designed for wines which are, technically speaking, not of high quality. The only dictate is these wines be fermented grape juice, or simply put, wine. There is very little else determining the contents of these bottles, boxes or jugs. A producer technically doesn’t even need to grow their grapes in Italy to produce them. However, a few laws do define this category. They’re mostly laws designed to eliminate qualitative designations on the label. For example, Vino da Tavola, can only be nominated “Vino” with a generic descriptive tag. For example, we would call a wine Vino Rosso Italiano-Italian red wine, or Vino Bianco Italiano-Italian white wine. Bottle qualifiers such as harvest date, the region where the grapes are grown, or the varietal are not allowed to be designated. With a Vino da Tavola, one assumes generic or bulk wine production. This is mostly true, but not always the case. Outstanding and interesting champions exist in this category because some producers may not legally be able to use other designations or simply don’t want to pay higher taxes  for moving up the pyramid. So occasionally you’ll see very interesting and wonderful wines with this designation. But in general, these are simple wines, grape juice with a kick if you will. They are good for light, day to day consumption, but they rarely wow the consumer.

I.G.T. Indicazione Geografica Tipica
When translated into English these become Typical Geographic Indication wines. The denomination is somewhat misleading because, as a newcomer to the scene, IGT wines are often more modern and sometimes not very traditional or typical in style. Created as a needed response to the more restrictive DOC and DOCG categories we’ll discuss next, IGT wines appear on the scene in 1992. To keep things simple, the IGT label was developed because Italian wine producers became creative with new, non-traditional wines starting in the 1970’s. In the early days, these new wines, by law, had to be sold as Vino da Tavola. Many were phenomenal wines, receiving international notoriety (think “Super Tuscans” here in Tuscany), but legally they were classified at the bottom. In response, and to get these higher end wines out of the table wine category, the IGT was born. The critical distinguisher from table wines, is all the grapes must come from a single region, say Tuscany or Umbria. If you see a wine sold as an IGT Toscana, you at least know all the grapes producing it were grown in that single region. It’s in the IGT category we often see more creative marketing labels. Wines are sold by grape type and marketing/fantasy name in this category. Consumers find a broad range of price and quality here as well. This is a classification which at first confuses the consumer, but with experience and the knowledge of which region tends to produce what wine style better, the IGT can be somewhat useful. Otherwise, if an IGT wine doesn’t earn cult status or international notoriety, they remain somewhat obscure to the consumer.

D.O.C. Denominazione di Origine Controllata
Romance languages dictate  reversing sentence order to create some logic, and so here we’d have Controlled Denomination of Origin. The “denomination of origin is a physical geographic area, literally some place on a map (sometimes a small valley for example), where traditions hold that certain types of wines from certain types of grapes are produced. The DOC wine classification is also a DOC wine zone. The zone and its history dictate the laws, and the laws are enforced by the government. The grapes in DOC wines must be grown in that DOC zones, and the producer’s fields must be registered and licensed for DOC wine production. The zone will typically determine the recipe of the wine (what grapes can or cannot be used). The zone will also determine how the wine be made; for example, zones dictate that a wine must be a dry red wine, a white, a late harvest or a sparkling wine depending on what zone you’re in. Many zones even go so far as to prescribe minimum alcohol levels, minimum aging time prior to market release, agricultural and harvesting methods, and others. The point is this classification is restrictive, but it’s based on local traditions, so we’re sort of OK with it. There are a little over 300 DOC wine zones in Italy today. Some of the zones can be tiny, and home to just 2 wineries, while others might have nearly 2000 wineries. It is important to emphasize that there is an incredibly broad range of price and quality in this classification. [Note that exceptions are the rule in Italy, and there exist a couple DOC zones which act more like an IGT classification.]

D.O.C.G. Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita
Stated in English this is, Controlled and Guaranteed Denomination of Origin. Like the DOC, these are based on traditional wine making areas. Producers again must follow restrictive rules governing everything from the grapes used and how they’re grown to how the wine is produced in the cellars. In general, these zones tend to be more important, whether it be politically, economically, and/or historically, and hence the Guarantee in the title. They also require a bit more scrutiny. Before these wines can be released to the public (every harvest by every producer) the wines must be reviewed by the government. A special division in the Commerce House does a chemical analysis and a taste test to make certain each vintage meets minimum standards for that DOCG classification.

The idea that these wines undergo more rigorous standards, the fact there are less of them and the fact they cap the pyramid, leads consumers to believe they are getting a better wine. In fact, many Italians will recommend this or that DOCG because of the simple fact that it’s “guaranteed.” This was probably the idea when this category was first created. However, it doesn’t work (and I’d imagine much to the chagrin of the government and many producers here). The “Guaranteed” is not a guarantee of a better wine, but a guarantee of authenticity and a guarantee of a minimum level of quality. Due to this, consumers will see again a broad range of price and quality among the DOCG wines. A great example is Chianti. Chianti is always a DOCG wine coming from a restricted area. Shopping the local supermarkets in Florence, I can easily find a Chianti for 3 euro. There are table wines that will cost more, and be much more interesting. But I have also seen a Chianti for nearly 300 euro. Point being, at the top of the pyramid, the laws are tougher and the traditions often older, but it’s no guarantee the wine is better. It often can be, but by no means has to be!

Turning back to the point of this blog, what does all this mean to Average-Joe or Average-Jane Wine Consumer? First, it means it’s very difficult to generalize about Italian wines. Second it means, the approach to understanding Italian wines is different than both understanding French wines (learning all of the regions and famed 1er crus), and New World wines (learning the regions best associated with certain varietals and finding the best producers). The approach to Italian wine and my best recommendation to anyone wanting to know more about them, is simply drink them. Drink them with an open mind, and little by little try to plug them into the above categories. By working backwards, one begins to create a knowledge base. It’s important to do this as your drinking the wine. Read what category it falls into, get online and figure out what that category entails, read who produces it, and make a mental or written note (especially if the wine made an impression on you). Little by little you will start to break down stereotypes about the Italian wines, you’ll move past generalizations, and little by little you’ll be an expert. Best of all, it’s fun. Enjoy your studies!!

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