Wednesday, September 25, 2013

How to Decipher European Wine Series - Italian Wine Labels

Many European Union (EU) wines are labeled quite differently from wines in the US and other "New World" wine producing countries like Australia and South American.  In the EU, higher quality wines are governed under a system that determines how the wines are made, and how the wines must be labeled.  In most cases, the higher quality EU wines are label based upon their geographic region and the amount of aging (both barrel and bottle).  In my earlier post How to Decipher European Wine Series - The Three Levels of EU Wine, I explained the hierarchy of wine quality levels that EU countries use. At the highest level, the use of a region name is strictly controlled so that only winemakers who follow all the rules during grape growing, winemaking, and wine aging processes can legally put the protected wine region name on their label.

In this blog post, I will delve a bit deeper into what you will need to know to decipher labels of wines from Italy.  I will also list the major Italian wine regions and tell you what types of wines you will find from those regions.  Armed with this information, you should be able to be a more knowledgeable consumer and be able to further explore the vast world of Italian wines! 

Italian Wine Labels.  Wine labels in Italy will all contain the same basic information, which is strictly controlled by Italian and EU wine laws.  Some of the information may be on the back label - but all the information will be displayed. 

As an example, let's refer to this label for a Villa Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva.


Our Example Italian Wine Label

Common Elements on the Italian Wine Label.

Estate Name.   Typically prominently displayed toward the top of the label in large letters. In this case Villa Antinori is the name of the estate - one of the line of wines produced by the Marchesi Antinori family of wines. 

Appellation Name and Status.  In what Appellation was this wine made? The easiest way to figure the name of the Appellation is to look for the Appellation Status which will always appear below the Appellation name. With Italian wine you will see one of two Appellation Status levels, either "Denominazione di Origine Controllata" (DOC) or "Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita" (DOCG).  With our example above, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita appears just below Chianti Classico, so we know that Chianti Classico is our Appellation name. Although not specified on Italian wine labels - Chianti Classico is an Appellation within Italy's Tuscany wine region. Many Italian wines are labeled in this manner - by identifying the Appellation that is part of a larger wine region. 

Vintage. When were the grapes for this wine harvested? By law 85% or more of the grapes must be from the vintage identified on the label. The other 15% can be from be from an earlier vintage allowing the winemaker some flexibility during wine blending.  In our example above, the vintage is not shown on this sample label, but there is a spot for vintage next to the word "Riserva."

Alcohol Content. The percentage of alcohol by volume. The percentage on our sample label is in the lower right hand corner - 12.5%.

Bottle Volume. The volume of the bottle, typically in milliliters (ml) or liters (L). A standard size wine bottle is 750 ml, a magnum is twice that size at 1.5 L, etc. In our example the volume is shown on the lower left corner of the label - 750 ml.

Producer and Bottling. Who produced the wine and where was it bottled. You will see the winery name, and the location of the winery - in our example Imbottigliato (bottled) in San Casciano da Marchesi Antinori, Firenze Italy

Other Information. The label may also contain other information about the wine, in this case Riserva denotes that this wine has aged longer than the non-Riserva wine.  In the case of Chianti Classico Riserva, the wine must be aged at least 27 months before being released.  Although the total time is dictated, the winemaker is free to choose the amount of time spent in aging oak cask vs. aging in the bottle.  Other Italian wine regions will have their own specific requirements for aging, such as Barolo Riserva requiring at least 5 years of aging before release.

Major Wine Regions in Italy. Below you will find a listing and the red and white wines you will find in some of the major Italian wine regions - within their respective Appellations. The Appellation name is what you will see on Italian wine labels in most cases - so you will see Chianti which is an Appellation within the Tuscany wine region.  These are not all the regions in Italy, but the ones you will most often see in your local wine shop or on a restaurant wine list.

Italy's Wine Regions

Wine Region Name: Tuscany. Tuscany is easily the best know of the Italian wine regions. There is much more going on here than straw wrapped bottles sitting on red and white checkered tablecloths.
  • Major Appellation: Chianti, Chianti Classico
  • Red Wines: You can't go too wrong pairing a good Italian dish with a good Chianti - made with the Sangiovese grape. I recommend Ruffina and Classico sub regions, and also recommend stepping up to Reserva whenever possible. The extra aging the Reserva's go through makes a big difference.
  • White Wines: Red wines are the focus here.
  • Appellation Notes: Probably the best know of the Italian wines - there are cheap and cheap tasting Chianti's - but take some time, talk to your wine shop guy (or gal) and have them point you to some quality examples.
Major Appellation: Brunello di Montalcino
  • Red Wines: Brunello red wines are made from the same Sangiovese grape used for Chianti, although sometimes referred to by its local name of Brunello.  These wines are typically much more powerful expressions of the grape, and tend to be more expensive.
  • White Wines: The only whites you may find will likely be sweet wines made from the Muscat grape.
  • Appellation Notes: Reds from this Appellation can show you how different the Sangiovese grape can be - while still remaining food friendly - like so many Italian wines!
  • Major Appellation: Bolgheri
  • Red Wines: This appellation was created mostly for Super Tuscan wines using the Bordeaux grape varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot)
  • White Wines: There are Bolgheri Bianco wines, but I have never seen or tried these. If they are as interesting and unique as the reds - they would be worth a go!
  • Appellation Notes: This appellation designation is very new - only in place since 1994. Before Bolgheri was established, "Super Tuscan" wines that used grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot had to be labeled as IGT wines - lower on the quality scale since they did not follow Tuscany's rules regarding grape varieties.  Now - OMG wines like Sassicaia - one of my all time favorite wines - have a DOC designation. Even more reasonably priced Super Tuscan wines provide an awesome alternative to Bordeaux or California Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot based wines.
Wine Region Name: Piedmont. This region is home to epic reds, great whites, and even some varietal labeled wines!
  • Major Appellation: Barolo and Barbaresco
  • Red Wines: Home to the big, tannic, age-able red wines made from the Nebbiolo grape.   These wines can provide an interesting set of aromas that include tar, latex,  and flowers.
  • White Wines: Epic reds are the focus here.
  • Appellation Notes: Big, expensive, age-able. Take care not to open these wines too soon - the level of tannins can be oppressive. But when properly aged and then properly decanted - definitely epic wines!
  • Major Appellation: Asti, Alba. Unique in Italy and much of Europe, you will find some DOC level wines in Italy that are labeled by their grape varieties vs. the wine region.
  • Red Wines: Barbera d' Asti (or Alba) and Dolcetto d' Asti (or Alba) are wines made from those grapes. Barbera is very high in acid, and pairs nicely with pizza. Dolcetto is closer to Pinot Noir and Chianti in fruitiness and acidity, making it a nice wine to pair with many dishes and cheeses.
  • White Wines: Moscato is a fizzy or fully sparkling white made from Muscat. Typically a bit sweet and having less than 10% alcohol, this wine is a great pre-meal sipper, or something for an picnic or pool party.
  • Appellation Notes: Give Dolcetto a try as an alternative to Chianti - just to try something new!
  • Major Appellation: Gavi
  • Red Wines: All about the whites!
  • White Wines: Gavi is a crisp, floral wine that pairs great with seafood and oil or butter based pasta sauces. 
  • Appellation Notes: Gavi and Soave from the Veneto region (see below) are great white wines that sometimes get eclipsed by the more familiar Pinot Grigio - such a shame!
Wine Region Name: VenetoThis may not be the region you hear about most often, but there are very interesting reds and whites made here, and this region cranks out about 20% of Italy's total wine production. 
  • Major Appellation: Amarone della Valpolicella, Valpolicella
  • Red Wines: Amarone is made from sun dried grapes and is a delicious and quite unique wine.  Other reds from Valpolicella are blends based on the Corvina grape, and provide a great alternative to the better know Italian reds.
  • White Wines: For whites - you'll want to look to Soave (below).
  • Appellation Notes: Amarone can be expensive, but it is worth a try - the intensity of flavor from the sun dried grapes is pretty amazing.
  • Major Appellation: Soave
  • Red Wines: This region is all about the whites.
  • White Wines: Soave whites made mostly from the Garganega grape, usually very crisp with little or no oak aging. Fantastic with seafood.
  • Appellation Notes: Soave white wine had a time in the spotlight in the 70s and 80s in the US, but unfortunately the wine back then was boring and bland and didn't stay in the limelight for long. Now - the wine is on it's way back to popularity based on quality and being very food friendly.

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