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In Depth – Italian Wine
Classification System

In Depth – Italian Wine
Classification System

Introduction

If you are a fan of Italian wine, you will have no doubt noticed the inscrutable but apparently vitally important words and letters which seem to follow the name of every single bottle. DOC, IGT, classico, superiore, riserva – what do they all mean? And, perhaps most importantly, who decides what they mean, and how?

Despite its reputation as a land where the unofficial flourishes, the reality is that Italy does not mess around when it comes to regulating the quality of food and drink. There has been nearly a half-century worth of legislation determining how wine is designated, applied at every level from the local to the European, and now every word on those labels means something quite specific – to an extent which can seem quite intimidating.

With that in mind, then, here is the Vineria all’Amarone guide to wine classifications in Italy. It can’t be comprehensive (that would take an encyclopedia!), but hopefully it can serve as a good introduction to the background of the laws, the aims they have, and – above all else – how to read those all-important wine labels.

italian_appellation_system
Italian Classification System: IGT, DOC, DOCG

DOC

The story begins in 1963. Inspired by the success of French laws going back to 1905, and in a bid to incorporate the regulations of the then-EEC, on February 12th the Italian government drafted law no. 903, creating two categories into which all wine produced in the country would fall: vino da tavola (VdT – ‘table wine’) and denominazione di origine controllata (DOC – ‘denomination of controlled origin’). The idea was to imitate the French classifications of Vins de Pays and Appellation d’Origine Controllé, as well as to assimilate into Italian law the new European ‘Vino di Qualità Prodotto in Regione Determinata’ (known in English as the ‘Quality Wine Produced in Determined Region’ law), which had proved successful in protecting names like Bordeaux and Champagne in EEC export markets.

The difference was stark and decisive. The best wines, with grand histories and established traditions, were to be granted the status of DOC, under which wines would have to satisfy certain locally-determined conditions to be allowed to use their famous names. These conditions could be any aspect of the winemaking, from alcohol minimums and maximums to the grape varieties used and in what percentages, but whatever was established at local level was enforced at national level, and ultimately continentally too. For everyone else, there was the VdT classification, which more or less established a legal definition of ‘wine’ and ‘not unsafe to drink’ and left it at that, no matter how traditionally (or indeed how well) the wine was made.

The very first wines granted DOC status were, slightly surprisingly, all white wines from the south and centre of Italy (Frascati of Lazio, Ischia of Campania and Vernaccia di San Gimignano of Tuscany), but it wasn’t long before the more famous names such as Chianti and Barolo followed suit. However, it wasn’t to be long before the new categories ran into trouble, and not just with debates about who was important enough to get in. The world of Italian wine, indeed wine around the world, was to be changed forever by one of the country’s most crucial heartlands, and by winemakers who no longer wished to play by the rules: in short, by the rise of the so-called ‘Super Tuscans’.

Challenges – Supertuscans and DOCG

In 1971, the winery of Tenuta San Guido, based in the village of Bolgheri in the Chianti region, brought out the first vintage of a new wine. The wine did not satisfy the conditions for being labelled ‘Chianti’, however – in fact, it contained not even a drop from the most important grape in the area, sangiovese. Instead, the winemakers had made a blend of grapes in the style of those made in Bordeaux (specifically, those of the Bordelais ‘left-bank’, being made from cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc), and in the absence of an official designation gave the wine a bespoke name: ‘Sassicaia’. It soon became a sensation, heralded around the world as an extraordinary winemaking achievement, fetching increasingly huge prices on the international markets, and perhaps even inspiring Robert Mondavi’s innovation of the so-called ‘Meritage’ Bordeaux blends of Napa Valley, California. It certainly inspired many others in the area to produce similar wines, many of which carried the same ‘-aia’ suffix denoting an empty field – ‘Solaia’, ‘Ornellaia’ and so on. Collectively these wines came to be known in the wine press as ‘Super Tuscans’, genre-busting testaments to creativity and an internationalist perspective on winemaking.

The classifiers, however, were less impressed. Despite consistently being rated as among the best, most expensive, most prestigious bottles in the world, the Super Tuscans had no choice in their native land other than to be sold as vini da tavola. This, rather incredibly, meant that these sensationally successful wines, made with the most meticulous care, rubbed shoulders commercially with the cheapest wines that one might pick up by the litre in the local vinaio. Even fellow Chianti producer Antinori’s fabled ‘Tignanello’, first released in 1974, was forced into the VdT category for the opposite reason as Sassicaia: rather than having insufficient sangiovese, Tignanello had too much, being a 100% varietal wine rather than including the white grapes which were, in those days, compulsory in the blend.

Another challenge came from producers of wines in areas such as Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino, who complained that the sheer number of wine regions granted DOC status obscured the prestige of those regions which were considered the most important, certainly in international terms. This did lead quite quickly to the development of a new category, with the establishment in 1980 of the DOCG – denominazione di origine controllata e garantita. Those aforementioned great names were of course among the first to be granted the designation, along with such celebrated areas as Barbaresco and Vino Nobile di Montalcino (Amarone della Valpolicella achieved the status in 1990).

But what about the Super Tuscans, not to mention many other winemakers who, while not meriting the protection of DOC status, nonetheless were producing quality wine sensitive to place? This would finally be remedied by law no. 192 in 1992, which once more harmonised Italian law with European laws, but also introduced a new category: indicazione geografica tipica (IGT – ‘indication of geographical typicity’). This allowed great wines, satisfying a locally-assessed standard of quality, to stand out from the pack, and give the consumer some help in distinguishing good products which just happen not to be made within the remits of tradition. (Ironically, this did not include the wine that started it all, as Sassicaia was the basis of a new Bolgheri DOC, created in 1984.)

Conclusions

These days there are 74 DOCG wines, over 300 DOCs and countless (and ever-growing numbers of) IGTs. While these labels guarantee certain minimum standard, they don’t necessarily guarantee a hierarchy of quality – many DOC wines will be better than many DOCG wines, many IGT wines will be better than both, and in the end your personal palate will determine what you like, and nothing else. What the classifications do mean is that you know what you’re buying: a wine with Barolo DOCG on the label has to be made within strict stylistic limits. As mentioned, that doesn’t make it necessarily the best, and indeed much of the most exciting wine being made in Italy is in the IGT category, such as Quintarelli’s ‘Rosso del Bepi’ Veneto IGT (and indeed many really exciting wines, like Zyme’s ‘From Black To White’, aren’t even inside the IGT requirements). As a general rule, however, these categories help both the producer and the customer, by protecting the former from being undermined by poor imitations, and the latter from buying the wrong wine, while also trying to encourage innovation and safeguard quality.

Some Vocabulary

Classico – indicates that the grapes were grown exclusively in a designated historic area of the region, e.g. Chianti Classico, Valpolicella Classico.

DOC (denominazione di origine controllata) – a designation awarded to a historic area and style of wine production, by which wine production is regulated by law to be made in a certain way within a certain area, e.g. Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo DOC (Abruzzo), Falanghina del Sannio DOC (Campania).

DOCG (denominazione di origine controllata e garantita) – similar to DOC, but reserved for the most historic areas of wine production and protected by even stricter winemaking laws, e.g. Ghemme DOCG (Piedmont), Aglianico del Vulture Superiore (Basilicata).

Frizzante – medium sparkling.

IGT (indicazione geografica tipica) – a somewhat nebulous category, but one which allows regional winemaking authorities to grant to certain wines a quality designation outside the remits of DOC or DOCG, e.g. Toscana IGT, Veneto IGT.

Millesimato – sparkling wine produced from a single vintage (as with vintage Champagne, this is designed to indicate a superior standard of quality).

Riserva – a term which varies from place to place, but which usually refers to a certain minimum time spent aged in barrels.

Spumante – fully fizzy wine.

Superiore – a very variable designation, not universally used, but which is sometimes deployed to indicate a wine made to higher minimum quality standards, e.g. Valpolicella Classico Superiore.

VdT (vino da tavola) – the most basic category of wine, satisfying the fewest minimum winemaking standards, but which has historically included some of the most extraordinary, category-defying wines.

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Wine Shop all’Amarone in Venice offers an exceptional selection of Italian wines, spotlighting the distinguished Amarone della Valpolicella. In addition to our Amarone focus, we proudly feature select wines from Puglia, showcasing the diversity and richness of Italy’s winemaking regions. Our curated collection is designed to offer wine lovers a taste of Italy’s finest, from the robust flavors of Amarone to the unique profiles of Pugliese wines.

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