Quality of Italian Wines and Wine Laws

Though the casual wine consumer may be familiar with just a few of Italy’s most acclaimed appellations, such as Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello di Montalcino, there is an astonishing array of high-quality wines available throughout the Italian peninsula that have yet to be discovered by the American public.

Italy has a long-standing tradition of producing wines of exceptional quality. Today’s Italian winemakers follow in the footsteps of the Ancient Romans, who established a rich wine culture over 2,000 years ago. There are even tales about the coveted 121 B.C. vintage of the legendary Falernian wine, which was enjoyed for decades by the Roman elite.[1]

During the Middle Ages, winemaking traditions were kept alive in Italy primarily by Catholic monks who produced wine for sacramental purposes. With the Renaissance, wine culture became more sophisticated, especially for members of the upper class who became more interested in its sensory pleasures.[2]

Thanks to advancements in vinification and aging techniques, wine quality improved greatly in Italy during the 19th century. Unfortunately, Italy’s along with Europe’s vineyards were dealt a major blow by the devastating phylloxera infestation during the late 1800s, as well as by the economic hardship of the world wars later on. Following this, producers were forced to focus on quantity over quality, and thus, for much of the 20th century, the reputation of Italy’s wines deteriorated.[3]

However, all this was to change with the birth of the Denominazione di Origine Controllata laws, or DOC, which coincided with a grass-roots movement to preserve the high-quality wines of small-production estates, which were dwindling in number during Italy’s post-war economic boom. One of the movement’s most vocal spokespeople was Luigi Veronelli, a journalist and intellectual who devoted his life to safeguarding Italy’s winemaking and culinary traditions. Veronelli became a champion of traditional agricultural methods, and worked tirelessly to encourage producers to focus on local grape varieties and historical production practices.[4] His efforts helped establish many of Italy’s current denominations and crus.[5] Veronelli’s philosophy about the art of winemaking is perhaps best expressed in his famous proclamation, “Wine is cultivated and not manufactured like lifeless things.” [6]

ITALY’S WINE CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM

In an effort to safeguard the quality of its wine, the Italian government created a series of regulations in 1963 that led to what is considered the modern renaissance of Italian wine.

The Italian DOC system was modeled on the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée laws, with the goal of regulating and protecting areas that were already well-known for producing excellent wines, such as Chianti and Barolo. The laws were also enacted to encourage the development of lesser-known wine regions, by implementing production standards aimed at improving the character of their wines.[7]

The classification system includes 4 tiers: VDT, IGT, DOC, and DOCG.

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  • The VDT (Vino da Tavola) or “table wine” classification, is the least regulated wine category in Italy.
    • VDT wines are not required to state the geographic area, nor are they bound by specific quality standards or production methods. This does not mean that VDT wines are inferior, merely that these wines are produced outside the rules governing the higher classifications.
  • In 1992, the IGT category (Indicazione Geografica Tipica – Indicationof Typical Geography) was introduced for wines that cannot meet all of the requirements for DOC and DOCG wines, but are often of excellent quality. Wines classified as IGT must be produced within the stated region, but are allowed certain freedoms, with respect to grape varieties and production methods.
    • In addition to restrictions concerning the growing region for IGT wines, the rules for this classification set a limit on the allowed grape yield per vineyard acre, and stipulate the permitted grape varieties. IGT wines must also meet certain parameters of alcoholic strength for consumption.
  • Wines labeled DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata – Denomination of Controlled Origin) must meet strict requirements for quality, production standards, geographic area and grape varieties, among other criteria.
    • DOC wines must be produced within a specific area and bound by precise requirements relating to color, aroma and taste. In addition to regulating the grape varieties that may be used, the DOC classification also limits yields, meaning the quantity of grapes that may be obtained per vineyard acre. The types and styles of wine that may be produced (for example, “Vendemmia Tardiva”––late harvest wine) are also pre-defined, as are the wine’s aging requirements and permitted alcohol level. In essence, the entire vinification process is regulated from vineyard to bottle, and the wine must undergo a technical and tasting analysis before being put on the market.
  • The DOCG classification (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita – Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin) is reserved for wines of the highest quality.
    • In order to obtain the DOCG classification, wines must meet even stricter production requirements than DOC wines. In fact, only wines that have been classified DOC for at least 5 years may be considered for DOCG status. The exceptional quality of these wines is the result of exacting production standards, optimal terroir and age-old enological traditions.

To conform with the European Union’s food and wine classification categories, Italy has recently adopted a second classification system consisting of Generic Wines, PGI wines (Protected Geographical Indication), and PDO wines (Protected Designation of Origin). Italy’s VDT wines fall under the Generic Wines category, while IGT wines are classified as PGI. Italy’s DOC and DOCG wines are grouped into the PDO classification. The EU regulations permit member states to continue to refer to their original classification levels; therefore, the acronyms DOC, DOCG and IGT are still commonly found on Italian wine labels.

 

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As of today, all 20 Italian regions produce at least one DOC wine, for a total of 334. Italy also boasts 74 DOCG wines and 118 IGT wines produced throughout the peninsula. And while Italy’s storied wine regions such as Tuscany, Piedmont and Veneto continue to produce exceptional bottlings, there are also countless wines of great character coming from all the regions of the boot.

Centuries of tradition coupled with rigorous standards have guaranteed Italy’s preeminence in the world of fine wine. As you survey the exceptional quality and diversity of Italian viticulture, you may be delighted to find some new favorites in the most surprising places.

[1] https://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/44663
[2] Paul Lucas, Inventing Wine: a New History of One of the World's Most Ancient Pleasures, (New York, W.W Nortonn & Co., 2013), 67.
[3] The Wines of Italy, by Burton Anderson. Publishes by the Italian Trade commission (2006)
[4] https://www.forbes.com/sites/susangordon/2018/02/02/5-ways-luigi-veronelli-wants-you-to-think-deeply-about-italian-wine/#31ecf40689b5
[5] ibid 
[6]   https://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/Luigi-Veronelli-Italian-Wine-Visionary
[2] Henderson, J. Patrick, and Dellie Re,About Wine, (Clifton Park, Delmar, 2012), 232.