From the outside, Italian wine looks bewildering—and with good reason. Imagine the intricacy of Burgundy and all its wines complicated by a plethora of grapes, laws, styles, names, and each and every Italian winemaker’s unique sense of expression. Yes, Italian wine is complicated. Part of this stems from the fact that Italy as we know it today didn’t exist 150 years ago. Back then, it was a patchwork of city-states, fiefdoms, parcels of lost kingdoms, and empires long vanquished to the trash bin of history.
When Italy organized as a country, all this got stitched together into regions. But here’s the catch: this history still exists in the hearts and minds of Italians, coloring how wine is perceived and made. A good map is indispensable to comprehending Italian wines, and the best I’ve found is Steve Delong’s wine map of Italy. It’s a two-sided affair, complete with index, with one side devoted to the DOC/DOCG wines and the other side indicating the IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) classification, wines that reflect a geographic identity.
It also helps to know the difference between the traditional producers and the maverick producers, the farmers and the stylists, the old-school and the new-age ones. Often there aren’t clear lines of demarcation. It’s especially important with the classic wine areas, as the evolution of style and sensibilities is constantly being polished, reworked, refined. Nothing stands still in Italian culture.
There is no fast-track to learning this. But there is a lot of talk these days about the merits of traditional winemaking vs. modern techniques. Without getting hung up on this, taste the wine. Does it have oak or not? Is it pleasant to you? Is the alcohol high or moderated? Are the tannins tough or tender? Is the wine fruity or dry? How well balanced is it? From this exercise you will build up a base of knowledge whereby you can draw your own conclusions.
One of the best ways to get inside Italian wines is start with key regions: Tuscany, Piedmont and the Veneto. Historically, wines from these regions came to America along with the waves of immigration, and this is where we find some of the great red wines Italy brings to the world stage.
Tuscany. Chianti made this region but winemakers didn’t stop there. Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Vernaccia di San Gimignano followed. The small villages of Chianti, some in the Classico zone, some in the so-called sub-zones. Here, Sangiovese has found its Valhalla. I’ll come back to Tuscany and some specifics when I talk about Chianti.
Piedmont. Home to Barolo and Barbaresco. Those are the great classic wines, the must-haves, from traditional producers like Giacomo Conterno to modernists like Angelo Gaja. Add to that Gavi, one of the most important white wines of Italy. Also Barbera, Dolcetto, Moscato.
Veneto. Amarone land. But Amarone isn’t for everyday. Originally a vino da meditazione, it was a wine to be sipped, slightly sweeter (known as recioto) over a fire in the winter, thinking deep thoughts. In the 21st century, we have less time for that, so Amarone moved from the study to the dinner table, joining Valpolicella, Bardolino and Soave. Allegrini is an example of a large winery that has consistently produced stylish wines in a modern vein with great success. At the opposite end, Corte Sant'Alda makes small amounts of wine from organic vineyards, utilizing biodynamic principles, also resulting in delicious wines.
If you’re working on a wine list, it helps to understand what Italian wines sell well in America. Four make up the majority sold here: Chianti, Moscato, Prosecco and Pinot Grigio. Although these can be seen as lowest-common-denominator wines, take the high road by offering your guests solid versions. Find a good Chianti like Felsina or Selvapiana, a good Moscato like Saracco or Vietti, a serviceable Pinot Grigio like Lageder or Marco Felluga, and a dependable Prosecco like Nino Franco or Adami. These best-sellers offer good cash flow that can support that case of Cornelissen or Zidarich.
From the Big Four, go to wines that people know from traveling, starting with whites. Find good examples—modern or traditional—of Arneis, Falanghina, Fiano, Frascati, Friulano, Gavi, Greco, Orvieto, Soave, and Vermentino. They may not be sexy like the esoteric wines everyone is posting on Instagram. But dedicated estates continue to make wines that have improved and evolved in style. There are good to great wines in these categories worth searching out.
The same goes for Italian red wine. Some of the iconic reds of the world reside within these long-standing categories. Find a good Aglianico, Amarone, Barbaresco, Barbera, Barolo, Brunello, Lambrusco, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Nebbiolo, Nero d’Avola, Primitivo, Super Tuscan, Valpolicella and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Whether you go classical or modern in style is up to you. Geekier wines will follow. Also find a good rosé, from the Tuscan Maremma, from Abruzzo, from Trentino, Piedmont or Emilia-Romagna. Offer dry and off-dry versions.
What other fundamental wines provide context for wine lists? Thirty years ago they would have been Frascati, Verdicchio, Asti Spumante, Lambrusco. These wines are still found on lists, but no longer as dominant players. But they’re worth looking into as the better ones have been transformed by cold-fermentation and updated winemaking techniques, resulting in fresher cleaner wines.
If you’re still looking for a way to get into Italian wines, another strategy is to set a goal. Learn all the DOCG wines (currently 74), the crus of Barolo or the zones of Chianti.
Another helpful activity is to approach Italian wines not only in their unique context but also in the framework of selling them on the floor of a restaurant, mindful of your clients’ understanding. If the norm is ordering by grape variety, for instance, approach Italian wines this way. Take Sangiovese and learn about Chianti, Brunello, Super Tuscans, and the other areas Sangiovese calls home in Italy. If you are a Burgundy lover, dig into Nebbiolo from Piedmont. There are many similarities in terms of village names and cru classification (whether official or inferred).
By all means, look into little-known wines. Study them, from white to red to orange. But if you’re building a wine list, balance these selections carefully. You want to leave people happy—not bewildered. The scope of the restaurant and your budget will dictate how you dig deeper into the wines of into Sicily, Umbria, Lombardia, Valle d’Aoste, Friuli, and the small and interesting regions that lie beyond.
One point that almost goes without saying: Italian wines are made to go with food. Specifically, Italian food. The two are deeply entwined. If you prefer wines with more densely packed fruit that are a little higher in alcohol, you may need to adjust how you taste to fully appreciate Italian wines. Or, travel to Italy and taste the wines in their context.
My first, best advice: taste, taste, taste as many Italian wines as you can. The Guild has loads of leads on tastings. Most of them are free to the trade.
Second to that: read, read, read, and engage in social media with Italian winemakers (many of the young ones are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Delectable). Build virtual relationships. The Italians love to practice their English, so it’s a win-win situation.
Third: travel. Try and set aside a week or a month and go to Italy. Get your local distributor to help you with visits. Tackle one or two regions at first, like Piedmont and Tuscany, or the Veneto and Friuli. If you have a particular fondness for a style or type of wine, go to that region. Or pick one out of the air and get immersed.
As a young man, I traveled to Italy, drinking the house wines at the local trattoria I could afford around Rome. There was bianco and rosso, and it usually was poured into a carafe from a glass carboy, a demijohn. Vino Sfuso is the official name, and it is the fresh bulk wine that many restaurants get from a local winery or co-op. Cheap, cheerful and fresh. And it made me curious for more.
In Sicily with my dad’s family, we went out one night for dinner. My uncle Peppino ordered a bottle of a red Sicilian wine, a Vino Corvo Rosso 1964. It was seven years old and tasted leathery and dry and spicy. I still remember that wine.
I went to Calabria, where the other side of my family made wine. I picked, pulled, pressed and drank with my cousins, and experienced firsthand how Italian wine is integral with food, family and life.
I came back home to California and started working in restaurants, eventually landing in Texas. It was there that I delved deeper into Italian wine, working the floor of an Italian restaurant owned by a friend of my dad’s and talking with the sommelier about wines she had on and off the list. I bought bottles and books and read late into the night.
It led me to a career deeply immersed in the wine and culture of my heritage. Not everyone can take that route, but the steps and broad strokes I’ve outlined above will get you started on your own journey to understanding Italy.
Alfonso Cevola is the author of the award-winning blog "On the Wine Trail in Italy"
Very well said! Salute!