Italian wine, Italy, Italy (Photo by Neville Nel)

In vino veritas—the wines of Italy

Italy, with the right kind of terrain and the perfect amounts of sun and rainfall, happens to be ideal for growing grapes.

Centuries ago, the Etruscans had a hearty wine industry, and the ancient Greeks bolstered it by transplanting their vine cuttings to Italy’s southlands. And it was Italy, under the Romans, that first introduced the vine and its possibilities to France and Germany.

Today, Italy exports more wine to the rest of the world than any other country. But there’s plenty left at home from which to choose—more than 2,000 wines are produced in Italy.

Wines of the north are generally drier than those of the south, which are usually sweeter and often quite a bit higher in alcohol volume (more sun equals more sugar). Each region has different growing conditions, and so each has its own special wines.

Italian wines by region

Piemonte is known for its heavy reds, including Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera, and Nebbiolo, as well as sparkling white Asti Spumante.

The Veneto is known for Valpolicella and Bardolino reds and, among whites, Pinot Grigio and Soave.

Tuscany is one of Italy’s most important wine producers, with reds like Chianti Classico, powerful Brunello di Montalcino, and refined Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (along with the famed white Vernaccia di San Gimignano)

Umbria weighs in with Orvieto white and Montefiascone red.

Emilia-Romagna makes white Albano and the fizzy red Lambrusco (the world's most perfect pizza or picnic wine).

The Marches produce a compelling white called Verdicchio.

The volcanic hills of Lazio around Rome produce mostly whites, including Frascati, Montefiascone, and my personal favorite Est! Est! Est! (though I like it mainly for the story behind its name)

The volcanic soils continue south into Campaniawhich produces fine whites on the islands of Ischia, and the compelling-named Lacryma Christi ("Tears of Christ") on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius.

Apulia is home to both white and red Locorotondo and the earthy red Salice Salentino.

Sicily is known for its sweet fortified Marsala wine (drunk as an aperitif), as well as Corvo whites and reds.

Italian wine classifications

More than 30 years ago, the Italian government instituted Denominazione di Origine Controllata, or DOC, a system that is akin to the French Appellation Controlée and certifies a wine’s quality (including the formula of grapes used) and place of origin.

Some years later, a second, higher category was ordained, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, or DOCG, to denote wines of particularly high quality control.

Recently IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) was introduced so that modest local wines typical of a region could be labeled as such.

This still leaves the title vino da tavola (table wine) in a situation of split personality. It can mean what it implies, a very humble, simple wine, perhaps made by a local farmer's cooperative or even the restaurant owner's brother-in-law, very cheap and usually pretty good. However, for years it has also been used on bottles of superior or experimental “super” wines—often made using foreign grape varietals like merlot, cabernet, and chardonnay—produced by highly regarded vineyards that don't fit into any traditional category.

Although usually highly complex and structured wines, these supervini fall outside the strict DOC or DOCG categories—which is why many now use the IGT label.

Beyond wine—Dessert wines, digestivi, cordials liqueurs, and grappa

Throughout Italy, and especially in Tuscany, you’re likely to encounter Vin Santo (sacred wine), made from grapes that are partly dried on the vine, then dried on racks before being pressed and aged in tiny oak barriques. This sweet wine may be drunk alone, but more often, it’s used for dunking hard almond cookies called biscotti as a dessert.

Italians are fond of a Campari-soda at the corner bar around 5pm; it's soda water mixed with a bitter red concoction called Campari that looks like hair tonic and kinda tastes like it, too.

Then there is the galaxy of after-dinner drinks:

  • Grappa is the classic fiery digestivo, made from the skins, seeds, vines, and other remnants at the bottom of the pressing barrel. There are hundreds of producers, but most waiters divide them into two categories: morbido ("soft," meaning it will merely put werewolf-thick hair on your chest or, in a pinch, substitute for rocket fuel), and duro ("hard," meaning it might burn a hole though the table should you spill a drop; best not to think of what it does to your insides).
  • An amaro is any bitter liqueur, drunk in mid-afternoon or before or after a meal (sometimes all three).
  • Limoncello is every tourist's favorite discovery: a sugary lemon liqueur, best drunk nearly-frozen, that started around the Amalfi Coast but is now served everywhere.
  • Fragolino is limoncello's sweet, strawberry infused cousin.

Every Italian region—and often each town, or even each family—has its own fire-water. There are far, far too many liqueurs to go into here—most of them herbaliscious and quite bitter—but I will single out three more Italian classics you should try at least once (and will probably only ever want to try once):

  • Strega means "witch" and is viscous, bitter, and indeed the sickly strong yellow of a witch's rotting teeth.
  • Cynar is another bitter that Italians have improbably managed to squeeze out of artichokes.
  • Sambuca is an anise-cursed drink often ordered "con una mosca"—"with a fly" of a coffee bean at the bottom.
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Good years for Italian Wines

Scores out of 100 for top years in recent vintages (past few years are estimate ranges as they're as yet too young to drink). Particularly good years are starred. Avoid 2002:

Tuscany (Chianti)
2014 88
2013 91
2012 89
2011 93
2010 92
2009 89
2008 89
2007 94
2006 93
2005 88
2004 89
2003 91
2002 79
2001 92
2000 88
1999 94
1998 89
1997 98
1996 87
1995 85
Tuscany (Brunello)
2013 94
2012 96
2011 91
2010 98
2009 89
2008 91
2007 93
2006 95
2005 89
2004 97
2003 88
2002 78
2001 98
2000 88
1999 97
1998 91
1997 99
1996 85
1995 92
2014 [not good]
2013 97
2012 94
2011 93
2010 97
2009 90
2008 94
2007 95
2006 95
2005 91
2004 94
2003 88
2002 72
2001 95
2000 93
1999 98
1998 91
1997 93
1996 98
1995 88