By Frank Cipparone
Deciphering an Italian wine label can be challenging, even for those well versed in Italy’s regions and place names. It was easier 50 years ago, before the ministry of agriculture put in place a program of geographical identification of wine similar to that developed by France in the 1930s. The goal was simple — to classify and regulate how and where wine was made. For example, there are seven named zones where Chianti is produced. Only one can be called Chianti Classico based on legal guidelines regarding production and aging within a legally delimited area.
Most wine lovers know Chianti is from Tuscany. They may even be familiar with the grapes that are in the bottle. But suppose you come across a wine labeled Gattinara, Lessona, or Carema. There would be no indication that they’re all made from Nebbiolo, the famous grape behind Piedmont’s Barolo and Barbaresco, or that each is named for its place of origin.
The four-tiered DOC system (Denomination of Controlled Origin) can be confusing and intimidating for novices and connoisseurs alike. What is important to keep in mind is that none of the classifications is a guarantee of quality or lack of it. Prior to 1963 almost all wine was considered vino di tavola (VdT), a generic description that covered both bulk and what would now be considered premium wine. The term is still used to denote wine that can come from anywhere in Italy that can be sold in bulk or as wine on tap. In other words, common house wine. However, a winemaker in a classified zone who decides to sidestep the regulations and use unauthorized grapes or non-proscribed production methods can make a high quality wine but must label it VdT. The first Super Tuscan wines, some of which have attained cult status, were by necessity bottled as VdT.
The second classification is IGT (Typical Geographical Identification), which may also be listed as IGP (Protected Geographical Identification) as of 2011. Producers may use either, but IGT may be phased out in the future. All this tells you is that a wine is from a particular area. The grapes used are usually indicated. How they are grown and vinified is loosely outlined, once again giving winemakers room to be creative. An IGT can be broad-based, such as Venezia Giulia and Terre Siciliane, or more specific, as in Bergamasca in Lombardy and Calabria’s Val di Neto.
A wine stamped DOC represents both a named place and codified production standards, which can include which grapes can be cultivated, in which wines they may be used, aging requirements and style. In addition, the wine must be made where the grapes are grown. As of October of 2015 there are 333 DOC zones, responsible for about 25 percent of Italy’s annual volume. There is no one set of rules governing all DOCs, each is set up and monitored separately.
The final classification, DOCG (Guaranteed Denomination of Controlled Origin), is probably the most misunderstood. What is guaranteed is not that these are great wines, though many are among the most respected and sought after, but that they are the most rigidly controlled and may represent areas demarcated prior to the inception of the current system in 1963. Since 2000 the number of DOCGs has increased from 23 to 74. New areas have been recognized for their adherence to strict standards, and former DOCs have refined and enhanced their regulations to move up.
In 2008, European Union wine law technically combined DOC and DOCG into DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin), along with other agricultural products. Most Italian producers chose to stick with the preferred terms, citing the investment in time, initiative and capital expended to have their wines recognized internationally and not wishing to have them lumped into a single category.