As a sommelier for more than twenty years, it pains me to admit that I am still baffled by Italy. It is not just the 2,000 indigenous grape varieties that are rumored to be cultivated nor the sheer scale of the topography: they grow vines everywhere, nor the baffling number of winemakers: 350,000. The single largest cause of confusion about Italian wines is the distinctly unevolved wine label, with its impenetrable confusion of names that have absolutely nothing to do with what is in the bottle. The traditional Italian wine label did not give you any information to help decipher what is in the bottle, where it was made or even who made it. The Italians are a flamboyant lot and they have no problem putting all sorts of names, roses, ribbons, angels and all other sorts of imagery on the label to help distinguish their wine from its competitors. A bottle is just as likely to carry the official (DOC) name as to carry the name of some obscure town that the winemaker’s mother came from. The Italian Government has been trying for decades to clean up and organize this mess of wines to little avail. The DOC was the Italian answer to France’s AOC system complete with geographical boundaries, specified grapes, maximum yields and methods of production, but with one huge problem- it stifled innovation. The Italian wine scene of today is incredibly dynamic and innovative with a style all its own, but this a relatively recent turn of events. Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s most grapes grown in Italy were sold to cooperatives, who turned it into passible plonk that was sold on the cheap to quench the never-ending thirst of the domestic market. The creation of the DOC and to a lesser extent the DOCG, essentially fossilized the old standard practices of this era and punished progressive winemakers who were experimenting with new grape varieties and maturation techniques. These progressive winemakers knew that by blending a little Cabernet or Merlot with their Sangiovese and using small French barriques rather than the massive, “big as a room” barrels they could make a far better wine. These wines became known as “Super Tuscans” and revolutionized the Italian wine scene. Visionary winemakers began breaking with tradition by importing grapes and using nontraditional maturation techniques which caused them all to lose their DOC classification. Italians are pretty much anarchists by birth and these winemakers collectively thumbed their noses at the DOC and DOCG classifications and with pride they labeled their wines with the lowest level of all wines in Italy, vini da tavola or simple table wine. Funny thing was that soon the greatest and most expensive wines in Italy and the world were simply vini da tavola. By the end of the 1990’s there were so many producers in this category that an already confusing situation was getting really out of hand. At this same time the EU was introducing regulations that would outlaw all sorts of useful information on the label of “table wines” including vintage and grape variety, so in 1992, a new system of classification was set up for these innovative producers called the IGT. The IGT classification was created to recognize the unusually high quality of the Super Tuscans, but to also was designed to help protect the traditional the traditional wine formulations like Chianti and Barolo. IGT wines can carry the vintage, geographic location of where the grapes were grown and who made it but leaves the rest open for experimentation. This can only be a great thing because Italy produces so many grapes in so many varied microclimates that old habits and traditions do not necessarily mean better wine. It is important to remember that the Greeks called this land Oenotria, or, the land of the vine. The mountains run from the Alps in the north to the sea in the south, all the way through Italy creating every imaginable location to plant grapes, all on top of amazing volcanic, limestone and clay soil, in a temperate climate with plenty of sunshine.
Just a quick recap. DOCG is a controlled and guaranteed area of production, that is reserved for only the top regions. Wines of this category have followed the strictest old school regulations and the wine is tasted in committee to guarantee its geographical authenticity. Initially there were only five wines in this class: Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Noble di Montepulciano, Chianti, Barolo and Barbaresco, now there are 74 and lots of complaining about how and why the newcomers got in so easily. DOC wines are the original classification from the 1960’s and are a step below DOCG in terms of how strict the regulations are. DOC limits the production area, grape variety, style, minimum alcohol levels as well as mandated winemaking and maturation processes. There are 334 DOC zones in Italy. There are 118 different IGT zones and seeing this on the label generally means that you probably going to get at least some non-Italian grape varietals in the bottle. These are usually the most innovative wines of Italy and is the testing ground for all new varieties, ideas, imported grape varieties and techniques borrowed from around the world.
We are focusing on just the south of Italy this week, and will be drinking wines all DOC wines to give a good idea of what wines from the regions of Campania, Calabria and Sardegna are all about. Once again, thank you all so much for your continued support and patronage on our adventure around the continent!