Italian Wine Classification Laws

First thing; Italian wine laws are complicated. Second thing; you’ll think they’re less complicated after reading this. Italian wine laws got their start in the 1960’s when it was recognized that Italian wines would need some indicator of quality on the world market. There was quite a bit of plonk travelling the globe back then, causing some consumers to get stuck with bad wine. Since we tend to lump everything together (one bad Italian wine = all Italian wine is bad), Italian exporters were worried that the one bad bottle could turn off a consumer for life. (There might have also been some jealousy that the French already had the AOC). So, they devised a classification system to indicate wines of origin.

The classification system that they originally devised had three levels. The first level is DOCG (denominazione di origine controllata e garantita), which means denomination of controlled and guaranteed origin. Essentially, this meant that the wine was made in a specific area under specific conditions and was guaranteed to be good. Now, obviously, this was a strong statement to guarantee that the wine would be good, and we’ll see why the Italians were comfortable with that name. The second level is DOC (denominazione di origine controllata), which means denomination of controlled origin. This next level loses the guarantee. As expected, more wines can fall into this category. Only about 12-15% of wines made in Italy achieve either of these two designations. The third, and lowest level, was vino da tavola, or table wine. This was essentially everything else, which included cheap, bargain wine.

In 1992, a new layer was added, IGT (indicazione geografica tipica), or indication of geographic type. This law was passed to bring supertuscans into the fold. These wines were originally classified as vino da tavola, lumping them with some pretty poor wines. The supertuscan producers weren’t too happy about this, so they lobbied for and got the additional level.

Now that you know the different levels (if you need a mnemonic, GDIV might work), what does it all mean?  The first thing is that it utilizes the French concept of terroir. DOCG, DOC, and IGT are defined by geographical boundaries. That means that there is a delineated area in which wines can be made that can be labeled with the classification. So, when you read the names of the classifications, it might be like vernaccia di San Gimagnano, which means vernaccia (a grape) of San Gimagnano (a city in Tuscany). This means that this wine was made from Vernaccia grapes near San Gimagnano. Due to this geographical construct, you are going to learn a lot about Italian cities, regions, and areas. (Trust me, a lot better than putting that 50 state puzzle together). The best way to approach the study of the areas is by region. Since Italy only has 20 regions, it is a little easier than the US.

Of course, you can also go the easy way and not care about any of the regions and just look at the label. This was the original intent of the law. When you look at the label, it will clearly say the words DOCG, DOC, IGT, or vino da tavola. Now, these are broad measures of quality, so an IGT might be better than a DOC, but not on average. If you are even less motivated, there will always be a red and white banded seal over the foil on the neck of the bottle. This is the anti-tampering device used for DOC wines. If you see that, it’s DOC. You will still have to read it, but it makes identification a little easier.

So maybe you have decided to learn a little about the different regions (not a complete slacker).   There are really only three main ones (IMO). I’m going to start with one of the easiest, Abruzzo. Abruzzo is a region on the Adriatic sea in the center of Italy. It has a total of four DOC’s and one DOCG. Let’s ignore two of the DOC’s since you will probably never find them in the US. The two main DOC’s are trebbiano d’Abruzzo and montepulciano d’Abruzzo. This indicates the grape (trebbiano and montepulciano) and the region it was grown in (Abruzzo). Now, there is only a specific section of Abruzzo that these can be grown and labeled as DOC. However, there is a specific section that has such quality it is guaranteed. This is montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane. This is a more restricitive location centered around Colline Teramane that warrants a DOCG. You can go to any store and find montepulciano d’Abruzzo. So, walk down to a decent wine shop and scan the Italian section for this wine, look on the label and you’ll see the DOC (or DOCG if you can find the more restrictive one). Congratulations, you’ve just figured out Abruzzo, only 19 to go.

The next one is the most famous, and it is Tuscany. Tuscany is a lot more complicated than Abruzzo, however, the wines are easily found in pretty much any store. The most ubiquitous is Chianti. Now, Chianti is DOCG if it comes from specific areas. You’ll have to read up on those as there are quite a few since it is a large area. One group has found an ingenious workaround, show a black rooster. The black rooster is the symbol of a consortium in Chianti, so when you see it you’ll know it is Chianti Classico, a DOCG wine. You’ll notice Chianti doesn’t have a “di” in it. Well, you just have to know that it is the sangiovese grape. So, when you say Chianti, think sangiovese di Chianti. Finally, there is Piedmont. Piedmont, nestled up in northern Italy is home to about the same dizzying number of DOC and DOCG wines. Let’s focus on dolcetto since it has three DOCG and seven DOC wines and illustrates the whole point about the classifications. The idea is that we can stop right here and don’t have to learn anything. If we see a DOCG on the label, it’s from one of the three areas. If it’s only a DOC, then it must be one of the other seven. If it has IGT, then it must have been grown outside of the areas defined here. Or, we can go further and actually learn the names of the different regions and search out the ones we like. Completely up to you, learn as much or as little as you would like.  Then, just when you thought you have it figured out, the EU steps in and changes it to DOP, but that’s another story.