Italy is a country that is well known for its diverse and delicious cuisine. The food is one of the reasons why so many people travel to Italy every year. But, the Italian way of life also revolves around wine, and Italian wine has been famous for centuries. This article will explore the Italian wine list, regions, and pairings and give tips on choosing the perfect wine for your meal.
This guide will take you on a tour through Italy’s four main wine regions: Northwest, Northeast, Central, and Southern Italy.
In each regional section, you’ll discover the popular grape varieties that define the area’s unique wine profile. Not stopping at just the grapes, we’ll also delve into the popular wines produced from these varieties, providing you with an encompassing view of Italian viticulture. This organizational style allows for a comprehensive yet regionally-focused exploration of Italy’s wine landscape.
Northwest Italy Wines
Located in northern Italy, this region is characterized by its cool, rainy climate, influenced by the nearby Alps. The specific Italian regions that are part of it as they relate to wine are Piedmont, Valle d’Aosta, and some parts of the Lombardy region.
Popular Grapes Produced in Northeast Italy
The Northwest Italian wine region is known for its diverse range of grape varieties, both indigenous and international. Some of the most popular grape varieties produced in the Northwest Italian wine region include:
- Nebbiolo – a red grape variety indigenous to the Piedmont region and used to produce some of Italy’s most famous wines, including Barolo and Barbaresco.
- Barbera – a red grape variety widely planted throughout the Piedmont region and produces wines with high acidity and flavors of black cherry, blackberry, and spices.
- Dolcetto – a red grape variety indigenous to the Piedmont region- produces wines with low tannins and flavors of red fruits, herbs, and almonds.
- Moscato – a white grape variety widely planted throughout the Piedmont region and produces sweet, aromatic wines with peaches, apricots, and flower flavors.
- Arneis – a white grape variety indigenous to the Roero area of Piedmont- produces wines with rich texture and flavors of pear, apple, and almonds.
Popular Wines from Northwest Italy
Barolo is a full-bodied red wine made from the Nebbiolo grape with high tannins and a long aging process.
Barbera is a dry, medium-bodied red wine with high acidity and a fruity flavor. A notable mention goes to Barbera d’Asti. This red wine is produced in the Piedmont region of Northwest Italy, specifically in the province of Asti. It is made from the Barbera grape variety, known for its high acidity and dark fruit flavors.
Barbera d’Asti wines are typically deep ruby-red with medium to high acidity and moderate tannins. They have aromas and flavors of dark cherries, blackberries, and spices, with hints of vanilla and oak from aging in oak barrels. A good Italian wine list should include this wine.
Barbaresco is a full-bodied red wine made from the Nebbiolo grapes with high tannins and a long aging process. It is also known for its complexity and elegance.
Gavi is a dry, light-bodied white wine made from the Cortese grape with a crisp, refreshing flavor.
Northeast Italy Wines
Located in northern Italy, this region is characterized by its cooler climate and is influenced by the nearby Alps and the Adriatic Sea’s north coast.
The specific Italian regions that are part of it as they relate to wine are Trentino Alto Adige, Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and some parts of the Lombardy region.
Popular Grapes Produced in Northeast Italy
The Northeast Italian wine region is known for its diverse range of grape varieties, both indigenous and international. Some of the most popular grape varieties produced in the Northeast Italian wine region include:
- Pinot Grigio – a white grape variety that produces light, refreshing wines with citrus, peach, and melon flavors.
- Chardonnay – a white grape variety often used in blends to add richness and complexity to other white wines.
- Glera – a white grape variety used to produce Prosecco, a sparkling wine that is one of Italy’s most popular exports.
- Friulano – a white grape variety indigenous to the Friuli Venezia Giulia region and produces wines with a rich texture and flavors of almond, honey, and apricot.
- Merlot – a red grape variety that produces soft, velvety wines with plum, black cherry, and chocolate flavors.
- Cabernet Franc is a red grape variety used to produce medium-bodied wines with flavors of blackcurrant, tobacco, and herbs.
While Pinot Noir (Pinot Nero in Italian) is not an indigenous grape variety to Italy, it is produced in some regions of Northeast Italy, particularly in Alto Adige and Lombardy. The cooler climate in these regions provides an ideal growing environment for Pinot Noir grapes, which produce light to medium-bodied wines with delicate fruit flavors and aromas of red berries, cherries, and spices.
Also worth mentioning is Pinot Bianco, a white grape variety widely planted in Italy and other wine regions worldwide. It is a mutation of the Pinot Noir grape types.
While Sauvignon Blanc is not a traditional grape variety used in Italian winemaking, it is produced in some regions of Northeast Italy, particularly in Friuli Venezia Giulia and Alto Adige. The cooler climate and well-drained soils in these regions provide an ideal growing environment for Sauvignon Blanc grapes, which produce light-bodied wines with high acidity and aromas of citrus, tropical fruits, and herbs.
Popular Wines from Northeast Italy
Prosecco, a beloved Italian sparkling wine, is known for its delicate dryness, light body, and refreshing flavor. The wine’s signature sparkling finish is perfect for celebrating life’s special moments. As above, Prosecco should be part of a good quality Italian wine list.
Pinot Grigio, the quintessential Italian white wine, is dry and light-bodied with a beautiful fruity flavor that delights the palate and finishes with a refreshing and crisp sensation that leaves you longing for more. Pinot Grigio should be included in any decent Italian wine list as the quintessential Italian white wine.
Amarone della Valpolicella
Amarone della Valpolicella is a dry, full-bodied red wine made from partially dried grapes with high alcohol content and a rich, complex flavor.
Trebbiano is a dry, light-bodied white wine with crisp acidity and citrus and green apple flavors. It is often used in blends to add acidity and freshness to other white wines.
Central Italy Wines
This region is characterized by its warm, sunny climate, influenced by the Apennine Mountains. Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio, Marche, and Abruzzo are the Italian regions that are part of it as they relate to wine.
Popular Grapes Produced in Central Italy
Central Italy is home to some of Italy’s most famous and beloved wine regions, including Tuscany, Umbria, and Marche. Here are five of the most popular grape varieties produced in Central Italy:
- Sangiovese – a red grape variety widely planted throughout Tuscany and used to produce some of Italy’s most famous wines, including Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
- Trebbiano – a white grape variety widely planted throughout Central Italy and used to produce light-bodied, crisp white wines such as Orvieto and Trebbiano d’Abruzzo.
- Montepulciano – a red grape variety widely planted throughout Central Italy, particularly in Abruzzo- produces wines with high acidity, moderate tannins, and black cherry, plum, and spices flavors.
- Verdicchio – a white grape variety indigenous to the Marche region and produces crisp, refreshing wines with green apple, lemon, and almond flavors.
- Sagrantino – a red grape variety indigenous to the Umbria region and produces full-bodied, tannic wines with blackberry, black cherry, and spice flavors.
These grape varieties are just a few examples of the wide varieties grown throughout Central Italy. Each grape variety has unique characteristics and is used to produce a wide range of high-quality wines reflecting the region’s rich cultural and culinary heritage.
Popular Wines from Central Italy
Brunello di Montalcino
Brunello di Montalcino: a full-bodied red wine made from the Sangiovese grape with a fruity flavor and a smooth finish. Brunello di Montalcino is one of the most esteemed Italian wines, made from the Sangiovese grape and aged for at least four years.
This full-bodied red wine is renowned for its fruity flavor and smooth finish, making it a favorite among wine enthusiasts and collectors. Castello Banfi, located in the heart of the Brunello di Montalcino region, is one of the many wineries in Italy dedicated to producing high-quality wines, including their signature Brunello di Montalcino.
No Italian wine list would be complete without including the revered Brunello di Montalcino, a beloved classic known for its exceptional quality and popularity.
Chianti, one of Italy’s most famous red wines, is dry and medium-bodied with a distinct fruity flavor profile and a slightly spicy finish derived from the blend of different grape varieties used in its production.
Orvieto is a dry, light-bodied white wine made from a blend of grapes with a crisp, refreshing flavor.
What’s the Difference Between Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino?
Brunello di Montalcino is a type of Sangiovese grape grown in the Montalcino region and aged for a minimum of four years before it is released, with at least two years spent in a cask or barrel. If the wine is labeled as Riserva, it is aged for at least three years in oak. These wines are highly regarded for their complexity and depth.
On the other hand, Rosso di Montalcino is also made from Sangiovese grapes grown in Montalcino but is not required to be aged for as long. As a result, it is lighter, fruitier, and less tannic than Brunello di Montalcino and drinks well upon release. Rosso di Montalcino is typically much more affordable than Brunello.
Southern Italy Wines
This region is characterized by its hot, dry climate, influenced by the Mediterranean Sea. The specific Italian regions that are part of it as they relate to wine are Campania, Basilicata, Calabria, Puglia, and Sicily.
Popular Grapes Produced in Southern Italy
Southern Italy is home to unique, indigenous grape varieties that produce diverse wines. Here are five of the most popular grape varieties produced in Southern Italy:
- Aglianico – a red grape variety widely planted throughout Campania and Basilicata and produces full-bodied, tannic wines with flavors of black fruit, tobacco, and leather.
- Primitivo – a red grape variety indigenous to Puglia- produces rich, full-bodied wines with black cherry, blackberry, and spice flavors.
- Nero d’Avola – a red grape variety indigenous to Sicily- produces wines with high acidity, moderate tannins, and black cherry, plum, and spices flavors.
- Greco – a white grape variety widely planted throughout Campania and produces crisp, aromatic wines with pear, lemon, and white flower flavors.
- Fiano – a white grape variety indigenous to Campania, producing wines with rich texture and flavors of peach, apricot, and honey.
Popular Wines from Southern Italy
Nero d’Avola is a full-bodied red wine with a bold flavor and a spicy finish.
Aglianico is a full-bodied red wine with a tannic flavor and a long aging process.
Greco di Tufo
Greco di Tufo is a dry, full-bodied white wine with a bold flavor and a spicy finish.
Understanding the characteristics of each region can help you choose the perfect Italian wine to complement your meal. By exploring the different wine regions of Italy and sampling the wide variety of wines available, you can experience the richness and diversity of Italian culture and cuisine.
Super Tuscan Wines (Super Tuscans)
Super Tuscan wines are a relatively new phenomenon in Italian winemaking, dating back to the 1960s. They blend traditional Italian grapes, such as Sangiovese, with non-indigenous grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. These wines are typically made in Tuscany, called “Super Tuscans.”
“Super Tuscans” was coined to distinguish these wines from the traditional Italian classifications, such as Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. These classifications have strict regulations regarding the types of grapes that can be used and the winemaking process, which limited the experimentation of winemakers. Super Tuscans, on the other hand, are made with a combination of grapes from different regions, resulting in a unique and bold flavor profile.
Including non-indigenous grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, in Super Tuscan wines has led to controversy among Italian winemakers. Cabernet Sauvignon is not an approved grape variety for many Italian wine classifications, and the use of non-indigenous grapes in Italian winemaking has been a point of contention. However, Super Tuscans have gained popularity due to their unique flavor profile and high-quality winemaking techniques.
Popular Super Tuscan Wines
- Tignanello: a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc, known for its intense, complex flavor profile.
- Sassicaia: a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, known for its full-bodied, rich flavor.
- Ornellaia: a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot, known for its fruity and spicy flavor profile.
Super Tuscan wines are typically more expensive than traditional Italian wines due to their high-quality winemaking techniques and unique flavor profiles. They are often considered luxury items best enjoyed with a hearty meal or special occasion.
Super Tuscans, with their bold flavors, complex composition, and innovation in production methods, are a must-have on any well-curated Italian wine list.
Napa Valley and Italian Wine Making: Exploring the Connections and Influences
While Napa Valley is not directly associated with Italian winemaking, there are some connections between Napa Valley and Italian wine culture. For example, many winemakers in Napa Valley have studied or trained in Italy, and some have adopted Italian winemaking techniques or use Italian grape varieties in their wines.
Additionally, some wineries in Napa Valley produce wines influenced by Italian winemaking styles, such as Super Tuscan blends or Sangiovese-based wines.
Paso Robles, another wine region in California, also shares these connections with Italian winemaking. Italian winemaking techniques have inspired many winemakers in Paso Robles using Italian grape varieties in their wines.
The warm climate of Paso Robles is ideal for growing Mediterranean grape varieties commonly used in Italian winemaking. Many wineries in Paso Robles produce Italian-style wines, such as Super Tuscan blends and Sangiovese-based wines.
Both Napa Valley and Paso Robles have contributed to the growth of the wine industry in California and the United States, and their connections to Italian winemaking have helped enrich the wine industry’s cultural diversity.
How to Read an Italian Wine List
When you’re reading an Italian wine list, you’ll notice that each wine is listed with its name, the region it comes from, and the vintage. For instance, if you see a wine called “Chianti Classico Riserva” on the list, you’ll know that it’s made from Sangiovese grapes and comes from the Chianti region in Tuscany.
The vintage will tell you the year the grapes were harvested, allowing you to select a wine from an excellent year or one that has aged well.
For example, if you see a Chianti Classico DOCG from the 2016 vintage, you’ll know that it’s a relatively young wine with fresh fruit flavors, while wine from the 2005 vintage may have mellowed and developed more complex flavors with age.
What Does DOCG Mean in Italian Wines?
DOCG stands for “Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita”, the highest quality assurance level for Italian wines. The DOCG classification was created in 1980 to identify and protect the finest Italian wines and ensure they meet specific quality standards.
To receive the DOCG classification, the wine must meet strict regulations related to the production process, grape varieties used, aging requirements, and other factors. The wine must also pass a rigorous tasting and analysis process to ensure that it meets the standards for quality and authenticity.
Wines with the DOCG classification are considered of the highest quality and are often more expensive than other Italian wines. Some of Italy’s most famous DOCG wines include Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Amarone della Valpolicella, and Chianti Classico.
Ensure you check for the DOCG classification on Italian wine lists to guarantee the highest level of quality for your wine selection.
Tips for Choosing the Perfect Wine
- Generally, always pair red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat, and fish.
- Choose a wine that complements the flavor of your food, not one that overpowers it.
- If you are unsure which wine to choose, ask the server or sommelier for a recommendation.
Italian Wine List Pairings
Pasta is one of the most popular dishes in Italy, and there are many different types of pasta dishes to choose from. Here are some of the best Italian wines to pair with pasta dishes:
- Chianti: Chianti is a dry, medium-bodied red wine that pairs well with tomato-based pasta dishes like spaghetti Bolognese and lasagna.
- Sangiovese: Sangiovese is a dry, medium-bodied red wine that pairs well with meaty pasta dishes like fettuccine Alfredo and carbonara.
- Barbera: Barbera is a dry, medium-bodied red wine that pairs well with pasta dishes with rich, creamy sauce like penne alla vodka and tortellini alfredo.
Italian cuisine is known for its meat dishes and many different meat dishes. Here are some of the best Italian wines to pair with meat dishes:
- Barolo: Barolo is one of the most popular Italian red wines. It is a full-bodied red wine that pairs well with rich, hearty meat dishes like beef stroganoff and lamb chops. It has high tannins, which help cut through the meat’s richness.
- Brunello di Montalcino: Brunello di Montalcino is a full-bodied red wine that pairs well with grilled or roasted meat dishes like steak and pork chops. It has a fruity flavor with a hint of vanilla and a smooth finish.
- Nero d’Avola: Nero d’Avola is a full-bodied red wine that pairs well with spicy meat dishes like chili con carne and spicy sausage. It has a bold flavor with a hint of blackberry and a spicy finish.
With its lengthy coastline, Italy is surrounded by the sea, offering a diverse array of delicious fish dishes. Here are some of the best Italian wines to pair with fish dishes:
- Pinot Grigio: Pinot Grigio is a dry, light-bodied white wine that pairs well with delicate fish dishes like seafood risotto and grilled shrimp. It has a crisp, refreshing flavor with a hint of citrus.
- Vermentino: Vermentino is a dry, medium-bodied white wine that pairs well with grilled or roasted fish dishes like salmon and sea bass. It has a fruity flavor with a hint of apple and a smooth finish.
- Greco di Tufo: Greco di Tufo is a dry, full-bodied white wine that pairs well with rich, flavorful fish dishes like cioppino and bouillabaisse. It has a bold flavor, a hint of apricot, and a spicy finish.
Popular Italian Dessert Wines
No Italian meal is complete without dessert, and many different types of Italian desserts exist. Here are some of the best Italian wines to pair with desserts:
- Moscato d’Asti: Moscato d’Asti is a sweet, light-bodied white wine that pairs well with light, fruity desserts like fresh fruit and fruit tarts. This Moscato bianco has a sweet, fruity flavor with a hint of peach and a refreshing finish.
- Prosecco: Prosecco is a dry, light-bodied white wine that pairs well with light, creamy desserts like tiramisu and panna cotta. It has a crisp, refreshing flavor with a hint of apple and a smooth finish.
- Asti Spumante: Asti Spumante is a sweet, light-bodied white wine that pairs well with sweet, decadent desserts like chocolate cake and crème brûlée. It has a sweet, fruity flavor with a hint of pear and a sparkling finish.
In conclusion, Italian wine is renowned worldwide for its exceptional quality, diverse production methods, and a wide variety of varietal wines. From full-bodied reds like Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino to light and crisp sparkling wines like Prosecco, Italy offers some of the greatest wines in the world.
By exploring the different Italian wine regions, understanding production methods, and reading an Italian wine list, you can select the perfect wine to complement any meal. So, the next time you enjoy an Italian dish, pair it with one of the best Italian red wines or other great Italian wines and experience the essence of the Italian way of life.