All you need to know about Italian Wine Classifications

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Last updated Jul 9, 2023

Italy is a popular vacation destination due to its history and beautiful landscape. But outside of its natural beauty, it also produces some of the best wines in some of the most scenic landscapes in the world. Wine in Italy is more than just a drink, it is a way of life. It is also very affordable and plentiful. However, for casual wine drinkers, it can be confusing to figure out the labeling system and the quality of wine and here we try to explain Italian Wine Classifications.

In this article, we try to clear up some of the confusion and offer a simple explanation of Italian Wine Classifications! The classifications identify everything from how the grape is grown, to how it is handled, how the wine is produced, the alcohol content, the aging process, and the higher up the tier you go the stricter the rules are.

Italian Wine Names

Italian wines can be named after the variety of the grape, the region they are grown and produced in, or neither one of those. Take for example, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. If you knew nothing about Italian wine, the name would suggest that both wines are either from the same region or use the same grape and neither is true in this case. They are two completely different wines, from different grapes, different regions, harvested and aged differently.

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (a DOCG wine) is named after the town where it is produced (Montepulciano), and the grape varietal used in this wine is Sangiovese (the same primary variety used in other popular Italian wines like Chianti and Brunello). However, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (a DOC wine) is made from Montepulciano grape in the Abruzzo region, which is nowhere near the town of Montepulciano.  Because of this confusion, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano has been considering changing its name to just Vino Nobile for some time now.  

Another example is Super Tuscan, and by the name alone you can guess that this wine is from Tuscany. It is a red blend from Tuscany that does not follow strict rules of DOC and DOCG to create powerful wines targeted to the international market.

Two of the most popular Italian red wines, Barolo and Barbaresco, provide another good example of the complexities in Italian wine naming.  Barolo and Barbaresco are often referred to as the King and Queen of Italian wines, respectively.  Both wines are produced from 100% Nebbiolo grape and are from two villages only 15 miles apart. 

If you were to try them side by side, most unacquainted drinkers would never guess they are made from the same grape.  The difference is due to the effect of the “terroir” or the natural environment of the area.  This requires different aging duration to mellow the harsh tannins that are typical of Nebbiolo grown in the Barolo region.

Italian Wine Classification
Map of Italian Grape Regions | Italian Wine Classifications

Italian Wine Classifications

The classification of Italian wine as we know it today started in the early ‘60s and has been changed and updated over time. The idea behind classifying wines in this way was to ensure quality. The classifications identify everything from how the grape is grown, to how it is handled, how the wine is produced, the alcohol content, the aging process, and higher up the tier you go the stricter the rules are. However the intentions of this system have been questioned on multiple occasions and there are many examples of certain wines becoming DOCG because of heavy lobbying from the region to the committee, not because the quality was better than some other competing wines. Nevertheless, Italy’s classifications (appellations) are divided into four categories:

VdT – Vino da Tavola

Vino da Tavola means “table wine” in Italian or now simply Vino. It represents most basic level of Italian wine. Everyday drinking wine.

IGT – Indicazione Geografica Tipica

Up until 1992, all the wines that did not fall under the DOC and DOCG categories fell under VdT classification. This included different blends, natural, organic, and bio-dynamic wines.

One of the most prominent voices against the constraints of DOC and the need for more inclusive classification were the producers of ‘Super Tuscans’ and the reason for the creation of IGT. They were not willing to play by the DOC/DOCG rules, however, the quality of wine they were making was catching international attention and the Italian government decided to give it a formal classification in 1992.

For IGT appellation, the grape and wine still need to be produced within a certain ‘area of origin’; wines are subject to inspection but not actual tasting. Below is an example of rules that a Rosso di Toscana wine producer must follow, it is a lot more forgiving than DOC/DOCG rules:

  • IGT Toscano/Toscana (red)
  • Region: Toscana
  • History: Established in 1995
  • Vineyard Area: 12,308 ha / 30,402 acres
  • Production: 604,500 hl / 6,717,000 cases
  • Red Grape Varieties: Aleatico, Alicante, Ancellotta, Barbera, Barsaglina, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Canaiolo Nero, Cesanese, Ciliegiolo, Gamay, Groppello, Malvasia Nera, Merlot, Montepulciano, Nero d’Avola (Calabrese), Petit Verdot, Pinot Nero, Pugnitello, Refosco, Sangiovese, Schiava, Syrah, Teroldego, Vermentino Nero
  • Significant Production Rules:
    • Zone of Production: Entire region of Toscana
    • Minimum alcohol level: 11% for Red
    • Aging: No minimum specified

DOC – Denominazione di Origine Controllata

DOC classification means that the wine has been produced in a specific area, with certain grape varieties, and aged and bottled to the specification set by the ruling body. The wine is subject to physical and chemical testing and one tasting panel. There are over 300 DOC wines currently and below is an example of what rules a producer must follow to make Rosso di Montalcino:

  • Rosso di Montalcino DOC
  • Region: Toscana
  • History: Established as a DOC in 1983
  • Vineyard Area: 282 ha / 697 acres (2018)
  • Production: 38,000 hl / 422,200 cases (2018)
  • Principal Red Grape Varieties: Sangiovese
  • Styles and Wine Composition: 100% Sangiovese
  • Significant Production Rules:
    • Zone of Production: Montalcino
    • Minimum alcohol level: 12.0%
    • Aging: Minimum approx. 10 months
    • Release Date: September 1, vintage year + 1
Italian Wine Classifications
Piedmont | Italian Wine Classifications

DOCG -Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita

DOCG classification is the highest classification for Italian wines. It was created in 1980 and the first wines to make this classification were Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Brunello di Montalcino, Barolo, and Barbaresco.  Since then over 70 other wines have been accepted into this classification, which many would argue is diluting the quality and prestige that DOCG is supposed to hold.

Every aspect of wine production in this classification is highly regulated. Everything from how the grapes are transported to the cellar to the bottling process. A DOCG wine is subject to multiple chemical and physical tests and two tasting panels. Below is an example of some of the rules that a Brunello di Montalcino producer must follow:

  • Brunello di Montalcino DOCG
  • History: Established as a DOC in 1966; became a DOCG in 1980
  • Vineyard Area: 1,448 ha / 3,577 acres (2018)
  • Production: 70,000 hl / 777,800 cases (2018)
  • Principal Red Grape Varieties: Sangiovese
  • Styles and Wine Composition: 100% Sangiovese
  • Significant Production Rules:
    • Zone of Production: Montalcino
    • Minimum alcohol level: 12.5%
    • Aging: For Brunello, minimum 4 years, including at least 2 years in the barrel and 4 months in the bottle; for Riserva, minimum 5 years, including 2 years in the barrel and 6 months in the bottle
    • Release Date: for Brunello = January 1, vintage year + 5 years; for Riserva = January 1, vintage year + 6 years
Italian Wine Classifications
Winery Tornesi | Italian Wine Classifications

Some appellation types allow optional use of ‘sub-categories’ to further describe the wine:

Classico: refers to traditional, renowned region of the appellation. Does not have an impact on the quality of wine.

Superiore: refers to higher alcohol content than what is normally required for the appellation.

Riserva: refers to wine that went through a further aging process then what is required by the appellation.

Millesimato: applies to sparkling wines to indicate the grapes from single harvest were used in production of Prosecco.

Conclusion on Italian Wine Classifications

Italian wines can seem overwhelming and complicated at first, and there is no easy way to learn about them. It takes time, research, and sampling. But then again, that would apply to all wines, in our opinion, and what could be better than sampling great wines?  One lesson we have learned repeatedly is that there are fantastic wines to be found at every quality level and price range and that what wine you will like is very subjective and most often not a function of how much it costs. All the classifications are more of the marketing tool for the export business as well as a way for the government to collect fees.

For you as a consumer it comes down to what you like. We have recently had two completely different experiences with the same wine, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG, they were from two different producers, same vintage and in the same price range of about $25. One wine was nice fully bodied with leathery long-lasting finish, and other was very fruity on the nose with a completely flat finish. Once again to prove that DOCG does not ensure quality, and the best quality control for any wine will be your taste buds.

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