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Italy is a country that is synonymous with wine.
It is the birthplace of some of the world's most renowned wine grape varieties, and the home of many of the world's most prestigious wine regions. The wines of Italy are as varied as the country's landscape and are celebrated internationally.
This article will look at a brief history of Italian wine, provide an overview of the important wine regions and grape varieties, and suggest some great Italian wines we think you should try!
This is some evidence of winemaking in Italy even before the Greeks arrived in the country in the 8th Century BC. However, when the Greeks arrived, they found the climate and growing conditions in Italy to be ideal for growing wine, and winemaking quickly spread across Sicily and Italy.
The Italian wine industry thrived during the period of Roman rule. During the dark ages and Middle Ages, high-quality wines continued to be produced across Italy, largely down to monks and the Catholic Church maintaining the traditions and carrying forward the knowledge of premium winemaking.
Like other countries in Europe, the phylloxera vine pest hit Italian vineyards hard in the late 19th century and destroyed a lot of prominent vineyards. On rebuilding and replanting the vineyards, it's suggested that there was more focus on mass production rather than maintaining the high quality that Italian wines had previously been known for.
As a result, during the early part of the 20th century, Italy developed an international reputation for mass-producing lower quality, affordable wines.
To help improve quality and address their reputational issues and inspired by success of the French appellation system launched in 1937, Italy introduced a similar classification of wines in 1963.
The Italian classification system has gone through some changes in recent decades to help incorporate EU wine regulations, and there are currently four tiers in the hierarchy:
This loosely translates to 'Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin'. Wines labelled DOCG are recognised as the highest quality and need to be produced in a designated DOCG area of which there are approximately 77 across Italy. All fine wines produced with a DOCG classification are subject to stringent analysis and testing.
There are approximately 330 DOC wines across Italy that are also subject to strict winemaking guidelines, designed to preserve the traditional wine making processes associated with different wine regions. In the hierarchy of classifications, DOC wines are below DOCG wines, but there are many high quality DOC wines.
These are wines that have a 'geographic indication' that a wine has been produced in a particular area of Italy but allows more flexibility in winemaking methods.
Vino is the most basic classification of wine and is often inexpensive wine that has been blended from multiple regions.
Typically, the wine harvest in Italy falls during the autumn months. You will see many harvesters during the “vendemmia” between the end of August and mid-October.
Italy is the largest producer of wine in the world, producing over 4.25m litres of wine per year.
White wines, red wines and sparkling wines are actually produced across the length of the country, with production concentrated into 20 different regions.
The most famous regions for wine production are:
Veneto is the largest wine producing region of Italy, estimated to produce almost 25% of the country's wine. Situated in the North-East of Italy, the Veneta region produces a lot of local wine varieties for domestic consumption, but also produces many international grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Grigio.
Situated in Northern Italy, the most notable wines from the Emilia-Romagna region are produced in the hills, which rise to 1000 feet above sea level. The famous wines from this region are the Sangiovese and Lambrusco red wine varieties, and Trebbiano and Albana white wines.
The Puglia wine region is located in the South East of Italy, and enjoys a hot Mediterranean climate. This region has 29 DOC wine areas and 4 DOCG wine areas. The Puglia wine region specialises in the production of Italian red wine.
One of the most famous red wines produced in the area is Primitivo, which is the same grape as Zinfandel. Bombino Bianco is one of the most recognised white grape varieties, and is unique to the Puglia region.
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, and enjoys a hot climate, ideal for growing a wide variety of different grapes. The majority of wine produced in Sicily is from indigenous grapes, including the red grapes Nero d'Avola and Frappato, and white grapes such as Grillo and Inzolia.
Italy is home to a wide variety of different wine grapes and wine styles.
Over 350 grapes are officially recognised as being grown in Italy by the Ministry Of Agriculture, but it is estimated that the true number of different grapes grown could be much higher.
Much of the wine production across Italy is dedicated to native varieties, which include:
This is the most widely planted grape in Italy and is used in the production of Chianti.
If a wine is made in Tuscany, and 70% of the wine is made from Sangiovese grapes, it can be called Chianti. If 80% of a Tuscany produced wine is made with Sangiovese grapes, it can be called Chianti Classico.
The Montepulciano grape is commonly found across Central Italy and is used in the production of red wines. The grape produces wines with bold tannins and high acidity and is often compared to Sangiovese.
Barbera wines are a type of red wine made from the Barbera grape. The grape is native to the Piedmont region of Italy and is one of the most widely planted grapes in Italy. The most notable feature of Barbera wines is their high acidity.
Trebianno is one of the most widely grown white grapes in Italy and is used in many brandies as well as for producing great table wines.
The Glera grape is a white wine grape native to the Veneto region of Italy, used in the production of the popular Italian sparkling wine, Prosecco.
Lambrusco is the name given to a family of red wine grapes that are typically used to produce a sparkling red wine. The Lambrusco family of grapes are native to the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.
Pinot Bianco is a white wine grape that is part of the Pinot family of grapes, which also includes Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir. The grape is planted across Italy but is most commonly found in the North-Eastern wine regions.
Marsala is a fortified wine that originates from the island of Sicily. The wine is made from white grapes and is then fortified with brandy. Marsala wines can be either dry or sweet and are often used in cooking.
In addition to these native varieties of grape, Italy also produces wine from many international grapes such as Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah.
If you want to try some great Italian wines, then head on over to our Italian Wines page and you will not be disappointed - there're something for all wine drinkers!
Some of our favourites include:
This is a great Montepulciano wine, with amazing flavour and is incredibly smooth to drink. We recommend this with a hearty meal.
This is a juicy red wine from the hills of Sicily, with soft tannins and a gentle acidity. A great wine that pairs with a host of foods.
This classic Italian Pinot Grigio is amazing served chilled as an accompaniment to salads and seafood dishes.
This wine is made exclusively from Glera grapes in the Veneto region and is deliciously light and fruity.
Find out more about other wine producing countries: