Italian Wine: The ultimate guide

Italian Wine: The Ultimate Guide

By Tony Margiotta

Imagine sipping on a lush glass of red wine while overlooking the rolling hills in Tuscany. Imagine having a pizza with a prosecco while gazing at the Colloseum in Rome. Imagine having a fresh fish dinner with refreshing white wine while looking at the blue sea in Sicily. These are some of the images that come up when you’re thinking about Italian wine.

Italian Wine Table of Contents

I. Introduction to Italian Wine

A. Importance of Italian wine in the global market

B. Brief history of winemaking in Italy

C. Overview of key topics covered in the guide

II. Exploring Italian Wine Regions

A. Overview of major wine-producing regions in Italy

B. Highlighting unique characteristics and specialties of each region

C. Importance of terroir in shaping Italian wines

III. Dive into Italian Grape Varieties

A. Introduction to popular Italian grape varieties

B. Profiles of iconic grapes like Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, and Vermentino

C. Impact of grape varieties on wine flavors and styles

IV. Understanding Italian Wine Classification

A. Explanation of Italy's wine classification system (DOCG, DOC, IGT)

B. Criteria for determining quality and origin in Italian wines

C. Examples of renowned wines from each classification

V. Mastering Food Pairings with Italian Wines

A. Guide to pairing Italian wines with regional cuisines

B. Tips for successful wine and food combinations

C. Creating memorable dining experiences with Italian wines

VI. Unveiling Winemaking Techniques

A. Overview of traditional and modern winemaking methods in Italy

B. Emphasis on sustainability and organic practices

C. Innovations driving the evolution of Italian winemaking

VII. Experiencing Italian Wine Culture

A. Wine tourism opportunities in Italy

B. Notable wine festivals and events

C. Recommendations for wine-related travel experiences

VIII. Navigating Italian Wine Trends

A. Emerging trends in the Italian wine industry

B. Rise of natural and biodynamic wines

C. Consumer preferences and market insights

IX. Conclusion and Next Steps

A. Recap of key insights about Italian wine

B. Further exploration and discovery

C. Share this guide with everyone and take a deeper dive in Italian Wine

I: Introduction to Italian Wine

Italy is one of the most important wine countries in the world. Italian wine has geographical, historical, social, and cultural influences making it more than just an alcoholic beverage. In Italy, wine is life.

This is the ultimate guide to Italian wine on the internet written so that you, the wine enthusiast and all things Italy lover, can gain a grasp and newfound appreciation for the wine country of Italy as quickly as possible. When you master Italian wine, the rest of the world’s wines are easy. And if you’re like me, you’ll have opened the door to a lifetime of enrichment with Italian wine.

But Italian wine is complicated. Italy has a greater variety of wines than any other country in the world. And the bottle labels are written in the Italian language. These two challenges deter many wine lovers from exploring the world’s greatest wine country in depth. 

This ultimate wine guide will shed light on these challenges so you can quickly and easily buy and enjoy Italian wine in surprising ways.

You can read this guide from beginning to end or you can jump from section to section. You don’t have to go in order. The best way to use this guide is to save this webpage on your browser so you can jump back to it anytime you have a few minutes. I’ll be adding to it on a regular basis.

I wish you a lifetime of joy with Italian wine so let’s get started. Cin cin!

1A. Importance of Italian wine in the global market

It’s amazing that Italy, the size of the State of Arizona, is the largest exporter and producer of wine in the world.

When looking at the global wine market as a whole, Italy produces more wine and exports more wine than any other country. According to Statista, Italy edged ahead of Spain in 2022 making it the largest exporter of wine. Italy shipped 21.9 Million Hectoliters of wine abroad. (Source)

According to Visual Capitalist, Italy is the largest producer of wine in the world and makes up 19.3% of the world’s total production. (Source)

And while the Italian peninsula has been an area of winemaking importance for at least 2,000 years, it’s really only been since the 20th century that Italian wine exports began to escalate.

Today, Italian wines like Chianti, Pinot Grigio, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, and Prosecco are the leading Italian wine exports in terms of units sold.

But also today, premium Italian wines like Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino, and Amarone della Valpolicella are considered some of the finest wines in the world. And they are in demand by wine collectors and enthusiasts alike.

Besides the Italian wines mentioned above, Italy produces thousands of different wine types and most of them are both consumed locally as well as exported abroad at varying levels.

Italy is the top producer of white wine accounting for 21% of global production. And Italy is the top producer of red wine in the world accounting for 17% of the world’s production.

According to Maximize Market Research, Italy also produces 27% of the world’s sparkling wines, while France, known for its Champagne, only produces 22% of the world’s sparkling wines. (Source)

And finally, Rosè wine is the only category that Italy is not the number one producer.

There are many reasons why Italy is most productive and exported wine country in the world. And in the coming sections we’ll be discussing these influential elements because they’ll be not only intellectually interesting but emotionally compelling. In other words, the elements that make Italian wine so productive will enhance your appreciation for Italian wine making your tasting experiences enriching, enlightening, and entertaining.

1B. Brief history of winemaking in Italy

Winemaking in Italy has been going on for over 5,000 years. The Romans were the first people to document the art of agronomy and vinification as far back as 2,500 years.

There’s a great deal of documentation from Historias Naturalis, a book called Natural History, and written by Pliny the Elder. An ancient Roman naturalist and philosopher, Pliny the Elder wrote about many important wine production areas on the Italian peninsula and its islands like Sardinia and Sicily.  This book is almost 2,000 years old.

The Romans are credited for coming up with what we call modern day winemaking techniques. They aged their wines in both clay amphora and concrete. They stored some of their wines to age for over 100 years. We have documentation of some elitist Romans with wine cellars containing some rare bottles of century-old-wine.

Even 2,000 years ago, aged wine was considered a special possession.

Controlled fermentation was developed by the Romans. They built underground containers where the cold temperatures prevented fermentation. And they built boilers under these containers so that boiling water would warm the wine to the proper temperature and begin fermentation at the proper moment.

Some of the lower quality wines were enhanced with the addition of honey and herbs. Today, winemakers have artificial additives that enhance the sweetness and savoriness of subpar wines. It all began with the Romans.

The Romans also discovered that the location of a vineyard had great impact on the resulting wine quality. That’s why today, certain winemaking areas produce higher quality wines than others.

It appears that both the Greeks and the Etruscans, who both predated the Romans, had great influence on Roman wine culture including winemaking practices.

Vine training, cultivation, pruning, domestication of vines, grape cloning, fermentation, and aging are just some of the winemaking techniques that can be traced back to the Romans, the Greeks, and the Etruscans who all inhabited Italy over the past 5,000 years.

1C. Overview of key topics covered in the guide

Italian wine is a multi-layered concept which doesn’t necessarily break down from one layer to another. Instead, there are multiple areas of Italian wine that all contribute to its identity.

In the coming sections, we’ll be going over how Italy’s 20 regions influence Italian wine and culture. The region from which an Italian wine is made directly impacts its behavior and organoleptic profile.

Also, there are thousands of different Italian wine types that each express their own identity. These types can be named after towns, places, grape varieties, nicknames, and any combination of those.

For example, Barbaresco is an Italian wine type named after the town where it’s made. Brunello di Montalcino is “the sangiovese grape from the town of Montalcino. And Amarone della Valpolicella is a combination of a nickname “Amarone” and place, “Valpolicella.”

Italy has the largest number of native wine grapes than any other country in the world. Many of Italy’s wines are simply named after the grape that the wine’s made of. For example, Cagnulari and Cannonau are native grapes from Sardinia.

Nero d’Avola and Perricone are native grapes from Sicily. Aglianico is a native grape from Campania. Dolcetto is a native grape from Piemonte. And Cesanese is a native grape from Lazio.

Each Italian grape has unique flavors, aromas, and textures that are very different from French grape varieties like Merlot and Pinot Noir which have been internationalized and commercialized in global quantities by both New World and Old World wine regions.

The combinations of these native Italian grape varieties with specific towns and places make limitless Italian wine personas.

We’ll also go over the importance of wine and how it is integrated into meals. Wine and food pairing  is again, an ancient Roman tradition.

In the final sections we’ll do an overview of wine trends in Italy today such as biodynamic and natural wines. And we’ll conclude on steps you can take to go deeper into the world of Italian wine for your pleasure.

Italian Wine Regions Map

II. Exploring Italian Wine Regions

Italy has 20 wine regions. 18 of the 20 regions are located on the Italian peninsula. Also known as “the boot.” The other two regions are Italy’s two largest islands: Sicily and Sardinia. Here is the list of all Italian Wine Regions below:

Trentino-Alto Adige

Valle d'Aosta

Piemonte

Lombardia

Veneto

Friuli-Venezia-Giulia

Emilia-Romagna

Toscana

Liguria

Lazio

Marche 

Umbria

Abruzzo 

Molise

Campania

Calabria

Basilicata

Puglia

Sicilia

Sardegna

Each of Italy’s 20 wine regions have their own wine types, appellations, and grape varieties. You can think of them as local wines.

In the world of Italian wine, the territory and terrain are deeply impactful on the resulting wine. “Made in Italy” is important but where a wine is made in Italy is even more important.

From a cultural standpoint, a regional wine is an expression of a subculture of Italy. The local wine is their take on Italian wine.

You can spend the rest of your life exploring regional Italian wines and never taste it all. But that’s the beauty of Italian wine. The possibilities to discover your next favorite wine are endless.

Some regions have a larger variety of wine than others but they’re all unique.

For example, wines from Sicily taste very different from wines from Piedmont. And wines from Veneto taste very different from wines from Sardinia. Even the wines of Campania and Molise, which are located right next to each other, have completely different wines in terms of taste and style.

The first step you want to take when learning about Italian wine is to memorize the 20 Italian wine regions. The next step is take a crash course to get a basic understanding of each region: its history, culture, and regional wines. You can do that by watching my Italian Wine Regions series on Youtube.

After you watch all 20 Italian wine region videos, you can pick a region that you’re interested in and take a deeper dive by exploring its wines. You can begin by looking at the wine region categories at Italian Wine Store, make yourself a wine pack, and ship them straight to your door.

The next step is obvious: taste and enjoy!

2A. Overview of major wine-producing regions in Italy

There are 6 major wine production areas in Italy. 3 in the North and 3 in the South. Veneto, Piemonte, Tuscany. And Aruzzo, Puglia, Sicily. 

This is not to diminish the importance of the other 14 wine regions in any way. But rather, these 6 regions can be a launchpad for people who are at the beginning of exploring Italian wine. In fact, it’s encouraged that you venture outward to the other wine regions. You can begin learning about the other wine regions of Italy by clicking the link

Veneto is a wine region located in the North East of Italy. It’s a powerhouse northern region producing sparkling white wines like Prosecco and the red wines of the Valpolicella. 

The most iconic wine of Veneto is Amarone della Valpolicella. Amarone is a full bodied, highly complex wine, with the ability to age for decades in the bottle. And for these reasons, Amarone is a collectible for wine collectors and worth storing in the cellar. 

Piemonte is a wine region in the North West of Italy. It’s famous for a few white wines like Arneis, and Gavi, but mostly red wines like Dolcetto, Barbera d’Alba, and Nebbiolo. It’s also known for a sweet white wine called Moscato d’Asti. But what Piemonte is most famous for are two red wines called Barolo and Barbaresco. 

Both Barolo and Barbaresco are considered some of the world’s finest wines and made in the Piemonte region. Both wines are made of the Nebbiolo grape. Both wines develop complex flavors and aromatics. And they both have decades of aging potential which attracts wine collectors around the globe. 

Tuscany is a wine region in the North Central part of Italy. Tuscany is one of the most popular regions for tourism due to its beautiful landscapes but also because of cities like Firenze, Siena, and Pisa. Not to take away from its great wines, but its successful tourism industry plays a small role in making the global markets aware of Tuscan wines. 

Chianti is the most famous Tuscan wine and Italy’s most-known wine around the globe. It was made famous in the mid-20th century with its straw-covered glass bottles. Chianti is predominantly made with the Sangiovese grape. And while Sangiovese is grown all over the peninsula, Tuscany has had the most success with it. 

Another iconic Italian wine is called Brunello di Montalcino. It’s considered one of the world’s best wines, again, for its complexity, aromatics, and age-ability. Brunello di Montalcino is made with 100% Sangiovese and can age for 30 years in the bottle. 

Another important Tuscan red wine and made with Sangiovese is Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. 

And finally, what’s known as the Super Tuscan emerged in the second half of the 20th Century which is a red blend of Sangiovese and French grape varieties. It’s more of a marketing term than an official wine, but it’s a popular wine among wine collectors and enthusiasts, once again showing the world of Tuscany’s great ability to make the finest wines in the world. 

In the South, Abruzzo is a powerhouse region that makes endless amounts of Montepulcano d’Abruzzo, its most important red wine. The region produces mostly white wines like Trebbiano, Pecorino, and Passerina, but it’s really known for its Montepulciano. A full bodied red wine with a vast array of flavor profiles and aging abilities. Everything from Table Wine to age-worthy fine wine can be found with the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. 

Puglia is one of the most productive wine regions in the South. It’s red wine Primitivo has become very popular in global wine markets. The region produces many other red wines like Negramaro, Nero di Troia, and Salice Salentino. And it tends to lean red heavy, with its white wines being less important. At least for the time being. Its rosè wines have become very popular within Italy and some global markets. But they tend to be fuller bodied rosè making them very different from the French rosè. But they are worthing exploring, especially the Negramaro rosè. 

Sicily is a large island in the southernmost point in Italy. While its wine history spans back 3,000 years, its wines have been very popular since the early 2000’s. Sicily has a lovely balance of excellent white and red wines. Its white wines include Grillo, Catarratto, and Etna Bianco while its reds include Nero d’Avola, Perricone, and Etna Rosso. 

2B. Highlighting unique characteristics and specialties of each Italian wine region

Each Italian wine region has its own local wines, appellations, terroirs, grape varieties and wine culture. And in a certain way this combination of elements gives each region its own style. Below you’ll find a brief summary of each wine region of Italy with its most important wines and characteristics.

Trentino-Alto Adige

Trentino-Alto Adige is northeastern wine region in Italy and shares a border with Switzerland and Austria. Trentino is the southern part of the region while Alto Adige is the northern part. While both parts do share some of the same wines, Trentino tends to have a focus and specialty of sparkling wines while Alto Adige focuses on a majority of white wines followed by red wines. Lagrein and Schiava are the native red wines of Alto Adige and are unique to the region. You can find many international varieties in the region such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and others. In general, the wines of Trentino-Alto Adige are fresh and fragrant, never heavy, crisp, smooth, and clean finishes. And they’re reminiscient of the crisp mountain breeze that the vineyards inhabit.

Veneto

Veneto is a Northeastern wine region in Italy. Named after the city of Venice and the Venetian people of history, Veneto is a major player in the global wine market. Veneto produces a wide range of wine types from sparkling white wines like Prosecco to dry white wines like Soave, to the dry red wines of the Valpolicella, and sweet red wines like Recioto. Amarone della Valpolicella which is considered one of the world’s greatest wines is also home to Veneto. Both Amarone and Recioto make use of appassimento which is the air-drying of grapes. This technique produces very rich wines with depth, aromatics, complexity, and age-ability. A by-product wine of Amarone, called Ripasso, and some call a ‘baby amarone’ also uses air-dried grapes and has become very popular for its quality and value.

Friuli-Venezia-Giulia

Friuli-Venezia-Giulia is the most northeastern wine region in Italy and borders with Austria and Slovenia. Many of its vineyards rest in the foothills of the Eastern Alps. It’s a small region known for its consistent quality wines. The region produces native white wines like Ribolla Gialla and Friulano which are full-bodied white wines with great structure and age-ability. The region also produces native red wines like Schioppettino which just might be one of the smoothest red wines you’ll ever taste. The wine region also produces many international variety wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Grigio, and Sauvignon Blanc. Stylistically, the wines of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia are fresh and lean with ample fruit and clean finishes. The wines make for pleasant and easy drinking regardless of the occasion.

Lombardia

Lombardia is a wine region located right in the middle of Northern Italy where you’ll also find the great city of Milano. Lombardia has a wide range of wines including both native and international grape varieties. Some of its most-known wines include Franciacorta, a sparkling white made with Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir. Many experts say it’s as good if not better than Champagne. And it’s certainly one of the finest sparkling wines in all of Italy. Another important wine area in Lombardia is called Valtellina, a valley of vineyards that hang on the steepest hills of the Alps. Made with 100% Nebbiolo, the Valtellina wines are stylistically different from Barolo and Barbaresco which are also made with Nebbiolo. Locally called Chiavennasca the best Valetellina wines are lean and fresh, with bright aromatics, and clean finishes. Easy drinking but with lots of structure and age-ability making them exciting wines with twists and turns like the steep hills they come from.

Valle d’Aosta

Valle d’Aosta is the smallest wine region in Italy. The region is a small valley located in the Northwest of Italy, and it shares its border with France and Switzerland. And in fact, there is great French influence in the wine culture of Valle d’Aosta. Even its bottle labels are written in French and Italian bringing together the best of both worlds if you ask me. While the region is small in terms of land mass, Valle d’Aosta produces a wide range of wines including native red grapes like Fumin and Cornalin, as well as international wines like Pinot Noir and Petit Rouge. In general, the region has the highest elevations of vineyards in Europe which contribute to fresh, clean, and crisp wines that are so easy to drink every single day. While Valle d’Aosta produces mostly red wines, it also has the native white grape Prie Blanc which is used to make a wine called Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle coming from the highest elevations. A white wine highly sought after by oenophiles.

Liguria

Liguria is a coastal wine region in the northwest of Italy. The region is famous for Le Cinque Terre, a group of gorgeous seaside villages on the Riviera and eye-popping views of the Ligurian Sea. The region’s vineyards are notoriously called Heroic Vineyards because they hang on the cliffs and look like they’re about to slide off and into the water. Liguria produces a few notable wines including white wines like Vermentino and the native red grape Rossese that’s unique to the region. Due to its proximity to the sea, the wines are light and easy to drink with fruit, floral, and minerality notes that pair beautifully with a Mediterranean diet with fresh fish and extra virgin olive oil. The Ligurian wines are great in the summer when it’s too hot for big heavy wines. But many wine lovers who crave a lighter style will appreciate the wines of Liguria all year round.

Emilia-Romagna

Emilia-Romagna is a duo wine region in Northern Italy. Its large land mass is sort of a “Crossroads of the North” because it borders with 6 other northern regions. The Emilia section comprises most of the region in the west and north sections and the Romagna section covers the southeastern area including the Adriatic Sea. The region produces both white and red wines but it’s most known for its sparkling red wine called Lambrusco. An ancient grape variety, native to the region, Lambrusco can come in many versions from dry to sweet and many different terroirs. Lambrusco di Sorbara is considered one of the finest. For still red wines there’s plenty of Sangiovese. If you’re a lover of Sangiovese because of Tuscan wines like Chianti and Brunello, you should definitely explore the different terroirs of Sangiovese in Emilia-Romagna. And you can also find white wines like the native Albana, Trebbiano, and Malvasia which make excellent value selections. If you’re the type looking for wines not too dry and not too sweet, Emilia-Romagna has both extremes and everything in between.

Tuscany

Tuscany is a wine region in Northern Italy. Its wine culture can be traced back to its pre-Roman inhabitants: the Etruscans from which its name originates. Experts believe the Etruscans passed on wine knowledge to the Romans which eventually resulted in modern-day wine and techniques. Tuscany is known mostly for its red wines, especially its Sangiovese-based wines. Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano are all highly respected wines throughout the world and are made with the Sangiovese grape. While Sangiovese is produced all over Italy, for some reason the most complex and age-worthy Sangiovese wines come from Tuscany. It’s no coincidence the center of Etruscan life is now the Tuscany region. Among white wines, the Vernaccia di San Gimignano is one of the most important in the region. And an amber sweet wine called Vin Santo, made with dried Sangiovese grapes is a Tuscan specialty. In more recent history, the wines of Bolgheri, located in western Tuscany on the Tyrrhenian Sea, gave birth to the Super Tuscan concept. In the late 20th Century, vintners began blending the native Sangiovese with French grape varieties like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to create what’s now called Super Tuscan wines and these red blends have also become very appreciated throughout the wine world.

Umbria

Umbria is a wine region located in the center of Italy. It’s one of the few wine regions in Italy that is landlocked, and not exposed to the seas. It’s a hilly region with 71% of its terrain being covered in hills. The region’s most famous cities are Perugia and Assisi. Perhaps because of its central geographical location, Umbria was at the center of many historical periods and wars in Italy. Its small villages are considered the most beautiful in Italy and the history of the region can be traced back to the Umbri people who some experts believe to be the oldest race of the Italic tribes. Umbria is known for several white and red wines. Grechetto is the most appreciated of white wines in Umbria, known for its full body, structure, and high acidity. Sagrantino di Montefalco is the most important red wine in Umbria. Sagrantino is a full-bodied red wine, high in tannins, and it can take up to 10 years of aging before the wine softens and becomes ready for drinking. It’s a powerful red wine with the ability to age for decades in the bottle. It’s one of those under-the-radar types of wines that should be in any Italian wine collection.

 

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