Updated: Dec 31, 2019
You can easily start an argument - or at least a vigorous debate (probably with lots of animated hand signals) - by climbing on a pedestal (or writing a blog) and waxing lyrically about what you think is the best Italian wine. So I'm not going to do that. In fact, despite a significant amount of practical research, I still feel I'm far from being an expert on Italian wine. But what my research (read: long afternoons visiting wineries) does enable me to do is to offer up ten Italian wines that I think are just fabulous and I reckon you should try. Are they the best? Chissa? (Who knows?) But I can say that you should do yourself a favour and give these a go!!
Now, even coming up with just ten wines is a challenge, because there are currently said to be about 350 officially-recognised Italian wine varieties and it's suggested that there may be over 2,000 in all, with many grown locally and not widely circulated. This may or may not be an exaggeration, but what it does suggest is that if you wanted to attempt to sample every type of Italian wine it would be quite a long night…..
Wine is produced almost everywhere across Italy, and whilst some of Italy’s wine regions have been held in high regard for centuries, other less-well-known wines have in recent years developed a higher profile as interest has grown in smaller boutique wines, and as viniculture methods have improved. As an example, Puglia produces strong red wines that have always been appreciated and consumed locally, however were somewhat looked down upon in other parts of Italy, however nowadays Puglian wines win many awards and are admired around the world.
And one more thing it's good to know is that Italy has a wine classification system that is strictly applied and gives the consumer confidence and protects the local producer. The system is comprised of four categories and you’ll usually see one on an ltalian wine label:
VdT (Vino Da Tavola): This category is found on basic wines, and the only criteria is that the wine is produced somewhere in Italy. Don’t be fooled though; many VdT wines are very drinkable: simple and lightly flavoured.
IGT (Indicazione di Geografica Tipica): IGT wines are usually made from grapes grown in a specific geographical growing region. There are exceptions, however, as some of Italy's best wines fall under this category as in this way they avoid the more stringent regulations associated with DOC or DOCG wines and the vintner has more flexibility for experimentation.
DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata): To qualify as DOC, wine must be made in specified, government-defined zones, and strictly in accordance with regulations that seek to preserve the wine's unique character. Over 300 wines are currently classified as DOC, and each one must comply with regulations which include where and how the vineyard is trellised, irrigation requirements, grape varieties, ageing requirements and alcohol limits.
DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita): The highest quality recognition is found on only a relatively limited number of first-class wines. DOCG wines must meet all of the requirements that DOC wines must maintain, plus additional caveats covering things such as vineyard yield, specific grape varieties, alcohol levels, and minimum ageing requirements.
Now we come to the wines and so - in no specific order - here are my recommendations for ten Italian reds you really ought to try:
Barolo is a red wine produced in Piedmont and made from Nebbiolo: a small, thin skinned red grape variety generally high in acid and tannins. Barolo is generally regarded as the number one Italian red wine and ages really well. It isn’t cheap, but if you have something to celebrate, you’ll struggle to find something better for a toast.
In many ways, Barbaresco is a very similar wine to Barolo: it also comes from Piedmont and is also made with Nebbiolo grapes. The main difference between Barolo and Barbaresco is in the soils; with the richer soil used for growing Barbaresco resulting in less tannin. Barolo is also stored for 3 years before release, whereas Barbaresco is only stored for 2 years. Renowned for its finesse and perfume, Barbaresco is high up among Italy’s best wines.
Brunello di Montalcino is a red DOCG wine produced in the vineyards surrounding the town of Montalcino: about 80 km south of Florence in Tuscany. As Barolo is seen as the best wine made from Nebbiolo grapes, Brunello di Montalcino is regarded the king of wines made with Sangiovese grapes. Sangiovese is Italy’s most popular grape, and as the primary variety used in Chianti. It has the ability to take on the characteristics of the region, climate and those imparted by the winemaker, and therefore wines made from this grape can vary widely in taste. Brunello is a complex wine with very good ageing potential.
Yet another red wine from Piedmont, Barbera d'Asti is a red wine made from the Barbera grape variety. It is produced in the hilly areas of the provinces of Asti and Alexandria. Under the DOCG rules, a minimum of 90% Barbera grapes must be used; the balance may be made up with either Freisa, Grignolino or Dolcetto grapes. The wine must be made before the date of 1 March immediately following the harvest and must reach an alcohol content of 11.5%.
I’ll throw this one in with those above, as it too is made mostly from Nebbiolo grapes and comes from Piedmont. Sometimes referred to as a ‘poor man’s Barolo’, Gattinara may not carry the prestige of Barolo, but it is a delicious and often over-looked wine. Perfect with stews, Gattinara is a wine to drink while waiting for Barolo and Barbaresco to mature. The biggest difference between Gattinara, Barolo and Barbaresco, lies in the soil and climate. Gattinara’s granite and iron-rich soil brings forth the Nebbiolo’s delicate attributes more readily at an earlier age, and its more extreme climate variations contribute to a more lively acidity.
Amarone della Valpolicella is a concentrated dry red wine made with partially dried grapes in Valpolicella, an area in the Veneto region just to the north of Verona. The main permitted grape varieties in Amarone wine are Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella, plus some lesser known ones, and the aromas and flavours of Amarone are determined invariably by Corvina – and to a lesser extent Corvinone.
Chianti, the main wine region of Tuscany, has over 7,000 hectares of vineyards, and wine from the region is popular around the world. The region’s iconic rolling hills are what create the microclimates that are so suited to growing grapes and Sangiovese is the main grape of Chianti and its sub-regions. Sangiovese combines high acidity with medium tannins. There is more than one type of Chianti, and the best is Chianti Classico. Chianti Classico refers to wine produced in the classic, historic growing area located between Florence and Siena and is produced with slightly stricter regulations than regular Chianti. Chianti Classico wines are more suitable for aging than Chianti and require a one-year period of ageing before they can hit the market.
Dolcetto d'Alba is a DOC zone producing wines exclusively from the Dolcetto grape: one of the most typical and widespread vines in Piedmont. The wines produced from it are nearly always dry. The grape ripens earlier than Nebbiolo and produces wines that are low in acid yet high in tannins and are typically meant to be consumed within a few years after release.
Lambrusco is the name of both an Italian red wine grape and a wine made principally from the grape. Lambrusco has long been thought of as just a cheap, sweet, fruity wine. I remember it as a $2 bottle to go with Nana’s pasta. But over time, the subtleties of well-made Lambrusco have come to be more and more well-regarded and today there are several outstanding slightly-dry to totally-dry Lambruscos from Emilia-Romagna. The most highly rated are the slightly frizzante Lambruscos with a pleasing bitterness that are designed to be drunk young and are delicious on a hot summer day.
What Barbera wine is to Piedmont, Montepulciano wine is to Abruzzo. Montepulciano is the primary red grape in Abruzzo and the wines made from it are called Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. Be careful, because there is also a wine called Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which is from Tuscany and made with Sangiovese. Montepulciano grapes make a dark, rich wine with a character similar to Cabernet Sauvignon and showcasing juicy, grape flavours with soft, supple tannins. It’s Italy’s quintessential pizza wine.
The wonderful thing for us is that for each of these wine varieties there are multiple wineries that producing their own version. Toss in variations across vintages, and that means there are literally hundreds of options out there for you to sample. So what are you waiting for??
So there... that’s my list, but maybe you disagree, or have some alternate suggestions. Leave your thoughts in the comments section. I'm always willing to learn something new about Italian wine....
Come and join us on one of our guided small group tours of Italy and try some of these great Italian wines in the places where they are made! In particular, have a look at these tours:
An adventure under the Tuscan sun: an 11 day tour of Tuscany enjoying fine wine, good food and great little villages.
Northern Delights: 7 days in Piedmont's best wine district; between Barolo and Asti.
Beyond Venice: 11 days in the Veneto, including visits to wine areas like Valpolicello and Bardolino.