Italy probably produces wines with a greater pendulum swing than any other wine producing country in the world, from the sublime and exciting to the characterless and the disgusting. This comes as no surprise when you consider that the country was made up of distinctly different regions and became begrudgingly united barely 150 years ago. In addition, Italy produces more wine than any other country in the world. The Roman name for Italy was Enotria – land of the vines, and the description would be justified even today with 25% of the world’s wine production emanating from her shores alone. These issues alongside Italy’s former desire for quantity rather than quality, gave the country’s wines a very bad press here in the 1970s and 1980s with the ubiquitous Chianti, Soave and Valpolicella circulated without any quality control to every new bistro in Great Britain.

To some extent the flamboyant and ego-centric nature of the Italian character came to its rescue at the end of the 1980s. The understanding of a new global market for its wines, coupled with increased pressure from outside, created a new philosophy from within. The discovery that lower yields could make better wines and therefore more substantial returns was a revolution to Italian wine makers. Prior to this countrywide review Italian wine laws benefited producers aiming at the highest yields possible.

New laws filtering through in the 1980s at least gave the confused traveller some guide to a wine’s quality. Basic wines were given a Vino da Tavola status very much in keeping with France’s Vin de Table. Next up the ladder was Denominazione di Origine Controllato (DOC), again similar to the DOC in France, although even today it is nowhere near as strict as its French neighbours. The new premier category became Denominazione di Origine Controllato e Garantita (DOCG). The irony in this category is two-fold: firstly that DOC alone could not be relied upon when used by Italian winemakers and, secondly, that any grapes that were not indigenous to Italy could not be blended with her wines, so successful plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon in Piedmont and Tuscany and their resultant world class wines could only enter the Vino da Tavola definition.

An additional classification added comparatively recently in 1992 is IGT (Indicazione Geographica Typica), which approximates to France’s Vin de Pays and German Landwein.

Confused? I don’t blame you, but that’s Italian wine in a nutshell. Nil desperandum – it gets less confusing from now on as the 1990s in Italian viticulture will prove.


Vines have flourished and wines have been made all across Italy since recorded history commenced. With early viticulture, begun with the Etruscan and Greek civilisations, the history of the Roman Empire is almost inseparable from the history of Italian winemaking and too vast a subject to begin to condense here. Suffice to say that Hannibal, having crossed the Alps into Italy in the 3rd century BC, noted the plethora of vines under cultivation across great swathes of the continent.

As the middle ages saw the revival and explosion of trade in the Mediterranean, it comes as no surprise that Italy was pivotal in the exportation of its now popular product – wine.

One of the first written catalogues of Italian grape varieties can be found in Andrea Bacci’s treatise as early as as late 16th century. After such auspicious beginnings it still remains something of a mystery that in the 17th and 18th centuries Italy remained a stranger to bottled and corked wines, preferring still to store and transport their wines in bulk. Even well into the 19th century with various parts of the country under control of, or in dispute with, foreign invaders, Italian wine was seen by many as poor and in relative decline. So it was not until 1861 with the unification of Italy that the slow discovery and enhancement of Italian viticulture was to begin. It was to be another hundred years before this “land of the vines” was to begin to make an impact once again on the European wine market.

Grape varieties, wines and regions

As Italy boasts in excess of 1500 grape varieties at any one time, the varieties are often cited on the label and the variety and region are often combined, I have this week merged titles as below.


Almost a national joke in the 1980s Asti, made from the Muscat grape grown in Piedmont, can offer a low alcohol, crisp grapey style and, when chilled, its new, young, fresh vintages can offer a simple refreshment on a summer’s day.

Barbaresco, Barbera d’Alba, Barolo

Again in Piedmont, north western Italy, the Barbaresco and Barolo regions grow the weighty Nebbiolo grape. Barolo being the weightier of the two wines, known as the “king of wines and the wine of kings” with Barbaresco not too far behind, these wines are virtually undrinkable when young, so hard are the Nebbiolo tannins. But after barrel and bottle ageing of some four to five years, the wines begin to express their rich, dense qualities. Barbera on the other hand has a more immediate herb and fresh fruit style and is often built to drink earlier.


Made principally from Corvina grapes grown around Lake Garda in the Veneto, inland from the city of Venice, Bardolino is Italy’s lightest style of red grape and should be consumed young and, for most wines, chilled.

Brunello di Montalcino

From Tuscany comes this cult wine with often prohibitively high prices. Its grape variety is Sangiovese grown near Sienna, and makes a rich dark concentrated red wine with the familiar hints of dark morello cherries. Still classed as a wealthy enthusiasts’ wine, it can offer Burgundian-like characteristics as well as auction house fame around the globe.


Covering much of central Tuscany, Chianti has transformed itself from one of Italy’s most despised and unreliable wines to one of its most respected. I recommend that the Chianti Classico is selected above all others where you will also find the DOCG denomination, and accompanying cockerel around the cork. Made from the Sangiovese grape, it is fair to say that the Classico is now one of the world’s most consistently well made reds. Better wines will reveal cherry and prune fruit flavours.


Collio DOC sits on the Slovenian border in Fruili. Reds are often imported varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, although the local Refosco is well worth a try. Its light, water white, gently dry wines such as Pinot Bianco and Pinot Grigio make delightful aperitifs on warm evenings.


After Barbera, Dolcetto is the most common red in Piedmont. Loosely translated as “little sweet one” due to its low acidity. Look for its vibrant cherry fruit married with dark chocolate offering Italy’s answer to Beaujolais.


From Latium – the extended region around Italy’s capital city, Rome – we enter the “who dares wins” excitement of Frascati. When Frascati is good it can carry a crisp, refreshing tanginess with a delightful wild flower fragrance. When bad, it can be dull, flabby and vapid. I suspect the town of Frascati, some 24 kilometres from Rome, with its cypress-lined avenues and classic villas have given the wine a status it struggles to deserve.


Made from the Cortese grape, Piedmont, this is one of the most fashionable whites of Italy and much loved by its middle-class culturati in cities such as Milan and Venice. Often over-hyped, it can have delightful herbaceous and cucumber sandwich-like nuances with a delicate citrus finish when young. Gavi di Gavi, made at the centre of the region, can be both sublime and ridiculously expensive.

Grave del Fruili

General DOC of the Fruili region with a raft of increasingly good value, drinkable Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in the reds, with Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay in the whites.


From that band that stretches east-west across the north of the country, Emilia-Romagna, comes one of the most maligned wines of Italy. It only has itself to blame though, sending over litres of hideously fizzy red, white or rosé, most of which are a mere heartbeat away from Coca Cola. Their serious offering though, and well worth seeking out, is the deep red, crisply dry Lambrusco di Sorbara.


From the town of its name in Sicily comes Italy’s most famous fortified wines. Mostly seen in their sweet mode and more often associated with the egg-based dessert, Zabaglione, in which Marsala is whipped with the eggs before cooking, a dry style is occasionally available known as Marsala Vergine and similar to Sherry.

Montepulciano d’Abruzo

Abruzzo in the Marches region (pronounced markes) offers a true rustic taste of Italy with warming reds from the Montepulciano grapes. Good value Italian wines at their best.


North of Rome in the renaissance landscape of Umbria, Orvieto provides light white wines from the widespread Trebbbiano grape. So light as to little worthy of note in the past, but improvement is now afoot. Do select the Classico style when buying.


One of Italy’s newly fashionable sparklers from the Veneto region. Not a champagne lookalike at all, but a less aggressive mousse and a crisp green apple zing makes a mid-morning reviver with a slice of Panetone or lighter salamis.

Salice Salentino

Newly famed and worthily re-discovered red from Apulia, the heel of Italy. Made from the Negroamaro grape like so many reds of this region, and with the correct pronunciation in all Italian pizzeria (salichay) will provide a typical sweet and sour morello cherry style coupled with a dark chocolatey finish that is unmistakably Italian.


Just outside the city of Verona made immortal by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet, this is probably Italy’s best known white. Garganega and Trebbiano are the grape varieties and although cheap versions are thoroughly uninteresting a few passable versions are available.


Whereas southern Italy abuts the latitudes of northern Africa, Trentino nestles at the foothills of the snow-covered Alps. The wines such as Pinot Bianco and Pinot Grigio reflect this relatively cool micro-climate offering light party gluggers.


Not far from the commercial capital of Italy, Milan in Veneto gushes litres of this cherry and almond infused red. Often good value and best drunk young. Its counterparts however could not be more different with Recioto and Amarone delta Valpolicella providing port-like wines built from dried, shrivelled grapes with enormous fruit intensity.


Being the name of its principal grape grown near Ancona in the Marches area, another light, simple white with the instantly recognisable “amphora” shaped bottle.

Vin Santo

Although grown widely including the two grape varieties, Trebbiano and Malvasia, the best examples of this principal sweet dessert wine come from Tuscany. Fermented in barrels, the wine – almost sherry-like – has orange and raisins on the palate with dried apricots on the finish. Often drunk at the end of a meal with a dunking amaretti biscuit balanced on the glass.

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Normally associated with long-lived inky dark reds with tough hard tannins in the early stages of its development. Chocolate, liquorice and Dundee cake are the hallmarks to look for. Probably its best use, and often its most expensive, is in the muscular Barolo wines from the hills of Piedmont. Lighter, less pricey styles are available for more immediate drinking, but the apogee of its expression is between 5 and 15 years. Not a wine for sipping alone, or on summer days. Log fires and venison casseroles are its most natural partners.


Now more widely planted and with some limited success. Not as rich as the variety grown in Bordeaux or Languedoc, but hints of plum and Dundee cakes can be identified. Clearly the bulk of Merlot, made principally in the north of the country, can be limited, but its use as an inexpensive party wine is gaining recognition.