ITALY is the Wine Region of the Month

by A.J. McClellan, Certified Sommelier
and Founder of Roots and Water

There are 20 Italian wine regions that run north-south resulting in a spectrum of climactic zones along the Apennine Mountains, known as “the spine of Italy” with the Alps bracketing the northern regions.  The major wine regions of Italy are Piedmont, Tuscany, and Veneto.

The Piedmont Region:
  Located in the northwestern part of Italy and cradled on three sides by the Apennines and the Alps mountains, the major grape varieties are Nebbiolo, Barbera, Gavi, and Moscato.

The native Nebbiolo is the region’s most noble and age-worthy grape and produces the wines Barolo and Barbaresco. Barolo is a massively tannic wine by nature and Barbaresco is slightly softer and regarded as Barolo’s more feminine counterpart. The aromas of tar, truffle, rose petals, and dried fruits are classically attributed to both wines, and their color is characteristically moderate in concentration and orange-tinged even in youth.

Barbera is the third most planted grape in Italy and is almost 1,000 years older than Cabernet Sauvignon! These wines are naturally high in acidity and show bright red cherry characters with softer tannins and a rounder palate than Nebbiolo. When matured in barrel and allowed to age in bottle for a few years, this turns to a denser, sour-cherry note with flavors of cherries, strawberries and raspberries, a very low tannin and high acidity.

Piedmont is also home to elegant whites such as Roero Arneis and Gavi (from the Cortese grape) and Moscato, which is the sole grape of the Moscato d’Asti and Asti DOCGs.

Tuscany:   Located just south of Piedmont, this area is predominantly hilly with vineyard elevations rising to 550 meters above sea level.  About a quarter of the landscape is mountainous. Approximately 57,942 hectares of the region’s nearly 23,000 square kilometers is under vine. The main wine-growing regions of Tuscany are Chianti, Montalcino, and Montepulciano.

Chianti is in the center of Tuscany and is the most famous region in the world for Sangiovese. For a wine to be called Chianti, it must be made from 80% Sangiovese and produced in the Chianti region. These wines are light to medium-bodied dry red wines with high tannins and acidity and include flavors like strawberry, dark fruits, figs, tobacco, and herbs.

The other significant red wines from Tuscany are the famed Super Tuscans. Born from frustrations with Italy’s traditional wine production rules, Super Tuscans don’t follow the strict rules of the Chianti appellation.  They can be made from a single variety like Sangiovese or Cabernet Sauvignon, or a blend of some combination of these grapes and others, including Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, and Alicante (Grenache). It’s difficult to define what a Super Tuscan wine is going to be like because the flavor profile ranges quite a bit. You can find everything from fruity and racy 100% Sangiovese-based wines to deep, opulent Syrah-based wines.

Trebbiano, Italy’s most produced white grape, is also grown in many Tuscan vineyards. Another white wine produced in Tuscany is Vermentino, which has quite a few taste similarities to Sauvignon Blanc.

Veneto:  This region’s capital is Venice, and it is the most significant of the three regions that comprise the Tre Venezie, producing more wine than any other region in Italy.  An ocean of neutral, cheap Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris) and sparkling wines are produced from Veneto.  These standard DOC wines are usually refreshing, lively and uncomplicated. Wines labeled superiore show a rounder character, with a higher minimum alcohol and a minimum of one year of aging.

The Valpolicella region in Veneto is known for the raisinated styles of Amarone, produced through the expensive appassimento process.  The grapes are dried for over three months in special lofts (fruttai) before fermentation, effectively concentrating sugar and extract. The appassimento process adds complex dried fruit tones, additional alcoholic warmth and a round, glycolic mouth feel to the final wines. Amarone spends an additional two years aging prior to release.

Over one million hectoliters of Prosecco is also planted in the Veneto region, providing sparkling wine with peachy, leesy, and yeasty aromas.

Italy has three wine classifications:

  • IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) – This designation was created for Super Tuscans. All grapes in IGT wines should come from the IGT region stated on the label, but otherwise the wines do not have to conform to strict standards regarding the style of wine.
  • DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) – The next highest quality level. There are 329 different DOCs in Italy and each DOC has its own rules about permitted grape varieties, maximum harvest yields, and aging requirements.
  • DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) – This is the highest quality level. The first DOCG wines were Barolo and Barbaresco, both red wines made from the Nebbiolo grape in Piedmont; and Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano made from Sangiovese in Tuscany. There are now 74 DOCG wines in Italy, mostly concentrated in Piemont, Tuscany, and the Veneto.

STAY TUNED!  Over the next several weeks, A.J. will be posting about
some of his favorite Italian wines on the Savvy Cellars Wine Club blog.

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