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Decipher that wine label!

Find your way among the intricacies of Italian wines' labels
Find your way among the intricacies of Italian wines' labels

I think it's a typical situation: you're invited to a dinner party and would like to bring a good bottle of vino. Off you go to the wine store, full of expectations, thinking it'll be an easy choice: in the end, you just need to check out the label, right? Right. 

 

The problem is wine labels, specifically Italian labels, are not that simple to decipher for we common mortals. Yet, they hold a wealth of important information about the bottle they emblason including, in short, whether the wine we're about to buy is worth its price or not.

 

Here comes a simple but useful vademecum about Italian wine denominations and other relevant information you may find on wine labels, all essential to translate your thirst for good wine into a positive investment and delightful experience. 

 

Wine bottles' labels can tell us a lot about the quality of what's inside (Alex Berger/Flickr)

 

Europe and Wines  

In Europe, wine classification is regulated both by the European Union and by national norms. EU regulations divide wines in two main categories: the first refers to wines strictly associated with specific geographical locations and the production of which follow specific rules and norms. These wines are, at European level, classified as IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta, or protected geographical indication) and DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or protected origin denomination). 

The second category includes all wines not necessarily associated with a specific area or grape and the production of which is not as strictly regulated. In Italy, such wines were once known as "vini da tavola" or table wines, even though such terminology is today considered obsolete. 

Along EU classification there's, of course, a national one. 

 

Italy and wines

Italian laws introduced essential variations to EU standards, applied to national wines exclusively. In Italy, we often use the IGT denomination (Indicazione Geografica Tipica, or indication of geographical typicality) instead of the European IGP, of which it holds the same meaning. Similarly, Italy prefers the DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, or controlled origin denomination) and the DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, or controlled and guaranteed denomination) instead of European DOP. IGT, DOC and DOCG all have "sottodenominazioni", which means they're themselves further devided in categories. 

 

DOCG wine labels (Revol Web/Flickr)

 

To make it simple: Italian wines follow a pyramid-shape classification, at the bottom of which we find "vini da tavola" (EU category number two), wines caracterized by the absence of ties with specific geographical regions or grapes. These wines are extremely common, as they're usually those we in Italy drink daily with our meals. Mind, the fact they're cheaper and common doesn't mean their quality's poor, but let's just say consumers have to be more careful when choosing a bottle among these.

At the top of the pyramid are DOCG wines, whereas IGT and DOC occupy the middle section of it. 

 

IGT, DOC and DOCG: what do they really mean? 

IGT wines

They get their name from the geographical area their grapes (at least 85%) hail from. They have to follow all EU IGP regulations, which are many, but less – and less strict – than DOP's (Italy's DOC and DOCG). IGT wine labels must state bottling company, geographical origin, grape varietal, color and year. If you choose a wine from Valle d'Aosta, you may find "vin de pays" instead of IGT, in name of the region Italian-French bilingualism. The same is true for Alto-Adige (where both German and Italian are spoken), which often prefers the German "landweine." Italian IGT wines are 118, some of them very fine. 

 

DOC wines 

DOC wines belong to areas known for their wine production heritage. In order to get a DOC denomination, a wine must retain an IGT one for at least 5 years. Their characteristics must mirror those of their territory and must respect particular production methods. DOC denomination thus guarantees both geographical origin and high quality, as each DOC wine is evaluated by specialists before being marketed. Italy is home to 330 DOC wines. 

 

DOCG wines

To become DOCG, a wine has to keep a DOC denomination for at least 10 years. This is considered sign of a steady and well consolidated quality of taste and production.  DOCG wines are closely monitored throughout the productive chain, starting from the type of grapes and how they are cultivated, to the methods for wine's production. Controls for DOCG wines are many and include a taste test, carried out by an expert commission. With a DOCG wine, you're truly getting the best. 

Italian DOCG wines are 73 and include Prosecco, Barolo, Franciacorta, Chianti. 

 

DOC wine label (Fabio Ingrosso/Fli
ckr)

 

More classifications

DOC and DOCG wines are divided into further specifications: 

  • Classico (storico for spumante): the name refers to wines from specific zones within the geographical DOC/DOCG area, where wine production has been attested for longer or more prestigiously. 
  • Riserva is used for DOC and DOCG wines aged for longer than average.
  • Superiore: the adjective "superiore" is used when grapes are cultivated following specific rules to improve their characteristics and the wine quality. It also refers to the fact that, in name of such cultivation rules, grape production is lower than the minimum established by national regulations. 

 

 

Let's read that label!

In order to safeguard consumers and their rights, wine labels have to report by law specific information. DOC and DOCG wines carry a special label, issued by the Zecca dello Stato and the Istituto Poligrafico, called fascetta. The "fascetta" reports a traceability code which, when entered in dedicated websites, allows to retrieve the bottling factory, the date of bottling and, above all, the authenticity of the DOCG classification. 

 

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