Map of Italian wines and wine producing regions
Wine Guide, Wine news

The complete guide to the best Italian wine with maps and tasting notes

Italian wine: Italy has a wider selection of wines than anywhere else in the world, and uses 589 unique grapes to produce them. Italy is most famous for wines made from its indigenous grapes. Classic Italian red wines include Barolo and Barbaresco (both made from the Nebbiolo grape), Chianti and Chianti Classico (from the Sangiovese grape), Amarone and Valpolicella (from the Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella grapes), and Nero d’Avola wine (from the Nero d’Avola grape).  Italy is also famous for its sparkling wines, especially Prosecco (produced from the grape Glera) and Moscato (from Moscato Bianco). In terms of Italian white wines, the most famous is Pinot Grigio which is made from the grape of the same name, as well as Gavi (from the Cortese grape), and Soave (from the Garganega grape). Italy also successfully makes wines from international grape varieties such Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Wines made in the mountains are often premium-priced with elegant flavours, while wines grown on flat terrain are easy-to-drink and affordable.

Oleg Dmitriev, Wine Portfolio Director of Independent Wine, holding a glass of red wine

Author: Oleg Dmitriev (Wine Geek), Wine Portfolio Director Independent Wine. MBA, WSET Level 3 Award in Wine
Awards: Inventor of the Year 2017, Innovator of the Year 2018
Lives in: Edinburgh, Scotland

Famous across the world for its incredible gastronomy and lust for life, it’s no surprise that Italy is home to more types of wine than any other country. The official register of the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies lists 589 grapes, which are used to produce wines across Italy.

It starts with Abbuoto, a red grape from around Rome, which was possibly used to make Caecubum – the famous Roman wine praised by Pliny the Elder and Horace. And the last grape on the list is Zweigelt, cultivated to make elegant reds near the Austrian border in Alto Adige.

(Some online sources, including Wikipedia, quote “350 grapes”. Thought that could be correct years ago, as of January 2021 the official number of Italian wine grapes is 589[3]).

As well as renowned international varieties like Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, Italy takes a lot of pride in its indigenous varieties like Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Arneis or Montepulciano. While this fantastic amount of variety gives Italian wines a unique flavour that’s hard to match, it can make it difficult to pick one that you know you’re going to enjoy.

This article is a deeper dive into the best wines from each region of Italy, what they taste like and some recommendations for award-winning wines that you can buy from our catalogue.

There’s a lot of ground to cover – as well as international celebrities like Chianti Classico and Primitivo, we’re going to highlight some hidden gems like fresh and fruity Roero Arneis or rich and bold Cannonau di Sardegna.

Map of Italian wines and wine producing regions

Map of Italy’s most important wines and wine producing regions

What is the best Italian wine?

There are two ways to find out which are the best Italian wines. First, you can look at league tables made by experts through wine competitions and tastings, and second you can check the best-sellers lists of actual wine shops.

The Merano WineFestival - wine expert scoring red wines

Wine tasting at the Merano WineFestival (credit: The WineHunter)

Expert view

Decanter World Wine Awards is possibly the most important wine competition in the world. 2020 marks the 17th annual ceremony, and their experts assess around 16,500 wines from all over the world, including Italy. Several judging panels taste and rate wines, and in the end the best wines are awarded Bronze, Silver or Gold medals. You can use a search form on the Decanter’s website to find if a wine you’re interested in has won any medals. Results are pretty technical, but for each wine there’s a short tasting note. (If you’re interested in buying Italian wines that have won the Decanter Awards, here’s a link.)

Italian wines by Independent Wine with Decanter Silver and Gold medals and K.Martini Maturum Riserva with Best in Show 2020 award

The Merano WineFestival is a competition that only rates Italian wines. It’s a part of the annual food and wine festival held in November each year in the Alpine spa resort Merano in Alto Adige. The organisation behind the competition is called The WineHunter, and they publish a “Top 100 list” of the best Italian wines, as well as a catalogue of wines that won this year’s medals. There are three medals available: “Rosso” (88-89.99 points), “Gold” (90-94.99 points), and “Platinum”  (95-100 points). (Here’s more information about the awards, and a list of “Gold” and “Rosso” wines you can buy in the UK.)

Introduction of The WineHunter Award (Merano wine festival) and medals

Another very important wine rating is Gambero Rosso’s “Tre Bicchieri” (three glasses). They evaluate about 40,000 wines from all over Italy, and award the “Three Glasses” trophy to only around 2,500. The next levels are “two red glasses” (made it to the final tasting), “two black glasses”, and “one glass”. Of course, Italy makes so much wine that winemakers fight tooth and nail to achieve even the “one glass” rating, and if you see this sign it’s a solid indicator of quality. You can buy the Gambero Rosso “Tre Bicchieri” catalogue on Amazon.

The best Italian wines – consumer’s view

While experts’ picks are fabulous, they might be out of reach for some consumers.  So what do regular UK wine lovers consider to be the best Italian wine?

We could spend all day comparing Barolo to Amarone, but at the end of the day the top-sellers chart is the most accurate answer. Why? As well as showing which wines are trending this year, it also shows which wines people consider to be good value for money.

Our customers’ vote for the best Italian white wine this year (so far) goes to Treuve (“three grapes”) – a blend of Arneis, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay from Roero in Piedmont. It was featured in Decanter, and Martin Izark – a renowned British wine critic – wrote “If you relish the taste of posh white Burgundy, but can’t afford it, then this three grape blend is heaven sent. A case won’t be enough.”

Our best Italian red wine for is undoubtedly Francone Barbaresco from Gallina Cru in Neive (this wine was featured in The Independent). It offers a rich expression of Nebbiolo, with powerful tannins and flavours of dried strawberry, tea leaf and liquorice. For special occasions, our top Italian red is Demarie Barolo 2015. This wine comes from La Morra, and has a more flavourful and fruity character, with signature aromas of wild roses, liquorice, cinnamon and dark chocolate along with powerful tannins.

Our best wines of 2020, Francone Barbaresco and Feudi di Guagnano Primitivo, Italian landscape background, on stone table

We update our customers’ best sellers list every couple of months to give you a good idea of what’s currently trending, and what Italian wines people just can’t get enough of. Follow our blog to stay up to to date or feel free to contact me any time: I’m always happy to answer wine questions.

Italian wine types

Understanding Italian wine can be overwhelming if you’re not familiar with the names: which wines are made from Sangiovese or Nebbiolo? What grapes is the best Amarone made from? Don’t worry, we’ve put together the below tables to offer an at-a-glance look at the most popular Italian denominations and their grapes.

Top Italian red wine types

Wine type Main Grape(s) Vineyard area, hectares, 2018 Wine production,
75cl bottles, 2018 (approx.)
Region
Aglianico del Vulture DOC Aglianico, Aglianico del Vulture 374.68 2,205,867 Basilicata
Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella n.d. 13,537,200 Veneto
Barbaresco DOCG Nebbiolo 578.29 3,834,853 Piemonte
Barbera d’Asti DOCG Barbera 3,384.38 20,073,200 Piemonte
Barolo DOCG Nebbiolo 1,927.93 11,662,053 Piemonte
Brunello di Montalcino DOCG Sangiovese 1,447.76 9,327,440 Tuscany
Cannonau di Sardegna DOC Cannonau 2,064.70 10,439,667 Sardinia
Chianti DOCG Sangiovese 13,428.20 91,308,667 Tuscany
Chianti Classico DOCG Sangiovese 4,087.97 33,595,733 Tuscany
Dolcetto d’Alba DOC Dolcetto 811.95 5,255,347 Piemonte
Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOCG Montepulciano 9,616.98 86,799,867 Abruzzo
Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane DOCG Montepulciano 149.76 598,525 Abruzzo
Salento IGP (or IGT) Negroamaro, Primitivo (Zinfandel) 11,590.90 65,039,867 Puglia
Salice Salentino DOC Negroamaro 1,947.66 8,089,653 Puglia
Sicilia DOC Nero d’Avola 22,888.00 77,393,467 Sicily
Toscana IGT Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot 11,686.10 80,594,800 Tuscany
Taurasi DOCG Aglianico 449.09 850,840 Campania
Valpolicella DOC Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella 8,188.98 18,791,733 Veneto
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Sangiovese 851.92 6,065,147 Tuscany

Top Italian white wine types

Italian white wines tend to be fresh and zesty with fragrant floral and fruit flavours. Some legendary Italian whites are best known under the name of their denomination, like Gavi (from Gavi o Cortese di Gavi DOCG) or Soave (from Soave DOC). But in the North it’s more typical to call wine by their main grape, which is also more common in Austria or Alsace. Notable examples include Gewürztraminer or Riesling from Alto Adige DOC, or Pinot Grigio. The latter is produced in large volumes in the north-western provinces of Veneto, Friuli Venezia-Giulia or Trentino-Alto Adige.

These are some of the best white Italian wines.

Wine type Main Grape(s) Vineyard area, hectares, 2018 Wine production,
75cl bottles, 2018 (approx.)
Region
Fiano di Avellino DOCG Fiano 411.12 1,894,093 Campania
Gavi o Cortese di Gavi DOCG Cortese 1253.33 11,839,307 Piedmont
Gewürztraminer, Alto Adige DOC Gewürztraminer 587.53 4,650,431 Alto Adige
Greco di Tufo DOCG Greco, Coda di Volpe Bianca 637.7 3,293,827 Campania
Orvieto DOC Grechetto, Trebbiano 1,090.82 10,376,133 Umbria
Pinot Grigio, Alto Adige DOC Pinot Grigio 645.73 6,701,512 Trentino-Alto Adige
Pinot Grigio, Venezia DOC Pinot Grigio n.d. n.d. Veneto
Riesling, Alto Adige DOC Riesling 86.6 560,561 Trentino-Alto Adige
Roero DOCG Arneis Arneis 889 n.d. Piedmont
Soave DOC Garganega, Trebbiano di Soave, Chardonnay 4054.88 47,238,533 Veneto
Verdiccio dei Castellli di Jesi DOC Verdicchio Bianco 1226.02 17,191,200 Marche
Vermentino di Gallura DOCG Vermentino 1191.72 4,135,960 Sardinia
Vermentino di Sardinia DOC Vermentino 1264.36 13,163,920 Sardinia
Weißburgunder, Alto Adige DOC Pinot Bianco 557.92 4,510,497 Trentino-Alto Adige

Now that you have a better grasp of the grapes behind the best Italian wines, let’s look how at the quality levels and how they’re displayed on the label.

Introduction to quality levels of Italian wine

Can the letters DOC, DOCG or IGT on the label help you pick a good bottle of Italian wine? The short answer is yes. If that’s the only information you have, they could be a great help, as they identify what level of quality this bottle is made to. Let’s see how it works.

From 01 August 2009, the European Commission divided all Italian wine denominations – as well as wines of all other EU countries – into two categories (EU Regulation No 479/2008[1]). Broadly speaking, these are wines with indication of origin and generic wines without. Each category is divided further, with additional criteria to show quality.

Pyramid of Italian Wine Denominations

The pyramid of Italian wines: how new (EU 479/2008) and traditional categories are related. (Credit: FEDERDOC[2], Independent Wine Ltd)

Wines with Indication of Origin

Wines with Indication of Origin are high-quality wines. This includes wines with Protected Denomination of Origin (DOC and DOCG), and wines with Protected Geographic Indication (IGP or IGT). In general, DOCG wines have the highest level of quality, followed by DOC, and IGT. But in practice, some IGT wines are very valuable.

All wines with Indication of Origin are made in accordance with rules of winemaking, called Disciplinare di Produzione. They are sometimes called “wine laws”. For example, the winemaking rules for Chianti DOCG are laid out in Disciplinare Di Produzione della Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita dei vini “Chianti”.

Such wines offer the consumer a greater degree of protection, because they know how the wine is made. The wine’s Protected Designation is shown on the label to display that the wine has a certain level of quality. By law, any winemaker who wishes to put a certain DOC, DOCG or IGT name on the label must comply with the relevant Disciplinare di Produzione.

Those rules are recorded by the Italian Ministry of the Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policy[3]. All of Italy’s most famous wines including Barolo DOCG, Alto Adige DOC, or Salento IGT are made according to an official set of rules.

Let’s look at the sub-categories of wines with Indication of Origin in more detail:

Wines with Protected Denomination of Origin (DOP, including DOC and DOCG)

DOP (DOC and DOCG) wines are in effect wines with Protected Denomination of Origin (or Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or DOP in Italian).

Italy’s winemakers are legally allowed to put on the label either the new term DOP, or the traditional terms: Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) or Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG).

In practice, however, the most important winemaking areas to this day stick to the traditional DOC and DOCG names. Examples include Barolo DOCG, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, or Valpolicella DOC.

For each DOC and DOCG winemaking area, the winemaking rules are developed and enforced by an organisation of winemakers called Consorzio. For example, the production of Barolo DOCG is regulated by “Consorzio di Tutela Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe e Dogliani”[4].

The difference between DOC and DOCG is that the quality of DOCG wine is guaranteed by the Italian Government. It appoints a specialist agency, which tests the wines which want to bear the DOCG label, and issues numbered stickers. The name of the agency can be found both in the Disciplinare document, and on the website of the winemakers’ consortium (Consorzio) for the DOC or DOCG area.

All bottles of DOC and DOCG wines must be marked with a special government-issued numbered label. Its purpose is to guarantee the quality and the authenticity of the wine. In case there’s any issue with quality, each bottle can be traced back.

Wines with Protected Geographic Indication (IGP or IGT)

IGP stands for “Indicazione Geografica Protetta” in Italian. Same as above, Italian winemakers are allowed to use either the new term IGP or the traditional term “Indicazione Geografica Tipica” (IGT) on the label. Both legally mean the same thing. So you often find either IGP or IGT on the labels, but they’re made to the same standards.

The IGT regulations emphasise the region that the wines come from, rather than focusing on a particular winemaking style, because it’s the terroir that makes them special. As a rule, the IGT rules aren’t as heavily regulated as DOC or DOCG, meaning winemakers have a lot more freedom to experiment. For example, Roero DOCG only allows one red grape (Nebbiolo) and one white grape (Arneis). But Salento IGT gives the winemaker a freedom to use fifty grapes, as long as they’re grown in Salento.

Another famous example is wines labelled Toscana IGT or Toscana IGP, made to the regulation: “Disciplinare Toscano o Toscana”. They were developed in the 1970-s when the Tuscany’s winemakers wanted to experiment and go beyond the limitations of Chianti. Working under Toscana IGT, they came up with fabulous blends of Sangiovese with Merlot and Cabernet, which became famous internationally as Super Tuscan wines.

Generic wines or Vini di Tavola

Generic wines can be of two types: generic wines with grape and/or vintage and generic wines without grape and/or vintage. Practically, “generic wines” mean Vino di Tavola – or table wine. In most cases, those wines are very simple and inexpensive.

There are a few rebel winemakers in Italy who are keen to experiment, and refuse to accept the limitations of the traditional DOC or DOCG rules. Some of them do make extraordinary premium-quality wine (like Uras by “I Garagisti di Sorgono”), one of Italy’s top-100), which has to be labelled as generic. But this is a rare exception rather than a rule: a Vino di Tavola without any awards will most likely be a simple wine.

Key wine-producing provinces and wines of Italy

Now that we understand the difference between DOC, DOCG and IGT wines, it’s time to look at Italy’s most important provinces. As well as describing the features and landscapes of each region, we’ll also discuss the most important wines produced there. This will be a mix of DOC and DOCG – e.g. wines with a proscribed style of winemaking – and IGT, which is based on terroir.

Piedmont | Piemonte

Sandwiched between the Alps in the north and the Apennine Mountains in the south, Piedmont (or Piemonte in Italian) is the home of Nebbiolo, Barbera and Arneis grapes, among others. The vineyard areas of Langhe-Roero and Monferrato are some of the few wine-growing regions to make it onto the UNESCO World Heritage list, alongside St Emilion in Bordeaux and Tokaj in Hungary.

Inforgrapfics - key facts about Piedmont (Piemonte) Italian wine region, 2018
Map of Italian wine making zones in Piemonte

Barolo

The “king of wine and wine of kings”, Barolo is considered one of the world’s very best wines. It’s made from pure Nebbiolo, a grape that’s so tannin-packed that its wines need to spend years ageing in oak and bottle to be smooth enough to drink.

Barolo is only grown in a small DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) and there are strict rules related to its production. Standard Barolo has to be aged for a minimum of three years, spending at least two years in oak or chestnut barrels, while Barolo Riserva needs to spend five years in barrel. It should then be left in the bottle for 7-10 years before drinking it.

The best winemakers only produce a few thousand bottles of this delicious wine each year. Demand always outstrips supply, which drives the prices up.

What does Barolo taste like? Barolo is a very complex wine, with a flavour described by some as “tar and roses”. Dried black fruits (like cherries and prunes) are met with spices (liquorice, cinnamon and clove) as well as aromas of sweet tobacco, leather and chocolate.

Further reading: In-depth guide to Barolo wine

Award-winning wines from Barolo:

 

Barbaresco

If Barolo is the king of wines, Barbaresco is the queen. It’s also made from Nebbiolo, but while Barolo is austere and muscular Barbaresco is more mellow. It’s only grown 12 miles away, in a horseshoe-shaped area around the small town of Neive. The harsh tannins of Nebbiolo tend to soften quicker in Barbaresco, and so it’s allowed to age for one year less than Barolo before bottling.

What does Barbaresco taste like? Its aroma is a powerful combination of dried flowers (particularly wild rose and violet), dried fruits (prunes, figs, and strawberry), herbs and spices (liquorice, pepper and cloves) surrounded by rich tobacco, vanilla, chocolate and leather.

Award-winning wines from Barbaresco:

Barbera

Barbera is another popular grape in Piedmont – and accounts for nearly half the amount of vines grown in the region. While it’s often found blended into table wines throughout Italy, it shows its best side in the Monferrato region of Piedmont. The very best Barbera wines come from the Barbera d’Asti DOCG – Asti’s Nizza sub-zone has recently been granted DOCG status, too. Another excellent example of the wine comes from the Barbera d’Alba DOC.

What does Barbera wine taste like? High in acid and low on tannin, Barbera is typically light and refreshing. Although it has a dark colour it tastes like wild cherries, raspberries and blueberries underpinned by warming vanilla and spice from oak ageing.

Award-winning wines from Barbera:

Arneis

The best examples of this aromatic white grape come from Roero – just on the other side of the Tanaro River from Barolo and Barbaresco. After WWII, Arneis almost became extinct. It was only saved because a few vineyards kept their plantings of this sweet grape to attract pests away from the more valuable Nebbiolo vines. It made an astounding recovery and today it is the region’s most prestigious white grape.

What does Arneis taste like? Deliciously sharp and refreshing, it has delicate aromas of fresh pear, apricots and blossom. A hint of hazelnut adds complexity.

Award-winning Arneis wines:

Further reading: In-depth guide to Roero DOCG Arneis and Nebbiolo 

Tuscany | Toscana

The birthplace of the Renaissance, Tuscany (or Toscana in Italian) holds an important role in Italian identity. It’s also home to some of Italy’s boldest and brightest red wines, which are intrinsically linked with the region’s rich art and religious history. The vineyard-studded hills and valleys have been immortalised by famous artists throughout the ages.

Inforgrapfics - key facts about Tuscany (Toscana) Italian wine region, 2018
Map of Italian wine making zones in Tuscany

Chianti and Chianti Classico

Both Chianti and Chianti Classico are made from the same grape, Sangiovese, but the similarities end there. The Chianti DOCG denomination covers a patchwork of wine-growing areas throughout Tuscany, which means you’ll find wines of different styles and quality levels. While some winemakers produce excellent Chianti, others turn out huge volumes of inexpensive wine. Ninety million bottles of Chianti is produced every year.

On the other hand, Chianti Classico can only be made in a small area in the mountains between Florence and Siena. In general, Chianti Classico offers a more consistent taste and quality, and the annual production is over thirty million bottles. Premium examples of Chianti Classico are very complex, with concentrated aromas of red cherry, vanilla, cloves, dark chocolate, tobacco and leather.

What does basic Chianti taste like? Chianti is a savoury wine with a characteristic bitterness. Fruity aromas of sour cherries dominate, and are amplified by some dried herbs and earthiness.

What does Chianti Classico taste like? You can expect concentrated flavours of dried cherry, plum, cinnamon and spice. It’s Italy in a glass.

Super Tuscans

Tuscany is also famous for the Super Tuscan wines – red wines made from international grapes like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, often blended with Tuscany’s Sangiovese. Sassicaia and Tignanello were two of the first Super Tuscans to grab global attention during the 1970’s. Because they don’t use the approved appellation grapes, they have to be labelled as IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica). We offer several Super Tuscans: Gagliole from Chianti Classico – a highly respected wine that has won the Decanter Platinum medal. Another example is Fiero – a Toscana IGT wine from Ridolfi, a family-owned winery that also produces the award-winning Brunello di Montalcino.

What does Super Tuscan wine taste like? It depends on the grapes used. Generally speaking, they are fantastic quality, comforting wines. They often have rich aromas of black cherry, leather and cocoa.

Brunello di Montalcino

The youngest of Italy’s prestigious wines – it was first made in 1865 – Brunello di Montalcino is grown in one of the country’s most arid DOCG regions. It goes through a lengthy aging period of two years, and is often aged in small barriques which lend notes of spice and vanilla to the wine. For a less expensive version, look for Rosso di Montalcino – it’s made in a similar way, but can be released a year earlier.

What does Brunello di Montalcino taste like? This wine ages well and has an interesting flavour profile. You can expect to find wild strawberry, espresso and violet flowers all in the same glass.

Award-winning wines from Tuscany:

Veneto | Vèneto

Veneto is Italy’s most productive wine-growing region. Because the warm days are cooled by breezes from Lake Garda to the west and winds from the Alps to the north, grapes grown here often develop into fresh and enjoyable wines.

Veneto produces over 1 billion bottles of wine with protected designation of origin every year (2018). That’s more than the next three wine-making provinces combined, and almost four times as much as the whole of Tuscany. Prosecco DOC and Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOCG together are responsible for more than 450 million bottles annually.

The zone of Valpolicella lies to the east of Lake Garda and north of Verona. It is home to world-famous wines made from indigenous grapes: Corvina Veronese, Corvinone and Rondinella. Denominations of Valpolicella include: Valpolicella DOC (dry red wine), Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG (dry red or sparkling wine), Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG (dry red wine with concentrated flavours made from half-raisined grapes), Valpolicella Ripasso DOC (Valpolicella wine co-fermented with grape skins from Amarone, and up to 15% Amarone wine).

Valpolicella DOC produces about 18 million bottles annually (2018). As for the highly prestigious Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG, “only” about fifteen million bottles are made ever year. It’s a lot, but it seems tiny in comparison with the gigantic volumes of Italy’s no.1 bubbly, Prosecco, which is made nearby.

Venezia DOC produces 8.5 million bottles of mostly inexpensive wines for easy drinking. Although this DOC makes many wines for the domestic Italian market, such as red Raboso, white Verduzzo and sparkling “spumante” Glera, internationally it’s best known for inexpensive Pinot Grigio.

Inforgrapfics - key facts about Veneto Italian wine region, 2018
Map of Italian wine-producing region Veneto, Prosecco DOC, Valpolicella DOC, Venezia DOC

Prosecco

Prosecco is Italy’s most famous sparkling wine. It’s boomed in popularity over the past decade, especially in the UK where hundreds of millions of bottles are drank each year.

The denomination of Prosecco DOC occupies the flat area north of Venice. It produces a whopping 371 million bottles every year, which is mostly inexpensive wine for easy drinking.

The best Prosecco wine comes from a small hilly area between towns of Conegliano and Valdobiaddene. The denomination of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOCG produced 88.5 million bottles of high-quality fizz annually. The cream of the cream of Prosecco comes from Cartizze, which makes wine labelled Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze DOCG.

 

Prosecco sparkling wine quality pyramid - Prosecco DOC, Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG, Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG Superiore di Cartizze

Prosecco is mainly made from the Glera grape, though it can contain up to 15% of varieties like Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco and Chardonnay.

Prosecco is made in the Charmat method (or tank method). This process helps to preserve the fresh fruity flavours of the grape, which has become so popular with many wine-drinkers in Italy and abroad. First, the base wine is made from Glera (and possibly other permitted white) grapes in stainless steel tanks. Then, sugar and yeast are added to the tank, and the second fermentation takes place. This increases the level of alcohol, and produces CO2 bubbles which dissolve in the wine.

What does Prosecco taste like? Prosecco is a fresh and lightly floral sparkling wine, with a clean flavour and frothy bubbles punctuated by notes of peaches, pear, honeysuckle and melon.

Amarone della Valpolicella

This powerful red wine is made from dried grapes – usually a blend of Corvina and Rondinella.

After harvesting, the grapes spend around three months in fruttaio – drying lofts in the winery. Here, the grapes are dried – usually with large industrial fans – until they almost become raisins. As the water evaporates, the flavours and natural sugars in the grapes become very concentrated. Then the half-dried grapes are fermented, to produce one of the most delicious red wines of the world – Amarone.

The process of producing wine from half-dried grapes is called appasimento. Only a small number of Amarone wineries are certified organic. Camilla Rossi Chauvenet (owner of Massimago winery), the female producer of organic Amarone, explains: “It’s very challenging to produce organic Amarone, and it requires very precise process, dedication and skills. Traditional wineries often use chemicals to protect the grapes from the parasites during the drying process.”

Although it is made from raisins – a technique which usually results in a sweet wine – Amarone della Valpolicella is dry. It takes its name from its bitter (amaro) yet enjoyable finish. Traditionally it is aged in large oak barrels, although some producers prefer to use smaller barriques for that distinctive oak spice. This wine has serious aging power.

What does Amarone della Valpolicella taste like? This rich wine combines flavours of cherry, chocolate and spice. As it ages, notes of dried fig and brown sugar start to develop. It has high acidity, high alcohol and lots of velvety tannins.

Pinot Grigio

Everyone knows Pinot Grigio. It’s the quintessential fresh, dry and slightly aromatic white wine – and overtook Chardonnay as the world’s most popular white grape in the early 21st Century.

Veneto is the spiritual home of Pinot Grigio. Here, easy-drinking and inexpensive Pinot Grigio is is produced in Venezia DOC, in the large plains to the north of Venice, and around the city of Treviso.

What does Pinot Grigio taste like? Pinot Grigio is light and refreshing wine. Best examples will have expressive fruity aromas of grapefruit, lime, melon and pear.

To develop into a premium style of wine, the Pinot Grigio grapes need higher acidity. As such, refreshing Pinot Grigios with tropical flavours are produced in the hills of Friuli-Venezia to the north-east, or in the Alps in Alto Adige DOC to the north from Veneto.

Try these award-winning wines from Veneto:

Lombardy | Lombardia

Italy’s richest region, Lombardy, has the Alps in the north and the banks of Lake Garda in the west. These, as well as smaller lakes and hills, have a huge influence on the style of wine produced. The jewel in Lombardy’s crown is the fashionable city of Milan.

The biggest DOCG wine of Lombardia is Franciacorta DOCG – almost 18 million bottles of this wine is produced each year. Lately it’s been gaining international popularity, and we’ll speak about it in more detail below.

Although there are 22 DOC and five DOCG areas in Lombardy, most other wine grown there is for local consumption and rarely reaches the export market. The most important DOC of Lombardia is Bonarda – 19 million bottles are produced each year. This red wine is made in still and sparkling styles, and comprised of at least 85% Croatina (a grape locally known as Bonarda). The rest is made up of Barbera, Ughetta and Uva Rara.  Situated on the south side of Lake Garda, Lugana DOC (producing nearly nine million bottles annually) is another important wine of Lombardia. It’s made from the Trebbiano di Soave grape in a variety of styles, from still dry wine to sparkling “spumante”. Lombardia also has its own Nebbiolo wine (here, this grape is called Chiavennasca) produced in Valtellina Superiore DOCG, in the very north of Lombardia. But with only 1.5-2 million bottles produced each year, it’s a much lesser-known name than the big Nebbiolo reds from Piemonte.

Inforgrapfics - key facts about Lombardia Italian wine region, 2018
Map of Italian wine making DOC and DOCG areas in Lombardia, Italy

Franciacorta

Franciacorta is a DOCG sparkling wine, made in the traditional method. This is why some people refer to it as Italy’s answer to Champagne. It’s also made from similar grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Bianco (in place of Pinot Meunier). Franciacorta wines have to spend a minimum of 18 months on the lees – this rises to 30 months for vintage wines, and 5 years for Riserva wines.

Look out for Franciacorta Satèn – this is blancs de blancs Franciacorta, so it is only made from white grapes, and has spent at least two years aging on the lees.

What does Franciacorta taste like? Sophisticated and elegant, Franciacorta often has notes of light citrus like lemon combined with the flavours from its lees and bottle aging – toasted nuts, brioche and dried fruit.

Award-winning wines from Lombardy:

Apulia | Puglia

The heel of Italy’s boot is where most of the country’s table grapes are grown. In wine terms, it’s most famous for two bold reds which have a huge following in the UK. These are Primitivo, more famously known by its American name Zinfandel, and the native grape Negroamaro. Some winemakers can work wonders with these grapes, creating rich wines with aromas of blackberry, black plum, coffee and vanilla.

Inforgrapfics - key facts about Puglia, Italian wine region, 2018
Map of Italian wine making zones in Puglia

Primitivo

Dark and rich Primitivo wines are usually made from grapes grown in the centre of Puglia, between Bari and Matera. Primitivo di Manduria DOC, located just east of Taranto, produces around 20 million bottles per year (2018). Many of the top award-winning Primitivo wines come from Salento IGT, which makes over 16 million 75cl bottles per year (2018).

What does Primitivo taste like? Primitivo is a big, bold wine. It’s usually full bodied and high in alcohol, with medium levels of tannins and acidity. Its flavours are pronounced, and are often reminiscent of very ripe dark berries – like blueberry and blackberry – as well as liquorice and black pepper. A lot of Italian Primitivo is now aged in American oak, to give it a flavour similar to the famous red Zinfandels from popular regions like Lodi in California. As such, you can usually expect flavours of dark chocolate, sweet tobacco and cinnamon spice.

Further reading: In-depth guide to Primitivo (Italian Zinfandel) wine and Salento IGT

Negroamaro

Negroamaro has been grown in Puglia for at least 1,500 years, and its name translates as “black and bitter”. The best examples come from the Salento Peninsula, particularly the Salice Salentino DOC. Here, the warm Mediterranean climate ripens the grapes so they’re juicy, sweet and flavoursome while the cooling effect of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas maintain the fruit’s freshness. While Negroamaro is usually used to make exuberant red wines, it’s sometimes used for rosé.

What does Negroamaro taste like? Dark and savoury, Negroamaro combines flavours of ripe black fruit with spicy and herbal notes of clove, cinnamon and thyme.

Award-winning wines from Puglia:

Sardinia | Sardegna

Inforgrapfics - key facts about Sardinia Italian wine region, 2018
Map of Italian wine producing region Sardinia(Sardegna), Vermentino di Gallura DOCG, Cannonau di Sardegna DOC

The island of Sardinia has its own distinct culture and lifestyle, different from the Italian mainland. One thing that makes Sardinia unique is that it’s home to more people who live to over 100 than anywhere else in the world. Another is its wines.

The island’s wine industry only turns out 44 million bottles of wine per year[6] – five times fewer than Sicily. Although Alghero DOC produces around 1.5 million bottles of red and white wines from international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, Sardinia is most famous for its one-of-a-kind wines crafted from the island’s local grapes. These are exclusive to Sardinia, and can’t be found anywhere else in the world.

The most important red grape from Sardinia is Cannonau, which is used to produce rich, deep and smooth red wine of the same name. The prevailing theory is that it’s a clone of Garnacha Tinta brought from Spain following Peter IV of Aragon’s conquest in 1354[5]. However, some scientists claim that Cannonau is indigenous to Sardinia, and is actually 3,200 years old – which would make it the oldest red grape of the Mediterranean.

One way or another, Cannonau is deeply rooted in Sardinian life. Its main production zone is Cannonau di Sardegna DOC, which covers the whole island, but it is also allowed in other DOCs. For example it makes a powerful blend with Sardinia’s native grape Monica in Madrolisai DOC.

Sardinia’s signature white wine is Vermentino. Very refreshing, it’s know for its taste of pear, melon and lime – ideal for enjoying chilled on a summer afternoon. Although this grape is permitted in several DOCs, the main one is Vermentino di Sardegna DOC. This zone covers the whole island, and wine is made in a range of different quality levels. For the highest-quality examples of Vermentino, look for Vermentino di Gallura DOCG from the island’s north-east.

Vernaccia di Oristano DOC is known for fortified white wine, made near the town of Oristano on Sardinia’s west coast. This wine is made in a similar way to Amontillado sherry. The base white wine is aged in barriques connected to a solera system. The first ageing happens under a thick layer of flor, and after that the wine is fortified and aged in contact with air. A well-made Vernaccia di Oristano offers enchanting aromas of marmalade, hazelnut, almond, and dried apricot – a flavour locally known as murrai.

Monica DOC and the highland zone of Mandrolisai DOC produce elegant red wines made from the Monica grape, which can only be found in Sardinia. This wine bursts with flavours of red berries and mountain herbs, and is best enjoyed young.

What does Cannonau di Sardegna taste like?

High in alcohol and tannin, Cannonau di Sardegna is a prime wine for aging. It has deliciously ripe flavours of cranberry, plum and tobacco underpinned by rich notes of coffee, chocolate and white spice from its time in barrel.

What does Vermentino taste like?

Vermentino combines zingy flavours like green apple, grapefruit and lime. Its most distinctive characteristic is the slightly bitter finish, which is reminiscent of green almonds or citrus pith.

Try those award-winning wines from Sardina:

 

Sicily | Sicilia

Inforgrapfics - key facts about Sicilia Italian wine region, 2018
Map of Italian wine producing region Sicily (Sicilia), Sicilia DOC, Marsala DOC, Etna DOC, Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, and has some of the oldest wine traditions in Italy dating back to the Phoenician outposts founded in 800-600 BC, including Palermo and Marsala. Today, Sicily has 75 thousand hectares of IGT, DOC and DOCG vineyards, producing more than 250 million bottles of wine per year – about the same volume as Tuscany. There’s a great difference, however – seventy percent of Sicily’s vines are planted on challenging landscapes, with most sitting on the steep slopes of hills and volcanic mountains.

Sicily has 23 DOC areas. The biggest of them, Sicilia DOC, covers the whole island and produces 77 million bottles of wine each year. These are mostly made from grapes indigenous to Sicily. Red wines are mainly made from Nero d’Avola and Frappato, while zesty whites are crafted from Carricante, Catarratto and Grillo.

Marsala is the signature fortified white wine of Sicily, and the island produces 6.7 million bottles of Marsala DOC every year.

Etna DOC makes refreshing whites – Etna Bianco and Etna Bianco Superiore – using Sicily’s native white grape Carricante. Though the DOC regulations allow winemakers to add a small quantity of another white grape, Catarrato. You can also find Etna DOC rosé (Etna Rosato) and dry red (Etna Rosso) made from the red grapes Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Mantellato. You can even find sparkling Etna Spumante produced from Nerello Mascalese, sometimes blended with other grapes from Sicily.

Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG is the only DOCG area on Sicily. It produces top-quality red wines from Nero d’Avola and Frappato grapes. Under these rules, vine-growers are allowed to harvest no more than 8 tonnes of top-quality grapes per hectare. This means the winemakers are forced to use only the best grapes. The wines typically have a deep ruby or garnet colour, and a smooth taste of black fruits and spices. The DOCG area covers the neighbouring provinces of Ragusa, Caltanissetta and Catania in the south-east of Sicily. In this large area, only 150 hectares of vineyards are planted on the slopes of the mountains, and only 800 thousand bottles of this wine are produced every year.

Nero D’Avola

There’s nothing subtle about Sicily’s most loved red grape, Nero D’Avola. It’s seriously fruit forward and full bodied with plenty of smooth tannins. In the past it was often used in table wine blends, but over the past two decades it’s grown in popularity as a single varietal wine.

What does Nero D’Avola taste like? Every mouthful brings a bouquet of ripe fruits including blackberry, plum and sweet cherry. This is underpinned by richer notes of chocolate, coffee and peppery spice for a rich, rounded finish.

Award-winning wines from Sicily:

Marsala

Marsala is an aromatic and spicy fortified white wine. It offers flavours of marmalade, caramel, honey and spices. It is made in a range of styles, from dry to sweet. It’s also available in different quality levels, from the basic Marsala Fine that must be aged for one year, to Marsala Vergine Stravecchio that stays in the cellar until its tenth anniversary – more or less like Scotch whisky.

In the 1700’s, Sicily’s winemakers developed a non-stop method of producing fortified wine in a series of connected barrels. This method is called in perpetuum – very similar to the way Spanish Sherry-makers use the solera system. Fortified wine was important in those days, because it could survive long sea voyages. Ideal for the vast British Empire. But, since Britain was constantly at war with Spain and France, an alternative to the Spanish Jerez was highly desired. In 1796, John Woodhouse, an English merchant, was the first to start a venture in the port of Marsala to mass-produce fortified wine. In the 20th century the market for fortified wine reduced, but to this day Marsala remains a signature wine of Sicily.

Alto Adige

The northernmost part of Italy, Alto Adige is home to Europe’s highest vineyards – sitting as high as 1,100 metres. These high altitudes help to preserve acidity and freshness in the grapes, resulting in cold-climate Italian reds with a distinctive flavour. This German-speaking region tends to use a lot of international grape varieties, and there aren’t as many DOC regulations as the rest of Italy.

Inforgrapfics - key facts about Alto Adige DOC Italian wine region, 2019
Map of Italian wine-producing region Alto Adige DOC, Italy, and Strada del Vino (wine road)

Lagrein

Lagrein is a red grape indigenous to Alto Adige, and it’s a real powerhouse with lots of acid and tannin. It’s used to make the red Lagrein Scuro (also known by its German name, Lagrein Dunkel) and the fragrant rosé Lagrein Rosato (Lagrein Kretzer). One of the most surprising things about the red version is that it tastes fantastic when it’s been slightly chilled.

What does Lagrein taste like? There’s plenty of crunchy acidity to get your mouth watering, with notes of raspberry, red plum, freshly cracked pepper and coffee.

Gewürztraminer

Beautifully perfumed and aromatic, Gewürztraminer is one of Alto Adige’s most distinctive wines. It has a deep golden colour, thanks to its natural pink tinge, and a fragrance that simply leaps out of the glass. The perfect antidote to Italy’s crisp and dry white wines, Gewürztraminer is off-dry with a smooth, almost oily texture thanks to its low levels of acid.

What does Italian Gewürztraminer taste like? The slight sweetness of the wine is only enhanced by its natural aromas of juicy lychees, rose petals and a tongue-tingling hint of ginger.

Pinot Blanc (Weißburgunder)

Weißburgunder – or Pinot Blanc – is a grape that thrives in the high altitude vineyards of Alto Adige. As it has relatively low acidity, it produces wines with a rounded texture. It’s subtly flavoured, and a fantastic everyday option.

What does Italian Weißburgunder taste like? light and delicate, Weißburgunder from Alto Adige tastes like crisp green apple, juicy pear and zingy lemon. With some aging, notes of hay and toasted nuts can develop.

Pinot Noir

The classic grape of Burgundy, Pinot Noir has a new home in the high vineyards of Alto Adige. This light-bodied red wine is renowned across the world for its delicate, red-fruit flavours.

What does Italian Pinot Noir taste like? Pinot Noir from Alto Adige is packed with aromas of purple and red berries, offset by a hint of Christmas spice and floral notes of violet.

Award-winning wines from Alto Adige:

Further reading: Guide to Alto Adige DOC

Sweet Wines of Italy

There’s no better way to finish than with a glass of sweet wine – and so we’re ending our article with a discussion of two of the best Italian sweet wines.

Passito wines

Italian Passito wines are made from “late harvest” Moscato or Gewurztraminer grapes, which have been dried until they are practically raisins. In southern regions, winemakers dry their grapes on the vines. The ripe berries slowly dry and shrivel in the sun. As the water evaporates, the juice inside the grapes becomes much more concentrated.

In the Alpine region of Alto Adige, Gewurztraminer grapes are also dried on the vine, and harvested as late as mid-December. Moscato, with its thin skin, cannot last outside that late into winter. So, after harvesting in November, Moscato grapes are dried until December in the winery’s warm and airy lofts.

The passito method of winemaking results in lower yields, as you get less liquid from a raisin than a grape. The wines are usually high in alcohol, lusciously sweet and full of flavour. They’re usually sold in a half-sized bottle because they’re so rich, and often come with a higher price tag due to the small yields.

Alto Adige also makes one of the most exclusive and beautiful sweet wines – Moscato Rosé. The plantings are of this grape are tiny, as it doesn’t self-pollinate and is a tough one to grow. But the resulting wines are out of this world.

Exceptional Italian Passito wines to try:

Moscato d’Asti

Low in alcohol and enlivened with subtle sparkle, Moscato d’Asti is a gorgeous wine for a summer afternoon. It was originally made by winemakers so that they could drink at lunchtime without becoming tipsy. It is made from Moscato Bianco grapes – one of the oldest varieties grown in Piedmont.

What does Moscato d’Asti taste like? Ripe peaches, honey and orange blossom add to this wine’s summery flavour. It’s also one of the few wines that smells and tastes like grapes.

Sweet Moscato to try:

Vin Santo

This unctuous dessert wine has a name that translates as “Holy Wine”. It’s made from the white grapes Trebbiano and Malvasia, which are left to dry in the sun to concentrate the sugar as they slowly transform into raisins. The resulting wine is aged for up to a decade in small barrels, with a little bit of air at the top so that the wine gently oxidises. It’s usually paired with biscotti.

What does Vin Santo taste like? Deep golden in colour, Vin Santo has a heady flavour combination of dried apricot and tropical fruits complemented by classic oxidised aromas of caramel and nuts.

Continue your passion for Italian wines

We hope you found this article interesting and informative – and now feel a little closer to being an expert in Italian wines. We’re always happy to chat about all things wine, so if you have any questions about our Italian wine please feel free to get in touch.

Or, if you want to know more about Italian wines, we have plenty of in-depth articles:

Ciao!

References and further reading

[1] COUNCIL REGULATION (EC) No 479/2008 https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A32008R0479

[2] Confederazione Nazionale dei Consorzi Volontari, FEDERDOC https://www.federdoc.com/en/the-pyramid-of-italian-wines/

[3] The Italian Ministry of Adrigultural, Food and Forestry Policies

[4] Consorzio di Tutela Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe e Dogliani https://www.langhevini.it/

[5] Native Wine Grapes of Italy, Ian D’Agata, University of California Press, 2014

[6] Istituto di Servizi per il Mercato Agricolo Alimentare (ISMEA) http://www.ismea.it/

2 thoughts on “The complete guide to the best Italian wine with maps and tasting notes

    1. Wine Geek says:

      Thanks for your feedback! we do our best – we are WSET qualified professionals, and we do our best to write fact-based articles that will be both entertaining and factually correct / educational.

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