Italian food is known for being simple, good quality, rustic, fare. So you would be forgiven by thinking that the wine the country produces follows a similar vein – excellent to drink, but not worthy of the fine wines made in France. Well, sorry that’s just not true. From Barolo to Brunello, Vaneto to Valpolicella, there are far more types of Italian wine than you think.
Italy is the world’s largest wine producer from all of the best wine regions, and second largest exporter (the French wine regions take first place). There are over 2,000 varieties of Italian grapes, at least 350 different producers and, at last count, 20 regions. The export market is worth around €7 billion. Which means that when it comes to the Italian fine wine, it’s easy to get lost. Thankfully our Italian wine guide for dummies is here to help!
Italian Wine Regions
There are over 20 wine regions in Italy but realistically, and from an investment point of view, we need to concentrate really on just three ones – Veneto, Tuscany and Piedmont. More and more minor regions – Marche, Lombardy, Puglia and Sicily are beginning to show potential and should not be omitted when considering investing in Italian fine wine.
Set against the spectacular backdrop of the Alps, wines from Veneto have found favour in the global market. Amarone di Valpolicella, and Recioto della Valpolicella (a spectacularly concentrated and extremely complicated version of Amarone) are perhaps the most interesting wines from an investors point of view: both DOP classifications offer extended aging (up to 20 years in some cases). In order to carry the Valpolicella name, blends are legally required to be at least 45% Corvina and 5% Rondinella, with 25% any other “red grape suitable for cultivation in Verona” that could be from a long list. The list includes Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Merlot, and Teroldego, but there are others. Not one of the latter grapes listed can make up more than 10%.
By far the most picturesque winemaking region of Italy, Tuscany is poetry to southern Italy’s prose. Its climate is perfect: the cooling breezes from the Tyrrhenian Sea offer welcome respite in the hot summer months prior to harvest. Its sandy-clay terroir is ideal for strong, structured wines that are full-bodied and rich in colour (thanks to the iron percentage in the soil). The second region to produce the highest ratio of DOC wines (after Veneto), Tuscany’s Sangiovese from the Chianti Classico region is what put it on the map, and is what keeps it there. Any wine produced within the holy trinity of Chianti, Montalcino, and Montepulciano can carry the Sangiovese application. Tuscany is also the home of the Super Tuscan wine – blends which are typically made with French grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. Certain SuperTuscan wines are stunning and have great appeal for both primary buyers and the investor market.
Learn more about the beautiful wine region of Tuscany.
When talking about Italian red wines and their growing regions, it would be impossible not to mention Piedmont. A stone’s throw from the French border, the Piedmont region is found at the foot of the Alps (opposite Veneto) and produces wines of great gusto; both big-bodied and superbly perfumed. The main regions are of course Barolo and Barbaresco and the king grape here is undoubtedly Nebbiolo. Capitalising on the trend that people wanted wines for cellaring and investment as well as immediate drinking, many Barolo winemakers made the switch to ageing in French oak barrels. This pushed age-ability to around 20 years for some of the highest quality wines. Another change wines of Piemonte have seen is the gradual move from 100% single vineyard to blending; it is not uncommon to find Nebbiolo blended with Barbera, Merlot, Cabernet, or even Syrah. Think gorgeous Barolo Riservas and light Barbarescos if you’re looking to diversify your portfolio.
Read more about the Piedmont wine region and its varieties.
Italian Wine Varieties
Like Italy’s gastronomy, their types of wine are in direct correlation with the region. Northern Italian wines are known for Barbera, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, while the south of the country produces world-class Aglianico which would not be out of place next to the likes of some of France’s best Bordeaux.
Italian Wine Grapes
While there are many types of wine grapes grown from Turin to Naples, much like French wine only some produce a product that is as welcome in your investment portfolio as on your table. Many of the 500+ varieties of Italian wine grapes are destined for immediate consumption. However, there are some grapes that are so exquisite that when they are grown in a good soil by a producer with knowledge and skill – well, that’s winemaking magic right there. Not to mention a healthy investment opportunity (it’s easier than ever now with a wine investment app).
The main ones are:
If there was one grape that could sum up the Italian wine history, it would be the Sangiovese grape. It is the best known and probably most-loved of all the Italian grapes. Blue-black in skin, it is synonymous with wines from Tuscany but is also found in other regions such as Umbria, Campania in Southern Italy, and Romagna, where the grape is known as Sangiovese di Romagna. Sangiovese account for about 10% of Italian wine production. The grape is far subtler than say Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, but is always fruit forward in taste, with notes of cherry flavour and tertiary tates of tomato.
Another red grape, Barbera wines embody the dolce vita for which Italy is so famous. It’s enormously popular (at the beginning of the 21st century it was the third most planted grape in the country, behind Sangiovese and Montepulciano), and makes wines that are full of light-hearted, light-bodied, juicy promise. Certainly many Barbera-based wines are meant for everyday drinking you would be remiss to think that all Barbera wines are not worthy of investment. Estates such as G.D. Vajra and Vigne Marina Coppi have been known to Italian wine investors for years and are beginning to reach a wider-ranging market.
Nebbiolo is where things begin to get interesting for the fine wine investor. This grape is responsible for mammoth wines such as Barolos and Barbarescos and is powerful and intense, giving wines both character and depth. It can be quite deceptive – even though it has a delicate colour (which interestingly gets lighter, not darker, over time), it has a multi-layered and robust structure that is unbeatable in terms of complexity and longevity. Nebbiolo grapes are notoriously hard to grow: they need careful soil selection and will only grow before flowering but ripen later than other varieties. They also won’t grow if there has been too much frost in the winter or an abundance of spring rain. The name comes from the Italian term for fog – nebbia – so it comes as no surprise that Nebbiolo grows best in the cloud-shrouded mountains of Piemonte.
Or Zinfandel, to give it its Californian name. Primitivo grapes are found in Italy’s deep south, starting in Puglia and all the way down to the heel of the country’s boot. These wines are deeply coloured and potent – very high in alcohol and often reaching in between 14-18% ABV. This is countered by the grape tannin, which in the wine’s youth can taste bitter. Thus, Primitivo wines are a waiting game. They need a good few years in the bottle or barrel before they can even be approached. Because of Primitovo’s aging ability and tannin content, for a long time it was considered a blending grape. But, high on the success of Zinfandel stateside, Primitivo heavy wines are enjoying a welcome renaissance.
Soft and strong, with gentle tannins and low acidity, Montepulciano-based wines are excellent for the impatient enthusiast. Bar a few examples, these wines are meant for consumption almost straight after bottling. A couple of years is fine with most Montepulcianos,15 is not. However, there are some oak-aged Montepulcianos that show amazing investment and aging potential. Vines are found in eastern Italy (although bizarrely not in the Tuscan town of Montepulciano itself, nor it is used in the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano). It is the second most widely grown grape in the country and makes classic, dry red wines.
Italian Wine Classifications
Italian wines follow a classification system similar to the French.
Vini di Tavola
Vin de Table, or Table Wine. Pretty much does what it says on the label: low quality wine whose only specification is that it must be produced in Italy.
The acronym stands for “Indicazione Geografica Protetta” – and was created to recognise the increased quality of notably Super Tuscan wines. An IGP wine is not quite in the same realm as a DOP or DOCG, but is stunning nevertheless. This is used for wines made with non-Italian grapes (such as Bordeaux style wines that use Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot).
Much like the French AOC, the Italians use DOP, which stands for “Denominazione di Origine Protetta” and is a label of quality assurance – expect to see it on everything from cheese to honey. DOP wines are made with Italian grapes and the producer will have taken out all the lower quality grapes used for making vinegar or cooking wine, thereby elevating his source product (and charging prices to match). Liv-ex and investor’s favourite Tenuta del’Ornellaia is a DOP.
DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) are the holy grail of Italian wine classifications. These wines (there are just 75 in the country) follow very strict quality control and are analysed by a government approved panel prior to release. These are wines which wear their status with honour; a status label and serial number needs to be visible on the neck of the bottle – pink for reds, green for whites.
Many of these wines are great not only for consumption but also for investment. Do you know that wine investment is now super secure and also fun? If you’re interested, make sure to read our guide on how to invest in wine.