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Italian wine classification demystified

April 06, 2019 Tags: 0 comments
It is no secret that Italian wine is very confusing and it is often a matter for wine experts.

There are wines with names that have nothing to do with the grapes they are made of, Chianti, Amarone della Valpolicella or Barolo, and wines named after the town or the area where they are produced, Orvieto and Frascati are two examples.

On top of that, the appellation system allows “discretion” in the wine making process, leaving the winemakers to choose grapes, percentages and type of ageing, so that even when the name on the label is the same, the wine in the bottle is not, so that two Chiantis are not the same.

Understanding Italian wine is not easy, even for experts, and the Italian wine classification doesn’t help at all.

The Italian wine classification was introduced in 1963 and initially was a 3 class system, Vino da Tavola, DOC and DOCG wines with IGT, the 4th class or category, only introduced in 1992. It has now become outdated and has overruled by the new European wine classification system introduced by the EU to harmonize the individual country’s wine classification systems, a system that European wine makers are reluctant to accept.

The initial “rationale” for the appellation system was to classify the wines based on their quality, from lowest to higher, from table wine to DOCG, however, it never really worked that way.

Whilst the appellation can define somehow the wine, by limiting the grapes used and their yield, their origins or the ageing process, it can never guarantee its quality. The DOCG category, the one that should indicate the highest quality wine, is the one that limit the winemaker's ability and freedom the most, even more in poor vintages.

In a poor vintage, the winemaker, if following the appellation rules, it will end producing low quality DOCG wines or has the option to declass the wines and sell them as a DOC or IGT, losing money. Unfortunately, not everyone chooses to lose money to protect the appellation. In recent times there have been winemakers that have completely disregarded the appellation rules with the aim of producing the best possible wines and decided to bottle them as IGT or table wine taking a big gamble.

I personally never judge a wine based on the appellation or the label or the weight of the bottle, I believe that lower class doesn’t automatically mean lower quality wine and vice versa and currently the best wines in Italy are amongst the IGT category, so I always suggest never to buy a wine only because of its DOCG status. The different categories, more than telling us about the quality of the wine, tell us about the wine making process, the provenance and offer an indication of grapes used.

The table wine appellation is the category that gives the winemaker the freedom to make the most of the grape and vintage, however, have a very bad reputation, or at least they had, amongst wine drinkers. DOCG on the other hand, follow stricter rules and restrict the winemaker freedom and have a better reputation.

Looking at the Italian appellation system pyramid, the lower class or category is the Vino da Tavola or Table Wine and the only requirement is that the wine is made with grapes grown in Italy, wineries don’t have to specify whether it is a blend or a single varietal, where the grapes come from and what they are. It could be a wine made with whatever is left or could be a wine created as table wine only because the other categories do not give the winemaker enough freedom; a classic example are the Supertuscans, a category of red wines produced in Tuscany initially bottled as table wines and still IGT or DOC.

Above the table wine, the next class or category is IGT, Indicazione Geografica Tipica. Winemakers producing IGT wines have still enough freedom to create the wine they want to, their only restriction is to use the grape grown in the area specified in the “disciplinare”, regulation, normally a region, sometimes a smaller area. Most Supertuscans wines belong to this class.

The next class up is the DOC, Denominazione di Origine Controllata. Normally DOC wines are made with grape grown in a smaller area, there are exceptions, eg Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, that cover the whole region, and the DOC regulation also covers other aspects of the wine making process, from yield to minimum alcohol content.

At the the top of the pyramid, there is the DOCG category, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. This is the class where some of the most known and expensive Italian wines belongs to, from Prosecco di Valdobbiadene to Brunello di Montalcino. DOCG wines are some of the most expensive wines because of their wine making process, from reduced yield to ageing. The general rules is that the higher in the pyramid, the stricter are the rules and the least freedom the winemaker has.

In 2011 the European Union decided to step in with the aim of harmonising wine labelling across the continent. Currently, the European system is still very much ignored, but the new classes with their definitions are:

PDO (Protected Designation of Origin)

PDO wines are "produced in a given geographical area, using recognized know-how" and correspond to the DOC and DOCG wines.

PGI (Protected Geographical Indication)

PGI wines are closely linked to the geographical area in which they are produced and which has specific qualities attributable to that geographical area and correspond to Indicazione Geografica Protetta (IGP).
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