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Italian wine classification demystified

April 6, 2019 Tags: 0 comments
It is no secret that Italian wine is very confusing and it is often a matter for wine experts. Plenty of wines have names that have nothing to do with the grapes they are made of, Chianti and Amarone della Valpolicella or Barolo only to mention a few, some have the name of the town or the area where they are produced without any other indication, Orvieto and Frascati are two examples, allowing plenty of “discretion” in the wine making process and therefore the wine, and even when the name on the label is the same, it is very difficult to find two wines the same, because each producer has its own style and philosophy, it is never a straight and easy choice.

Understanding Italian wine is not easy, even for experts, it is awfully confusing and using the Italian wine classification doesn’t help either.

The Italian wine classification was introduced in 1963 and initially introduced a 3 class system, Vino da Tavola, DOC and DOCG with the IGT, the 4th class or category introduced in 1992. This system has now been overruled by the new European wine classification system introduced by the European Union to harmonize the individual country’s wine classification system.

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

Whilst the system can define somehow the wine, by determining the grapes and their origin or the ageing, or the yield, there is more to make great wine and for that reason, several wine makers, have opted for a lower category to be able to produce the best wine they can.

And I never judge a wine based on its “ranking”, I believe that lower class doesn’t automatically mean lower quality wine and vice versa, so a table wine is not automatically a poor quality wine and a DOCG is not always a great wine and I always recommend never to buy a wine only because of its classification. The different classes, more than telling us about the quality of the wine, tell us about the wine making process.

Table wines are often wines to be drunk within the year and give the winemaker freedom to make the most of the grape and vintage he or she has, DOCG wines, on the other hand, follows stricter rules and restrict the winemaker freedom.

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, the 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 because the other classes did not give the winemaker enough freedom, we should never forget that Supertuscans, precisely Sassicaia, were initially table wines and even now, the appellation of Sassicaia, Bolgheri is only a DOC.

Above the table wine, the next class or category is IGT, Indicazione Geografica tipica. IGT wine makers 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 Supertuscan 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.

On the top of the pyramid, there is the DOCG class, Denominazione di Origine controllata e garantita. This is the class where there are some of the most known and expensive Italian wines, from Prosecco di Valdobbiadene to Brunello di Montalcino. DOCG wines are normally the ones with a higher cost because of their wine making process, from reduced yield to ageing, and restrictions imposed to the wine maker.

The higher in the pyramid, the stricter are the rules and the freedom allowed to the winemakers, this one of the main reasons some of the top Italian wine makers have decided to ignore the DOC or DOCG regulations and just make IGT or table wines, still creating exceptional wines.

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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