Demystifying an Italian Wine Label

Great wine! What am I drinking? I often hear this from clients unfamiliar with Italian wines. They closely inspect the labels but see nothing that they recognize as the name of a grape varietal that has crossed their palate before.

Traditional California wine labels prominently place the variety, e.g. Zinfandel, in a grand font where your eyes can instantly lock on. Add the winery name, vintage, perhaps the appellation, and you essentially have a complete brand label. As California winemakers have begun to embrace blending, the varietal name has been replaced with a provocative “fanciful name”, and the labels have become less recognizable.

So what makes old world wine labels so intimidating for some? Old World (France, Italy) have tightly controlled “classifications” that dictate labeling requirements. Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino di Nobile Montepulciano, Valpolicella…. all are highly recognizable terms by enthusiasts with experienced palates in Italian wines. And, the names are displayed prominently, and proudly, on the brand labels. If you’re not familiar with these wines, you won’t realize that these terms are names of the classified districts and define the wines. For example, Barolo, the King of Wines and the Wine of Kings, is the famous district in the Piemonte region where these wines originate.   Barolo wines are some of the most reknown red wines of Italy, and often most expensive. They are crafted only with 100% Nebbiolo grapes from the district; yet, nowhere on the label will you find the varietal “Nebbiolo”. You just have to know that is the varietal for Barolo wines. Similarly, Barbaresco (Nebbiolo), Brunello di Montalcino (Sangiovese), Vino di Nobile Montepulciano (Sangiovese), and Valpolicella (blend of ancient varietals) are proudly flying the designations of their famous districts and not the varietals. And that’s mostly true, but not always. For example, Barbera d’Alba is named for the varietal grape—Barbera. In this case it carries the appellation designation as well so you don’t confuse it with its neighbor Barbera d’Asti. Taste the two wines side-by-side and the differences will be permanently etched on your palate, as they have strikingly different characteristics. Classified wine labels frequently contain additional information such as the vineyard designation, or cru, and whether it has been sufficiently aged to carry the “reserve” designation. 

Let’s take a closer look at a label and we’ll translate. Corrado De Anglis Corvi produces a reserve big red, Montepulciano, from the Abuzzo region in the classified district of Colline Teramane. Corrado has also given this wine a “fanciful” name, Elévito, in memory of his parents.

Montepulicano is commonly confused with another Italian wine—Vino di Nobile Montepulciano. Why the confusion? There is beautiful medieval town in Tuscany by the same name as this varietal that is grown extensively in the Abruzzo region; however this town if famous for another big red, Vino di Nobile Montepulciano comprised with 100% Sangiovese fruit. Confused yet?

Recall that the Italian wine classification scheme has four tiers. The top two tiers of control are DOCG-Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, and DOC-Denominazione di Origine Controllata. As you experience wines from the lower tiers, IGT- IndicazioneGeografica Tipica, and VDT-Vino di Tavola (aka table wine), labeling requirements are relaxed and you will notice a great deal less information included on the labels.

American wine enthusiasts have eyes trained to the familiar --Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc. Much of the mystery in Old World wine labels comes down to a lack of familiarity with the hundreds of varietals grown outside the U.S.. It’s a big, bold wine world out there; so don’t pass up any opportunity to experience a new wine. You don’t recognize the label? Then pour a glass and get to know a new varietal. Cin!


Don Chigazola