UNDERSTANDING ITALIAN WINE
Italian wines are notoriously confusing in terms of appellations or categories and there are many different opinion-makers offering recommendations.
Our advice is to find out more about the basic terminology and awards, but not let the details overwhelm you when choosing wine. After all, the most important factor in deciding which bottle to try is your own preference.
Here’s some key info on categories and labels, followed by details on awards, ratings and wine experts:
Wine Categories & Labels
Italians have been making and enjoying wine for centuries but the concept of legalizing specific appellations is relatively new.
Most Italians have grown up drinking wine made by friends or relations from nearby vineyards, so the notion of a special label denoting the wine category seemed unnecessary. It was the development of exports that led to new laws and terminology, to help Italian wines compete with other winemaking countries.
Despite rules to help identify where a wine is made or the general style of the wine, the system is not perfect and it is always expanding. New regional denominations are being created. Accepted wine styles change if enough winemakers within that group agree to new criteria. Some winemakers simply chose to be independent of any formal categorization.
Overall, categories like IGT, DOC and DOCG can be a useful and interesting guide (mainly to geographical criteria) but not a fixed guarantee of quality. For example, a DOCG wine has a strict identity whereas a non-DOCG wine could have the same quality level and even be made in the same area but because it was created using different grapes or an alternative method it doesn’t meet the DOCG criteria.
VINI / VINO DA TAVOLA:
This category literally refers to table wine. Wines in this category have the most flexibility as they do not meet any geographical or product criteria. Table wines are restricted by what they can put on the label, so for example they cannot list the grape varieties used or add a vintage year.
The IGT category refers to wines with a protected geographical indication. This restricts the wine production to a specific region of Italy and also sets regulations in terms of viticulture, viniculture, chemico-physical characteristics and the labelling system. There are approximately 120 different IGT zones.
VINI DOP (DOC + DOCG):
The DOP category refers to wines with a protected designation of origin. This means the wine comes from a specific place and fits certain criteria such as the grapes used and ageing process. Within this category you find DOC or DOCG wines, where DOC refers to a controlled or protected place name and DOCG refers to a controlled and guaranteed place name.
Look out for three other specific terms used with DOC or DOCG wines. ‘Classico’ is added for wines produced in the oldest part of the protected territory. ‘Superiore’ refers to wines of a higher quality and at least 0.5% higher alcohol percentage than others in the same zone. ‘Riserva’ means a wine that has been aged for a minimum period of time.
An IGT wine can be promoted to a DOC after five years. A DOC wine can be promoted to DOCG after 10 years. The labels DOC and DOCG restrict winemaker to meeting agreed specifications, making them useful guides for wine buyers who can expect similarities with other wines under the same DOC or DOCG. There are 400+ certified DOP wines, of which roughly 330 are DOC and 70+ are DOCG.
Wine Awards & Experts
There are many awards and systems for rating wine, both international and Italian. International ratings can be a good guide, especially if you are already well-versed in wines from other countries, but it also makes sense to pay attention to wine experts who specialize in Italian wine.
Also, remember that some boutique wineries produce a small quantity of wine which means they may not be included on all lists. This is not a reflection of quality but instead the extent of the wine’s distribution outside of Italy. It is, in fact, this boutique aspect that we value and makes our wine portfolio so exclusive.
Above all, we recommend wine buyers to consider a range of ratings and tasting notes. Comparing different opinions can be very useful because wine - once it reaches a certain level of quality - is arguably a very subjective product to analyze.
Here are some of the awards and ratings that we consider important when choosing wine:
THE WINE ADVOCATE
Robert Parker produces tasting notes, as published in The Wine Advocate, using a 50-100 points system. In brief, any wine rated at 50-59 is “deemed to be unacceptable” then a rating of 60-69 is considered below average. A rating of 70-79 is an average wine, then 80-89 can mean just above average or very good. If the wine is rated 90-95 it is considered outstanding, so expect something complex with character. If it’s rated 96-100 it is an extraordinary wine and is “worth a special effort to find, purchase, and consume”.
Every year, the editors at Wine Spectator magazine conduct blind tastings of more than 15,000 wines. They rate “each wine relative to other wines” within the tasting group and use a 100 points system. Wines rated 50-74 are not recommended and those rated 75-79 are mediocre. A rating of 80-84 means good, a rating of 85-89 means very good and 90-94 is considered outstanding. A wine that hits 95-100 points is considered a classic.
Every month, editors in different countries conduct blind tastings to compile reviews of 1,000+ wines for Wine Enthusiast Magazine. The rating system has a maximum of 100 points and any wine rated below 80 will not be reviewed. Some wines are assigned special designations, such as ‘Best Buys’ to indicate value for money, or ‘Cellar Selections’ for wines that could improve with cellaring and ‘Editors' Choice’ for excellent quality wines or those with “unique qualities that merit special attention”.
With three decades in the wine industry, including his current role as wine editor for Asia Tatler, James Suckling is a well-known wine expert and more specifically a strong advocate for Italian wine. He uses a 100 points rating system and each wine tasting report (which can be blind or at vineyards) focuses on a region or appellation, listing anything from a dozen to hundreds of wines. A wine rated less than 85 is not recommended but at 85-89 points it is “worth buying”. A rating of 90 or more is considered outstanding and if it hits 95 points or more it should be added to your “must buy” list.
The ‘Tre Bicchieri’ (Three Glasses) rating system is used by the Italian food and wine magazine Gambero Rosso every year to rate numerous wines across Italy. A wine that receives 1 glass is considered good but 2 glasses is very good to excellent. If the wine received 2 red glasses it was considered for a position in the top category but didn’t quite make it whereas the 3 red glasses status means the wine made it through the final tasting and is considered an “excellent” wine in its respective category. The 2014 guide is the 27th edition and lists over 400 wines that reached the rating of Tre Bicchieri. Gambero Rosso awards special prizes such as a ‘Red of the Year’, a ‘White of the Year’, a ‘Sparkler of the Year’, a ‘Sweet Wine of the Year’ and also a ‘Best Value for Money’. There are other prizes, not specific to one wine, for the ‘Winery of the Year’, the ‘Up and Coming Winery of the Year’ and the ‘Grower of the Year’. In recognition of the move towards sustainable viticulture, there is also a special ‘Tre Bicchieri Verdi’ award for organic or biodynamic certified wineries. For other Italian product ratings see the Gambero Rosso Three Forks guide to restaurants, Three Beans and Three Cups listing for coffee, and the Three Leaves listing for extra virgin olive oil.
The AIS (Italian Sommeliers Association) was formed in 1965 and is a founding member of the WSA (Worldwide Sommelier Association). The AIS runs the annual competition for the "Best Sommelier of Italy” as well as other prestigious titles such as the Master of Sangiovese and the Master of Nebbiolo. The AIS wine rating system is represented by bunches of grapes. Wines that are awarded 2 bunches are considered mid-level and wines with 3 bunches rate as good. A wine that receives 4 bunches has great merit and the 5 bunches award goes to excellent wines.
Created by Guida Espresso, I Vini D'Italia rates and lists excellent wines from Italy. There is a points system to guide readers but also a simple review system based on a number of bottles being awarded from one to five. The twelfth edition, I Vini D'Italia 2014, reviews over 2000 wineries from all over Italy and lists 270+ wines at the highest award level of five bottles.
Food and wine connoisseur, Luigi Veronelli, published numerous guides to hotels, restaurant’s, olive oil and wine, using a 100 points system. Famous both inside Italy and overseas, it has been said that he was “the most important Italian writer on food and wine culture” and played a vital role in promoting Italian oenogastronomy (food and wine) all over the world.
The ratings from Luca Maroni are especially helpful for the Asian market as the wine listing includes many fruity wines, which pair very well with Asian cuisine. His rating system reaches to 99 points for the best wines, using a criteria based on his own theory of ‘fruit-grade’ in wine. He asserts that the pleasantness of a wine (the enjoyment in drinking it) comes from how closely the wine recalls the taste of the original fruit, so to evaluate the “the quality (pleasantness) of a wine, we must evaluate its fruit-grade” by paying attention to consistency, balance and integrity.
Former winner of the Best Sommelier of the World (awarded by the WSA), Luca Gardini is an influential wine celebrity. He runs a wine competition every year, along with food and wine expert Andrea Grignaffini, to review and award the 50 Best Italian Wines.