Italian Wine: the Denomination Mistery Unraveled

Italian Wine: the Denomination Mistery Unraveled

By popular demand, let us get back to the mistery of Italian wine names. 

There seems to be something obscure and unintelligible on a shelf of Italian wines, so many labels full of those strange latin-sounding words that most of the times don't seem to mean anything, followed by strange acronyms and formulas... it does feel a bit like an alchemist's workshop. Is it really that complicated? Is there a way to know what a certain wine exactly is, just by looking at the label? You'd like a straight answer now, wouldn't you? Well, unfortunately the answer is both yes and no. But let's try to clarify a few concepts anyway. The reason why it's hard to get to know Italian wine names is that sometimes the wine takes the name of a grape, some other times the name of an area, and yet other times it's a name given by history, or tradition.

You would think the ones named after the grape variety were immediately recognasible, but that's not always the case. Because as we all know, not all grapes are as popular and widely grown as Pinot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Riesling, Cabernet, Merlot and so on: Italy has something like 700, maybe more local grapes, most of which are unheard of not just in the New World, but amongst Italians themselves. Off the top of our heads: Durello, Cococciola, Timorasso, Pelaverga, Grignolino, Nasco, Schioppettino, Pigato, Gaglioppo, Perricone... you'd be lucky if you've heard of half of these.  Some other indigenous grapes have become very popular: Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Prosecco, Primitivo, Verdicchio, Trebbiano, Montepulciano and so on. But, wait a minute... isn't Chianti made predominantly out of Sangiovese grape? So what's the deal there? And what about Nobile di Montepulciano, is it the same wine as Montepulciano d'Abruzzo? That's were we meet the second type of wine denominations: the ones named after a producing area.

 In certain terroirs that are particularly suitable to wine making, history has chosen to give the wines a name that highlights that area, more than the grape. This is the case of Chianti, whose production is disciplined in Tuscany since the XIII century; Valpolicella, made in Veneto mostly using Corvina grape; Franciacorta, a champenoise made in Lombardy; Lugana, Bardolino and so on. Some areas that make particularly good wines are very, very small, think of Barolo, Barbaresco, Taurasi: three townships with an average population of 1000 whose economy revolves entirely around exceptional wine making.  The producing area denominations are the ones to which the DOC and DOCG classifications are attached (see our previous blog post for further info), so the wines named after a grape will always carry the name of an area as well, particularly when they're good. That way, the consumer is guaranteed that a certain grape is grown, processed and bottled in a specific zone using proper techniques. These denominations will then be along the lines of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi (where Verdicchio is the grape, Castelli di Jesi the area), Lacrima di Morro d'Alba, Sauvignon Blanc Isonzo del Friuli, Vermentino di Sardegna, Pinot Grigio Alto Adige etcetera. Naming a wine after an area is not different to what happens in many other countries, particularly France: think of Bordeaux, Champagne, Burgundy, Provence, Cote du Rhone, Loire Valley, Beaujolais... would you be able to tell what grapes these wines are made of, just by their names? 

Now the third category would be the mosty intriguing. Some wines, amongst them some outstanding varieties, bear a name that has nothing to do with neither the grape, nor the region. Sometimes it has to do with the production method: e.g. Ripasso means the grapes have been "re-passed, passed again" over dried grape skins. Some of these go way back to the dawn of wine-making times, like Recioto: now a general name for all sweet wines based on dried grapes made in the Verona province (everywhere else this style is known as "Passito"), originally it meant that only the outward side of the bunch ("recia", venetian for "ear") was used to make the wine, because it was the ripest part as it would get more exposure to direct sunlight. Therefore, Recioto literally means "from the ear". Our all-time favourite Amarone, according to a plausible legend, was nothing but a Recioto accidentally left to age in oak for too long which subsequently lost its sweetness... "Amarone" roughly translates as "quite bitter". Vin Santo, the dessert wine traditionally made in Tuscany, literally means "Holy Wine", because it miraculously cured some people during the 1348 Black Death pandemic.  And if Brunello just means that the wine is made out of a very dark ("bruno") clone of Sangiovese, another variety of the same grape that is used for Nobile di Montepulciano is instead a very "noble" one, planted by the Etruscans. So yes, Nobile di Montepulciano is a Sangiovese grape grown in a beautiful medieval hamlet called Montepulciano; while Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is a grape called Montepulciano, made in the Abruzzo region.

Let's spell it out: we Italians love to complicate things. You will never know that a wine called Amarone is actually a Corvina grape made in the Valpolicella area through a drying method, just from the name.  But complication, alas, is a necessary evil when you've got a winemaking tradition that dates a few millenniums: everything grows, develops and blends together with history, geography, local cultures and languages, different methods and research. And while this makes things more confused, it also adds to the fascination that comes from this journey of discovery. In other words: yes, there's a lot to learn about Italian wine and arguably nobody will ever be able to claim a complete knowledge of the topic, but can you imagine a more exciting and pleasant exploration?