Italian wines - the beginner’s guide | Drizly
Red, white or sparkling - Italy is a wine powerhouse. Learn about Italian wine varieties and impress your friends over your next wine and cheese board.
March 27, 2021
Tackling the world of Italian wine is a huge task for even the most seasoned of wine enthusiasts. But stick around. We guarantee you it's worth it. Italy is home to some of the greatest red, white and sparkling wines in the world. They also produce over 20% of the world’s wine production. So yeah. They’re kind of a big deal. Master these major varieties, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming an Italian wine master.
Italian wine vocab
This can be a little tricky if you don't know what the letters stand for. So let's start here:
This is an abbreviation for Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. A mouthful, we know. Just remember those 4 letters. They stand for the top classification of Italian wine. The reason that these wines are so highly classified is because there are so many strict rules around production. Where the grapes are grown, what variety the grape is and how the wine ages are all factors.
Look a little familiar? This short stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata. You may have guessed this already, but this classification is one step below DOCG. So the rules of production and style are strict but not as strict.
This stands for Indicazione Geografica Tipica. This classification is so that winemakers can use grapes and styles that are not allowed under DOC and DOCG regulations.
This signifies an aged wine, though the actual rules on age depend on the denomination.
This is a higher-quality designation which generally is added on to the name of a region.
A wine made from a zone within a region that is considered the original area of production. A recognizable example of this would be Chianti Classico.
Italian red wines
Sangiovese is responsible for some of Italy's most beloved reds. The grape's name derives from the Latin 'sanguis Jovis,' meaning Jupiter's blood. Save that one for trivia night. Sangiovese was identified as early as the 1500s, making the grape a serious staple in Italy's viticultural history.
Wines made from the grape cover a broad spectrum of styles; when young, sangiovese is fresh, fruity, and speckled with spice, though many sangiovese-based wines can age for an extensive period of time. The grape presents medium tannins, high acidity, and abundant fruit-forwardness. The grape is most notable for creating the backbone of famed Brunello di Montalcino, Rosso di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Chianti, as well as playing a supporting role in the celebrated Super Tuscan blend.
Sangiovese is a savory wine with flavors of cherry and tomato. Though those flavors are always prominent, it’s known for its flavor range.
It's been said that the name for nebbiolo comes from the Italian world nobile (noble) and we could understand why. This tannic little grape is the face behind the famed reds of Piedmont, including barolo and barbaresco. In its youth, nebbiolo can be a difficult grape to drink; with high tannins and high acidity, many find the grape to be too astringent when young. However, plenty of young, approachable examples can be found in the Langhe. Ghemme and gattinara are also notable Piemontese regions for the grape, as well as the valtellina in Lombardy, where the grape goes by the name of chiavennasca.
Nebbiolo is famed for its bright acidity, red fruit, rose petal, and tar flavors.
This is where Italian wine can get a little tricky; Montepulciano is both an appellation and a grape, making up two very, very different wines. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, as mentioned above, is based on the sangiovese grape and finds its roots in Tuscany. The Montepulciano grape that we're talking about here is the backbone behind many of the red wines of central Italy, specifically the eastern region of Abruzzo. The grape produces dark pigmented, plummy wines with moderate acidity and a generally affordable price tag.
Montepulciano is known for its powerful tannins, high acidity and strong flavors of oregano, pepper, tobacco and black fruits.
Love a good Piemontese red but feel like they're generally out of your financial comfort zone? Well then barbera is the one for you. Low in tannin, high in acidity, and choc full of bright red fruit flavors, it's no surprise that this variety clocks in as Italy's third most widely planted red grape. The greatest examples of barbera come from Piedmont's Asti and Monferrato regions, producing easy-drinking reds with flavors of bright cherry and fresh raspberry.
Barbera is known as a low tannin, high acidity wine with flavors of cherry, strawberry and raspberry. When it’s a younger wine, there’s also notes of blackberry.
Hailing from the Veneto region of Italy, corvina is responsible for an immense range of red wines. From the lighter-bodied wines of bardolino, to powerful, in your face amarone, the grape is responsible for a bunch of our favorite red sippers. Corvina is naturally high in acidity, making for tart wines brimming with bright red fruit flavors in their youth. When blended with rondinella and molinara, the grape plays a significant role in creating Veneto's signature, easy-drinking Valpolicella blends. When late harvested and produced passito style, the corvina is the star behind Recioto di Valpolicella, the lip-smackingly sweet wine of the northeast. And when left out to partially dry for about 120 days? Yep, that's amarone, and this little grape is responsible for that as well.
Corvina is dry, medium bodied and medium high acidity with flavors of cherry, cinnamon and chocolate.
Another popular Piemontese red, dolcetto, meaning 'little sweet one,' actually doesn't produce sweet wines at all. Dolcetto produces dark pigmented wines of low to moderate acidity, with pruney flavors of ripe black cherry. Notable regions for the variety within Piedmont include Alba and the Dogliani hills. Dolcetto based wines are generally consumed young and are perfect matches for pizza, red sauces, and rustic, savory stews.
Dolcetto is a dry, medium bodied wine with flavors of black-cherry, plum, cocoa and violet.
Love a good full-bodied, high acid, high tannin wine? Then aglianico is just the one for you. Grown predominantly in Campania and Basilicata, this black-skinned grape grows best in warmer climate regions, especially in volcanic soils. Because of its strong tannins and in-your-face flavor profile, the wines can generally benefit from a couple years of aging. When ready, great examples of aglianico present plummy, fig-like flavors, coupled with rustic tannins.
Aglianico is a big bold wine. High in acidity and tannins with a full body. Expect flavors of black berry, spiced plum, white pepper and even cured meats.
While this may look like a name you've never heard of before, we're pretty sure that you've had this grape variety. Ever drank a Grenache based Cotes du Rhone or Spanish Garnacha before? Then you've technically had cannonau...sort of. Cannonau is a specific name of Grenache coming from Sardegna, Italy's smaller S-named island. The Cannonau di Sardegna DOC covers the entire island, producing voluptuous reds and savory, thirst-quenching rosés.
Italian sparkling wine
Yes, sparkling. Not Champagne. Champagne only comes from Champagne, France after all. When you talk or read about Italian sparkling wine, you may hear the term "spumante." This is Italian for "sparkling." It doesn't identify anything about the sweetness of grapes, just identifies the bubbliness.
You may be familiar with prosecco from it's similarities to champagne, and it's attendance at Sunday brunch. If not, prosecco is a white wine grape variety that's considered to be bubbly, fruity and aromatic. It is a sparkling wine that is typically drunk unaged because it has the most aromas when new. Prosecco is a light bodied, medium-high acidity wine with a primary flavor of green apple, honeydew and pear.
Prosecco is light bodied and crisp with flavors of apple, honeysuckle, peach and melon.
Because what's an Italian red wine party without a bottle of sparkling red? Lambrusco is both the name of the grape and the wine it produces. This is what we'd call your 'breakfast wine'; low alcohol, fruit-forward, and insanely easy to drink, this frothy frizzante is a hit amongst any group of wine drinkers. Crafted in Emilia Romagna, the wine is a perfect match with local parmigiano and balsamic, as well as everyone's favorite Italian specialty, pizza.
Lambrusco wine is fruity, medium bodied with medium tannins with high acidity. You’ll notice flavors of cherry, blackberry, rhubarb and violet.
Made in the "metodo classico," or traditional method, franciacorta is a sparkling wine made in northern Italy. Franciacorta has fruit flavors of lemon, peach and white cherry along with a nutty taste of almond. It's considered light bodied, very high acidity and on the drier side. Franciacorat usually has an ABV between 10 and 11.5% and should be served in a flute glass.
Franciacorta is dry, light bodied, high acidity with flavors of lemon, peach and white cherry.
Made from mosago grapes, asti spumante is a sweet sparkling wine with lots of bubbles and fragrance, and fruity notes of pear. However - be warned, these wines are known to not be well made although they come from a region with DOCG classification (DOCG, like we talked about, is top tier).
A good bottle of asti spumante will be light bodied, a bit acidic, with flavors of orange, pears, apricots and peach.
Trebbiano wine is actually one of the top wine grapes in Italy. It has fruity flavors of white peach and green apple, has a medium-light body and medium to high acidity. Does this varietal sound new to you? Possibly - it's actually used most often in brandy and balsamic vinegar. Talk about range.
Trebbiano is a medium-light bodied wine with hints of lemon, white peach and green apple.
A household classic. Pinot grigio is likely the easiest to recognize italian white wine. This variety is light, on the drier side and has a citrusy taste and finish.
Pinot grigio is a dry, light bodied white wine with flavors of green apple or lemon and fruity aromas.
Yup, chardonnay is not just a Californian wine. Italian chardonnay is made in the mountains of northern Italy. It's a lighter, crisper version of its buttery, American cousin. If you're more into fruity chardonnay's - Italian chardonnay is your style.
Italian chardonnay is unoaked, with flavors of lemon, citrus and apple.
Another very popular one, here. Moscato is known for its sweetness, and Italian moscato is no different. Italian moscato is made with muscat grapes grown in the Piedmont and North West regions of Italy.
Moscato is infamous for its sweetness. You’ll notice flavors and aromas of lemon, orange, pear and orange blossom.
Congratulations, you’ve now graduated from the Drizly Italian Wine Institute (*not real*). With this new found knowledge, try a few new whites, reds or sparkling Italian wines and get them delivered home.