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The nomenclature of the wine world can be confusing. Many times the words on a wine list are hard to pronounce and totally foreign – leaving prospective drinkers grasping at any word on the page that jumps out as familiar. There are better ways to order wine than to order the one that’s easiest to say or most recognizable.
And so, I’ve decided to help you figure out what the hell you’re looking at when you’re looking at a wine list and I’ve started with Italian wines. Italian wines can be listed on a wine list according to three criteria:
1. Name of the grape that is used to produce the wine
2. Name of the region (in Italy these specific areas are called D.O.C’s – stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata)
3. Many Italian wines are listed as Rosso di ____ . “Rosso di” roughly translates to “red wine of…” and that blank is usually filled in with the name of a nearby town or area but is not distinct enough to be a DOC all on its own or is located within a better-known DOC.
4. Sometimes, the names of the wines don’t have much to do with either and don’t worry – I’ll cover those as well.
Ok, so now that you know those basic categories, lets dive into the wines that you’re probably most likely to run into on an Italian wine list:
Italian red wines that go by their grape name
Aglianico is a grape grown mainly in Campania. It makes a rich full-bodied wine that is meant for aging
Barbera is grown in the same region as Dolcetto and shares a lot of the same qualities but its fruitier and tends to be sweeter
Cannonau (aka Grenache) is a grape that is typically grown in Sardinia
Dolcetto is the name of a grape grown in Piemonte and is usually made into a wine that’s used as a super drinkable, light, and delicious table wine. Commonly listed as:
• Dolcetto D’Alba
• Dolcetto D’Asti
• Dolcetto Di Dogliani
• Dolcetto D’Acqui
Frappato is a grape grown in Sicily and has shown up more frequently of late in single-varietal wines that are light and juicy
Montepulciano is a grape that is commonly confused with Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (named after the village in which it is produced, this wine is made with Sangiovese NOT Montepulciano). Montepulciano is grown all over Italy and specifically in Abruzzo, Le Marche, and Umbria
Pinot Nero is what the Italians call Pinot Noir (easy, right?)
Primitivo (aka Zinfandel) is a grape that is grown primarily in Puglia
Sangiovese is the grape that goes into Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino
Nobile di Montepulciano, and most Super Tuscans. However, Sangiovese can be billed on its own and often appears under its grape-name when it is produced in Emilia-Romagna or Lombardia.
Sagrantino is a grape grown mainly around the village of Montefalco in Umbria. The wine produced from this grape is a hearty rustic wine known for its earthy character and hit of cinnamon on the nose
Schiapettino is a grape grown in Friuli-Venizia and produces a medium-bodied wine with notes of raspberries, white pepper, and violets.
White wines that go by their grape names
Friulano is a grape grown in the Friuli-Veneto region .
Falanghina is a grape grown on the coast of Campania
Arneis is a grape grown in Piemonte, most commonly in the hills of Roero but also in Langhe
Muscat(o) is grown in Piemonte and is most commonly seen as Moscato d’Asti, a sweet and fizzy wine
Prosecco is the grape grow in the Friuli-Venezia region as well as the Veneto region
Trebbiano is the grape that commonly goes by the names:
• Trebbiano d’Abruzzo
• Trebbiano di Romagna
Verdicchio is a grape that is grown in Le Marche and often appears under the names:
• Verdicchio di Matelica
• Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi
Italian Wines that go by their growing region’s name
Valpolicella is produced from grapes grown within the Veneto region. Valpolicella is made from a blend of three varieties of grapes that are relatively obscure outside of this region and grown specifically for Valpolicella. The wine can range from light and fragrant table wines to full-bodied and big.
Chianti is produced from Sangiovese grapes grown in a specific area of Tuscany.
• Chianti Classico is produced in an area that stretches between Florence to the North and Sienna to the South. These wines are usually medium-bodied, have some medium tannins, and have a lighter flavor profile of cherries and florals.
• Chianti Rufina is produced in the northeastern area of Tuscany around the town of Rufina and are most widely known outside of Italy as wines with a great deal of complexity and finesse.
Rosso Orvieto is a wine produced in the Orvieto region of Umbria and is usually made up of Trebbiano-based blends for whites and Montepulciano on its own or blended for reds.
Veneto Bianco is white wine produced in the Veneto region .
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is a wine named after the village of Montepulciano in Tuscany where it is produced. It is made from Sangiovese grapes and is a sub-style of Chianti.
Common Italian wines that go by names that have nothing to do with either their grape or where they’re grown and/or produced
Barbaresco is a wine made from the Nebbiolo grape grown in Piemonte in an area called the Langhe. Barbaresco is a big wine that requires 2 years of aging before it can even be bottled, and then is expected to age for another 5-10 years after that. Barbaresco is extremely tannic when young, but softens into a gorgeous red wine known for its floral nose, and rich earthy flavor with tendencies towards smoke, leather, and tar.
Barolo is a wine also made from the Nebbiolo grape grown in Piemont. The difference between Barbaresco and Barolo is the area in which it is grown and the fact that grapes going into Barolo are harvested after the grapes that go into Barbaresco.
Super Tuscan is a wine that is made from grapes grown in the Chianti region of Tuscany but strays from classification of Chianti because of the proportions of grapes other than Sangiovese that go into the blends. Usually, Super Tuscans, incorporate more Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, into their blends to produce a wine that is richer than Chianti.
Brunello di Montalcino is a red wine made from Sangiovese grapes grown around the village of Montalcino. Brunello di Montalcino is a wine renowned for its full body, smooth tannins, and bright berry flavors that are often complimented with notes of chocolate or leather.