For new world wine drinkers, Italian wine labels, like many others is Europe, can be a daunting, especially if you don’t read Italian.
The first thing to look for is the name of the wine, which could the name of a grape varietal, like Nebbiolo; or the name of an appellation, like Barolo; or a made-up name, which is more common for blended wines like the La Spinetta winery’s ‘Pin’.
The name of the grape varietal(s) may or may not appear on the label, but the winery that produced it and the region in which it was produced will always be there.
Good producers will want to convey other information on the label, so it’s good to learn a little ‘wine label Italian’ to go with any ‘menu Italian’ you might know.
For basics, rosso means red; bianco means white; chiaretto means rose; spumante means sparkling; secco means dry; and dolce means sweet.
The name of the estate, or tenuta, might be on the label, but more importantly, if there is a name followed by the word vigneto, this tells you the wine comes from a single vineyard. As is usually the case most everywhere, single vineyard wines are often good quality.
Other important words to know are riserva (reserve), which means the wine has been aged longer than wines of that type usually are; and superiore (superior), which doesn’t necessarily mean a wine is superior in quality, only that higher standards have led to the wine having a higher alcohol content than other DOC or DOCG wines of its type.
That brings the language lesson to the acronyms DOC and DOCG: DOC means Denominazione d’Origine Controllata and DOCG means Denominazione d’Origine Controllate e Garantita.
These government-granted designations will appear on small labels affixed around a bottle’s neck or across its mouth.
Both designations denote wines made within the specified regions using government-defined methods and satisfying government-defined quality standards. DOCG also signifies the wine was analysed and tasted by government-licensed experts to ensure quality standards.
In general, buying a DOC or DOCG wine means it will be of good quality, but it does not mean that Italian wines without those designations are not good. Wines like the so-called Super Tuscans do not meet the traditional standards of DOC or DOCG wines, but some are among the best quality wines produced in Italy. They might have a designation IGT – which means Indicazione Geografica Tipica, or they might just say Vino Da Tavola (tablewine). The latter designation, however, could include the lowest quality wine made in Italy, so it’s best to know an Italian Vino da Tavola – or VdT – wine before you buy it.
Choosing a wine
When it comes to Barolo, I find a lot depends on the maker and the vintage. A Barolo from the austere 1996 vintage might not be ready to drink even now, but good producers have made Barolos that are enjoyable when they’re only five years old. Purists might argue that these wines aren’t really Barolos, but my taste buds just know they’re good.
For value, I like the Vietti Castiglione Barolo, which has single-vineyard-like quality without the single-vineyard-like price.
With Barbaresco, I like the Produttori del Barbaresco products, which are made by a high-quality co-op. The wine is known for its value for money, and their six-to-eight-year-old Barbarescos are great to drink right now.
There are light Barberas and there are big Barberas, and I prefer the latter. Something like La Spinetta’s Barbera d’Asti ‘Ca’ di’ Pian’ is a big wine at a nice price that pairs well with pizza, red sauces and spicy cuisine in general.
For something different after dinner or by the pool on a hot day, try a chilled bottle of Batasiolo Moscato d’Asti ‘Bosc d’la Rei’, a semi-sparkling, semi-sweet refreshing wine that is less than 6 per cent alcohol.
I try to steer clear of the 2002 vintage when looking at Italian wines. The vintage did not produce very many good wines, and virtually no great ones.