The Italian Wine Regions

Find out what to expect from the wines of the various regions of Italy...

Northern Italy

Piedmont: Italy's finest wines are produced in Piedmont. They're big, 'chewy', black reds, aged for years in Slovenian oak casks and left on their skins for maximum extraction. Piedmont's best vineyards surround Alba, where Barolo and Barbaresco, both DOCG wines, face each other on the Langhe hills. An autumn mist, the nebbia, gives its name to the local grape, the Nebbiolo, which ripens late for dark, tannic and acidic wines that demand 20 years in the bottle. White, sparkling Asti Spumante DOCG, made from Moscato grapes, is another Piedmontese legend.

Lombardy: Wealthy investment in Lombardy's vineyards has bred some fine wines inspired by leading French appellations, not least Champagne. Franciacorta, one of the latest Italian zones to win DOCG status, makes outstanding Champagne-style wines (bottle-fermented using the metodo classico) from Pinot Bianco, Pinot Nero and Chardonnay grapes. Ca' del Bosco is the leading firm; and their Cuvée Annamaria Clementi is Italy's leading fizz.

Trentino-Alto Adige: Italy's northernmost wine region grows grape varieties by the dozen, many used in varietals (wines pressed from a single grape type). The relatively cool climate is apt for aromatic whites - Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Bianco are all ubiquitous - but the star here is Teroldego Rotaliano DOC, an abundantly fruity, low tannin red with a bitter edge. Alto Adige is the original home of Gewürztraminer, while another indigenous grape, the Nosiola, has been dried and pressed into strong sweet Vino Santo for centuries.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia: Friuli has been making modern style whites for 40 years (other regions are only just catching up). It's a region of varietals rather than blends, a place where modern techniques like cold fermentation allow the grapes' 'primary' flavours to sing. The wines are fruity and aromatic, often made from the Friulano grape (aka Tocai), although a plethora of other French grapes, notably Pinot Grigio, are grown (if you're looking for an Italian Sauvignon this is where to find it). The best catch-all DOC whites are Colli Orientali del Friuli and Collio.

Veneto: Italy's most prolific wine-producing region grows vast tracts of DOC vines. Soave, made principally from Garganega grapes, is the big white name, but the permitted yields are very high. For quality you have to head to the hills. The best Soave comes from Soave Classico and Soave Superiore DOCG where the permitted yields are lower and the land less fertile: two producers shine - Pieropan and Anselmi. Similarly, the best Valpolicella DOC (not necessarily classico or superiore ) originates on pebbly slopes with low yields. Nearer Venice the big wine is Prosecco DOC, the dry or off-dry white with a tang, produced either frizzante or spumante. The best Prosecco has prolonged lees (sediment) contact (labelled charmat lungo) to add the kind of complexity found in Champagne. Masi and Dal Forno are notable among Veneto's reds, producing cherryish, appetizing wines.

Central Italy

Emilia-Romagna: The land here is too fertile for quality wine on any grand scale: only 15 percent of the region's output has DOC status. Lambrusco is the big name; traditionally a frothing zesty red, dry or off dry, but now also produced in white, pink, sweet and low alcohol versions made on an industrial scale. The best dry Lambruscos (DOC di Sorbara, Grasparossa di Castelvetro or Salamino di Santa Croce) sometimes receive secondary bottle fermentation as per Champagne. The leading quality producer is Cavicchioli, near Modena, whose best cuvée, Lambrusco di Sorbara, is modestly subtitled Vigna del Cristo.

Tuscany: The main vine is Sangiovese, a fickle character with several clones producing numerous styles of red wine, not all of them terribly attractive. At their best, they're strong, full-bodied (if pale) and expert at aging. Chianti DOCG, clustered around Siena, is the most famous; others include Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, which contends with Barolo as Italy's best wine, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG. Sangiovese also contributes to several highly prized but unclassified Super Tuscan wines.

Umbria: White wine predominates in Umbria, where Tuscan makers like Antinori have moved in, invested, and begun producing top wines, not least Cervaro at Castello della Sala, potentially Italy's greatest white wine. The region's most famous white is Orvieto, traditionally sweet but increasingly produced secco to suit modern tastes. Umbria's most characterful whites have increased Grechetto and reduced Trebbiano in the blend. Super Umbrian reds are produced from Sangiovese grapes at Torgiano, near Perugia.

Marche: As Tuscan and Umbrian wines grow in price, the improving Verdicchio whites of Marche offer an interesting alternative: Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Verdicchio di Matelica, both with DOC status, stand out.

Abruzzo and Lazio: Abruzzo produces mostly red wine and Lazio mostly white, but in common their wines share a certain mediocrity, the odd exception noted. Abruzzo's Adriatic red, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, is spicy, low in tannin and fresh in acidity, while the hills around Rome produce Frascati, the white whose fame can belie a paucity of taste and character. Frascati uses Malvasia and dreary Trebbiano grapes; only wines eschewing the latter can claim any real taste, although the DOC limits Malvasia content to 30 percent, a requisite frequently ignored by more conscientious growers.

Southern Italy

Campania: The sleeping giant of Italian wine, producing relatively little of DOC standard but possessing all the right physical and climatic qualities to do so. The local grape pool is varied and interesting: the best red grape (and DOC), Aglianico, of Greek origin, is best in Taurasi DOCG; the white Greco di Tufo grape (also of Greek origin) produces crisp, long-lived, appley whites; and Fiano, regarded as southern Italy's best white grape, goes into Fiano di Avellino DOCG. The leading growers for all the above are Mastroberardino and Feudi di San Gregorio.

Puglia: Grape yields in Puglia are high but the quality is often poor; most grapes are destined for vermouth production, distillation, blending (sometimes with thin French wines) or grape concentrate. Quality can be found in Salento, where cooling sea breezes give the vines some relief from the torrid climate. The local grapes are Negroamaro, thought to have originated in Greece, and Primitivo, which is identical to California's Zinfandel but originates in Croatia. Both produce dark, rich and powerful reds.

Basilicata: Italy's central southern region uses altitude to defy grapewithering heat, planting its better vineyards between 400 and 600 metres up. It has one DOC, Aglianico del Vulture, a red from the vineyards of Monte Vulture. The high acidity and tannin of the Aglianico grape make for excellent, long-lived wines in the right hands; some have called it the Nebbiolo of the south. D'Angelo and Paternoster are the best producers.

Calabria: Even while good fresh wines can be made on Calabria's mountainous terrain, the region still produces an ocean of plonk, apparently untroubled by recent advances in oenology. One beacon of hope exists: the DOC of Cirò where strong reds are made from Gaglioppo grapes, and fresh, fruity whites from varied Greco vines. Dried Greco grapes are used to make a good dessert wine around the village of Bianco. The region's one outstanding producer is Librandi.

Sicily: The island's climate, topography and volcanic soils lend themselves to a multitude of wine styles, and until recently Sicily produced more wine than anywhere else in Italy (indeed, it made more wine than Australia). Most quality-conscious producers work outside the DOC system, which accounts for just two percent of Sicilian wine. Having flirted with foreign grapes in the 1990s, enjoying some global success, today the emphasis is back on indigenous varieties. Sicily's best-known wine, sweet golden or brown Marsala, has slipped from fashion; these days Nero d'Avola is the grape of choice, producing strong ripe reds.

Sardinia: Sardinia's subjugation to Aragón in the Middle Ages explains the Spanish origins of some of its grape varieties. Cannonau (Garnacha in Spain and Grenache in France) accounts for 20 per cent of the island's production, used in a variety of styles including sweet and fortified (as in France). Carignano (Cariñena in Spain and Carignan in France) is particularly good in the Sulcis DOC. The island's best dry white, and its only DOCG, is Vermentino di Gallura.

Extract from Speak the Culture Italy, a Thorogood publication Speak the Culture series website / Buy online Copyright © 2009 Thorogood Publishing