eading Italian wine-labels is like most aspects of Italian life: complicated. The Italian classification system was created only about 50 years ago and is based on the French system of appellation or “naming” first used in Bordeaux in 1855. The French philosophy wasn’t to grade the wine, but the terroir (place, climate, grape variety or varieties, and way of making the wine).
In Italy, DOCG, DOC, IGT are the three designations for “quality wine” made with grapes from a specific geographical location while Vino da Tavola, table (or basic) wine has no such ties. According to official government data from 2007, DOCG/DOC wine represented 35 percent of all Italian wine produced while 29 percent was IGT. The same data showed that about 80 percent of the wine made in northern and central Italy was classified as DOCG, DOC or IGT against only about 35 percent of the wine made in the south.
Let’s look more closely at these classifications:
— DOCG (73 classifications in 2014, up from 45 in 2010). The acronym stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, or place of origin vetted and guaranteed. The Italian word controllata means controlled but translates colloquially to checked or vetted.
— DOC (about 340 classifications, up from 315 in 2010). This stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, or place of origin vetted.
DOCG and DOC wines are each made from grapes grown and made into wine in a specific area with specific grape varieties. They also involve specific kinds of grape growing and winemaking techniques as well as specified amounts of alcohol. The only difference is that DOCG guidelines are stricter.
But there’s elbowroom in the DOCG and DOC system. Not all wine in the same classification is necessarily equal in quality, taste or in the kinds of growing, harvesting, and production methods used to make it. Some vintners prefer to avoid the burden of government rules and bureaucracy and choose to produce their high quality wine as IGT or even Vino da Tavola, though it could qualify as DOCG or DOC.
— IGT (130, up from 120 in 2010). Indicazione Geografica Tipica roughly means indigenous geography, or land. The classification was introduced in 1992 as a “quality wine” designation for grapes grown and wine produced in a named area of a specific region but using grape varieties or growing (or winemaking) methods that are outside of the DOCG or DOC requirements for wine made in that area.
This has allowed experimentation and flexibility, a nod to the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit that especially characterizes artisanal Italian vintners. It’s fun to try IGTs and figure out what the producer is “playing with,” whether a different grape variety, a different growing method, a different way of fermenting or macerating grapes.
Just as you’re beginning to think this is reasonably clear, trouble appears. In 2009, the European Union introduced its own classification system, to which Italian producers must conform (while still being allowed to use the original Italian names).
The EU system labels DOCG and DOC wines as DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, another variation on origin checked or vetted). IGT wines are predictably labeled IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta).
I have never seen a DOCG or DOC wine labeled as DOP, but I have seen IGTs labeled as IGP.
Wines without underscored origins are labeled Vino (wine) or Vino da Tavola (table wine) while wines belonging to a specific grape variety are labeled Vino Varietale.
As for Italian labeling requirements, all DOCG, DOC and IGT wines must cite their geographical place of origin (where the grapes are grown and made into wine), the year they were harvested, the quantity in the bottle, the percentage of alcohol and the name of the producer or bottler. There is no requirement that the grape variety be noted on the bottle, though they may be, and sometimes overlap.
Italian wine drinkers know that Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG refers both to grape variety (Sagrantino) and the nearby town of (Montefalco). But others (Etna Bianco DOC or Scioppettino DOC, say) can refer only to the color of the wine or the grape variety.
Other terms you’ll find include riserva (only made in certain years with the best grapes and aged longer), classico (area tied to old Italian tradition), superiore (some kind of extra quality) or the name of the vineyard for a cru (wine made with grapes from a single vineyard).
Only IGT wines are allowed to have a nome di fantasia (a made-up name) added to the label. Examples include “Nero di Lupo” (Wolf’s Black) IGT Sicilia made by COS and Montevertine’s “Le Pergole Torte” (The Wrong Pergolas) IGT Toscana.
Let’s break down a few actual labels:
Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG 2011
— Avignonesi: Vineyard and bottler.
— Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG: Classification with town name of Montepulciano.
— 2011: Harvest year.
— Back label: Alcohol content, 14%.
Alois Lageder Rain Alto Adige Riesling DOC 2011
— Alois Lageder: Vineyard/bottler.
— Alto Adige Riesling DOC: Classification that includes the region name and grape variety.
— Rain: Single vineyard that this cru comes from.
— 2011: harvest year, and on the back label, alcohol: 12%.
Agricola Querciabella “Mongrana” Maremma Toscana IGT 2009
— Agricola Querciabella: Vineyard/bottler.
— Maremma Toscana IGT: Classification referring to the southern part of Tuscany near the sea.
— Mongrana: Nome di fantasia that refers to the House of Mongrana, a family descended from Charlemagne.
— 2009: Harvest year.
— Back label: Alcohol content (13.5%) and grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese.