Deciphering the Regulated Labels of Italian Wines

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In previous columns I’ve focused on wine labels. For many consumers this is their introduction to a particular bottle of wine. Their one-minute speed-date, if you will, to judge the inner qualities and intrinsic appeal based solely on a first impression.

As in the dating ritual, the introduction to a wine through its label provides a modicum of information, often with confusing signals, and rarely any meaningful insights into a wine’s character, history or DNA.

Wine labels as vehicles for speed-dating can be useful tools in making a decision to proceed with, or retreat from, a particular wine. But labels vary wildly in the data they present and the sensory profile they convey.

And each label, just as each speed-dating prospect, is a product of its environment. The culture and personality of each country is evident on a wine label.

American labels are bold, and in your face, on occasion a bit provocative. “This is where I was born and this is my DNA. Do you have a problem with that?”

French labels are a bit more demure.

“This is where I was born; I expect you to know my background and DNA. My reputation precedes me.”

Italian labels are more self-asserting.

“This is where I’m from and here are my references of how wonderful I am. Don’t miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for an amazing experience.”

I’ve previously reported on wine label speed-dating in the United States and France. This week I turn to self-assertive Italy.

Italian regulators go one step further than their counterparts in other wine nations to inform consumers. They have devised a system of grading all wines produced across the vast landscape of the entire nation of Italian wines. Consumers have a standard against which they can measure the qualities of a wine based on an acronym designated on a wine label.

The 2,000 grape varieties, grown in 20 geographic regions, are categorized into four distinct classifications. Rated in ascending order, these classifications are intended to create uniformity in the production of wines and to provide the wine consumer with a broad, generalized means to evaluate wines.

VdT (Vino da Tavola). Translates to Table Wine. These are wines produced in the countryside, or in bulk, that do not strive to meet any basic regulations. This category encompasses the vast majority of Italian wines.

IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica). Translates to Typical Geographical Indication. It denotes that the wine is from a specific area of Italy, but may not fit into the traditional grape heritage of a region or vineyard area. The emergence of Super Tuscans contributed to the creation of this classification in 1992. For consumers it generally means a higher quality wine. There are hundreds of wines in this category.

DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata). Translates to Controlled Origin Denomination. This is typically the sweet spot for Italian wines. The regulatory requirements for this designation include 1) the specific areas in which the wines may originate; 2) specific grape varietals; 3) minimum/maximum alcohol levels; 4) maximum yields in grapes per vine per hectare; 5) basic sensory and maturation characteristics; and 6) required minimum periods of aging. There are about 330 DOCs; this is an excellent guideline for quality and consistency.

DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata E Garantita). Note the last word. This translates to Guarantee. Don’t misconstrue this label. This is not an assurance from the Italian regulators that you will enjoy this wine or that its quality is above reproach. What is guaranteed: The wine inside the bottle has received additional testing and a higher level of scrutiny than all other wines. These requirements expand on the DOC definition and include 1) requirements for lower vineyard yields; 2) in-depth chemical analyses of a wine’s physical composition; 3) sampling of each producer’s wines by expert tasters to determine if they meet specified sensory standards. There are only 77 DOCGs, representing roughly 5 percent of Italian production.

The regulators act as surrogate Italian mothers. “This is how I influenced and raised my child. You can take my word for it.”

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him

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