To better enjoy purchasing and drinking Italian wines, it is vital to understand the Italian wine classification system. Learn its complexities and fascinating history in our brief piece.
The Italian Wine Classification System
The three designations are controlled by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. The three acronyms stand for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, and Indicazione Geografica Tipica. How do you know if a wine has one of these designations? Look for its little tag, which is around the neck of the bottle.
Denominazione di Origine Controllata and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita
There are over 300 DOC areas in Italy and 47 DOCG areas. (Don’t quote me on these numbers: I’ve found conflicting reports!)
With these two highest designations (DOCG is the higher of the two), yields are restricted, the wines must be within certain alcohol percentages, specific vineyard practices and pruning methods must be used, and certain winemaking and aging practices must be implemented. There are also chemical analysis tests and taste tests that the wines must pass.
Indicazione Geografica Tipica
There are over 120 IGTs. (Once again, conflicting reports!)
These “country wines” have standards for maximum yields, can only be grown in certain areas, can only produce wine from certain grapes, and have certain winemaking rules that must be followed.
Why the need for these classifications?
The system was implemented by the Italian government in 1963 as a method of recognizing the (generally) higher quality wine producing regions of the country. The system also ensured that in a wine world rapidly changing thanks to new technologies, the country’s centuries-old winemaking practices remained in place.
We have nothing similar to this system in the United States, nor does Argentina or other New World regions. In the New World, winemaking is a bit of a “frontier”. Winemakers can grow whatever grapes they’d like, trellis them however they want, implement whatever winemaking practices and aging processes they desire… there are few rules. But the Old World (specifically France and Italy) sees winemaking in a different light: these countries believe in the preservation of age-old techniques, and that only certain grapes should be grown in certain regions.
Is one method better than the other? I wouldn’t say so. I am fascinated with New World cutting-edge techniques just as much as I admire the Old World practices, and I respect both. Of course, winemakers from each area might argue otherwise!
Is it that big of a deal to have a classification?
Yes… and no. I say “yes” because, according to Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible (Workman Publishing, 2003) there are over 900,000 (yes, THAT many!) vineyards registered in Italy’s 20 wine producing regions. Yet less than 15% of the country’s wine producing areas have received these classifications, making the areas quite prestigious.
I say “no” because the remaining areas produce the wines that have so much character: the wines that we wish our grandparents had made, the plonk wines that are as much a part of everyday life as a coffee in the morning or a late-night snack. Wines that come in bottles like the one below (we picked this Frascati up from a restaurant in Trastevere; the owner purchases his house wine from a non-descript winery outside of Rome). No gimmicks, no marketing… no labels, for crying out loud! It’s wine for wine’s sake, and that has to be respected. Not everything needs a Parker 90 + rating and fancy designation to impress me.
“Sediments” on the Italian classification system
There are some important things which one should take into account with this system: mainly that the classifications do not always designate that a wine is “better” than others. The classification is for the entire region—one that the government deemed as an area which generally produces wine of high quality—and not a designation granted to specific wineries. Since an entire region receives this designation, there are of course possibilities for some wines of this region to be “so-so”, while others are outstanding. As a general rule, remember that the classification simply means that the wine was grown in a designated region, used the methods outlined by the government, and was regulated by the government.
Another thing that consumers should take into account is that there are some outstanding wines which do not receive this classification because they “break” the rules. A prime example of this Sassicaia, a wine that is produced in Tuscany, but which does not use grapes found in Tuscan wines. The winemaker had—gasp!—thrown the classification system rules out the window and instead followed his desire to produce a Cabernet Sauvignon modeled after French Bordeaux. The result? A phenomenal wine, costing hundreds of dollars a bottle… with the lowest Italian denomination: “table wine.” So as we see, this classification is not the only way of determining a wine’s quality.
If nothing else, think of the system as a straightforward guide to more well-respected regions… but please keep an open mind when purchasing the wines, as we now know that the word “guarantee” in DOCG does not necessarily guarantee the quality of the wine from a particular winery or bottle.