Italians over the centuries have pioneered laws to control the origins and protect the names of wines. The ancient Romans defined production areas for dozens of wines. In 1716, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany delimited the zones for important wines, setting a precedent for modern legislation.
Yet only since the mid-1960s have controls been applied nationwide to wines of "particular reputation and worth" under what is known as "denominazione di origine controllata" or, by the initials, as DOC. At last count there were 240 DOCs, all delimited geographically. Wines from nine zones have been further distinguished as DOCG (the G for "garantita" or guaranteed authenticity). These are Barbaresco, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti (in seven subzones), Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Chianti (in seven subzones), Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Albana di Romagna, Gattinara, Carmignano (red only) and Torgiano Rosso "riserva".
Within the DOC and DOCG zones more than 900 types of wine are produced. They may be defined by colour or type (still, bubbly or sparkling; dry, semisweet or sweet; natural or fortified). Or they may be referred to by grape variety (e.g. Trentino DOC with 17 varietals in its 20 subcategories). Or by age (young as "novello" or aged as "vecchio, stravecchio" or "riserva"). Or by special subzone as "classico" or "superiore", though the latter may also apply to a higher degree of alcohol or a longer period of ageing.
Sweeping changes in the wine laws of 1992 opened the way for DOC and DOCG wines to carry names of communities, areas of geographical or historical importance in the zones and names of individual vineyards of established reputation. Such wines may also carry the European Community designation of VQORD or VSQPRD (for "spumante:), VFQPRD (for "frizzante") or VLQPRD (for "liquoroso" or fortified).
Yet in recent times DOC and DOCG have accounted for only 12 to 15 percent of Italy's production. Some unclassified wines may be referred to a "spumante" or "frizzante" or as "amabile" or "dolce" (for sweet) or as "liquoroso", but the majority of dry, still wines had to be labelled as "vino da tavola". In its simplest version such tablewines could specify colour but no vintage, grape variety or place name. More specific were table wines with geographical indications, such as Rosso di Toscana or Barbera del Piemonte.
But now, thanks to the new laws of 1992, much of the better "vino da tavola" is expected to qualify under the category of "Indicazione geografica tipica" (IGT), designed to officially classify wines by colour or grape varieties and typology from large areas. IGT will be the Italian equivalent to the French "Vin de pays" and German "Landwein".
The aim is to increase the proportion of classified wines to a majority of national production, but it is important to remember that many good to excellent Italian wines are still not classified. The reason might be that vineyards are in a non-DOC area or that the wine has been made under a new formula or that the producer chose to retain an individual identity. In the end, the most reliable guide to the quality of any wine from anywhere is the reputation of the individual producer or estate. Certain names are worth getting to know.
Labels must carry the wine's generic name and status (DOCG, DOC, IGT, Vino da tavola), the producer's name and location, alcohol by percentage of volume, as well as the net contents in millilitres (with an "e" as an EEC approved measure). DOCG wines must also carry a paper strip seal of guarantee at the top of the bottle.
Text Copyright © 1992 Italian Institute for Foreign Trade/ICE, Italian Trade Commission, Wine Center, 499 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10022