Italy Is Not Complicated….It’s Complex!

“Italy is not complicated, it’s complex.” That’s what they told us on the first day of the Italian Wine Specialist Certification Course. That is an understatement. Wine is produced in each of the 20 regions, each different for its climate, soil, grapes, history, cuisine, even language. There are 73 DOCG wines and almost 400 DOC wines and hundreds of native varietals.

Having lived in Piemonte many years ago, my love for wine began over bottles of dolcetto, barbera, nebbiolo and brachetto.  However, at the time, little did I know what I was drinking. Over the years, I have enjoyed tasting and learning about the regions of Italy and felt that I had a base of knowledge. I have taken press trips to Piemonte, Tuscany, Veneto and even Puglia where I have visited wineries, met with winemakers and tasted hundreds of wines. But last year at VIVA VINO LA, of which I am one of the organizers, I felt like I was drowning in a sea of unfamiliar varietals.  Tai, Glera, Vespaiola, Nosiola, Raboso, Bombino Bianco, Schiava…..and the list goes on.  As we prepare for the 2nd Annual VIVA VINO LA, I wanted to have a better understanding of the regions, varietals and appellations, so I signed up for the Italian Wine Specialist Program.

The Italian Wine Specialist Certification Program is offered by the North American Sommelier Association. It is the first of its kind and the teachers are all native Italian certified sommeliers and wine professionals.  It is an intense 4-day program, followed by an exam.  In the 4 days, the wine laws, regulations, grape varietals, traditions, trends, history, typicality as well as key characteristics for all 20 regions of Italy are explored.

While learning about Italian wine is an ongoing process (which requires a lot of tasting), I hope that the brief overview below may help you with a  basic understanding of Italian wines.  I have listed the DOCGs for each region with the varietals.

Italian wines are classified into 4 categories:

  • Vino Da Tavola [Table Wine] – a basic wine that does not indicate the varietal or vintage
  • Vino a Indicazione Geografica (IGT) – a wine from a specific region of Italy that is higher quality than table wine but does not follow the laws of their region.  ‘Super Tuscan’ wines are perfect examples in that they are high quality wines produced in the Tuscan region but because they blend international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon with the Sangiovese, they do not qualify as, for example, a Chianti
  • Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) – refers to a specific area, the grapes permitted and other winemaker specifications (harvest time, aging, bottling)
  • Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) – similar to the DOC but has stricter rules and must pass a blind taste test for quality

Sub-categories of wine:

  • Classico – this means that a wine is made in the oldest area of the appellation, such as Chianti Classico, which is an actual town
  • Superiore – this means that the wine will have at least 1% more alcohol than the normal requirement for a wine
  • Riserva – this means that the wine has gone through a longer aging process than the normal time required for a wine
  • Novello – this is a wine that is released only 2 months after harvest and must be drunk young (an example is Beaujolais Nouveau)

Valle d’ Aosta

  • Located in north-west Italy, there are no DOCGs in the region. There is one DOC – Valle d’Aosta DOC – which can be red, white or sweet wine made from 25 different grapes.


  • Meaning “at the foot of the mountains”, Piemonte has 16 DOCGs, some named for the place, others with the grape name in it, and 42 DOCs.  Key varietals include nebbiolo (named after the fog or nebbia), barbera, dolcetto, moscato, brachetto, cortese and arneis.
    • Asti – Moscato d’Asti (grape = moscato bianco)
    • Barbaresco (grape = nebbiolo)
    • Barbera d’Asti (grape = barbera)
    • Barbera del Monferrato Superiore (grape = barbera)
    • Barolo (including Chinato) (grape = nebbiolo)
    • Brachetto D’Acqui (or Acqui) (grape = brachetto)
    • Dolcetto di Dogliani Superiore (or Dogliani) (grape = dolcetto)
    • Dolcetto di Ovada Superiore (grape = dolcetto)
    • Gattinara (grape = nebbiolo)
    • Gavi (or Cortese di Gavi) (grape = cortese)
    • Ghemme (grape = nebbiolo)
    • Roero (Rosso & Bianco) (grape = arneis (white), nebbiolo (red))
    • Erbaluce di Caluso (white wine, grape = erbaluce)
    • Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato (grape = 90% native ruche, 10% barbera and/or brachetto)
    • Alta Langa (grapes = Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, to make a method champenoise sparkling white or rose wine)
    • Dolcetto Diano d’Alba (grape = dolcetto)


  • An industrial area with small wine production areas, there are 5 DOCGs and 22 DOCs in the region best known for its sparkling wines.
    • Franciacorta (grapes = chardonnay, pinot bianco and pinot nero, this is Italy’s most prestigious sparkling wine made in the champagne method)
    • Oltrepo Pavese (2 method champenoise wines fall under this DOCG – Oltrepo Pavese Metodo Classico must be 70% pinot nero with up to 30% pinot grigio, pinot bianco and chardonnay and Oltrepo Pavese Pinot Nero Metodo Classico must be at least 85% pinot nero with up to 15% pinot grigio, pinot bianco and chardonnay)
    • Valtellina Superiore (grape = chiavennasca, a local name for nebbiolo, must be aged a minumum of 2 years)
    • Sforzato della Valtellina (grape = chiavennasca, it’s a dry passito wine, meaning the wine is made from dried grapes, like with Amarone)
    • Moscato di Scanzo (grapes = moscato di scanzo, this is a red passito wine)

Trentinto Alto Adige

  • Trentino (Italian speaking) and Alto Adige (German speaking) are two autonomous provinces. There are no DOCGs in the region but there are 8 DOCs. Native grapes include white grapes nosiola, gewurztraminer and kerner and red grapes teroldego, marzemino, schiava and lagrien.


  • There are 5 provinces that make up the Veneto region – Verona, Vicenza, Treviso, Padua and Veneto and a total of 14 DOCGs and 27 DOCs.
    • Amarone della Valpolicella (grapes = corvino, corvinone, rondinella, molinara, this dry passito wine is made with grapes that are left on mats to dry)
    • Recioto della Valpolicella (grapes = corvino, corvinone, rondinella, molinara, the fermentation process is stopped while making Amarone, resulting in a sweeter wine)
    • Soave Superiore (grapes = at least 70% garganega, up to 30% trebbiano di soave, chardonnay and pinto bianco, must be 1% higher in alcohol than a non-superiore Soave and aged for at least 6 months)
    • Recioto di Soave (grape = primarily garganega, this is a sweet wine made from the passito process)
    • Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore (grape = prosecco/glera, this sparkling wine is made with the Charmat method)
    • Colli di Conegliano Refrontolo (grape = marzemino, a passito wine)
    • Bardolino Superiore (grapes = corvino, rondinella, molinara)
    • Piave Malanotte (or Malanotte del Piave) (grape = raboso, at least 70% raboso del piave and up to 30% raboso veronese)
    • Lison (a white wine, grape = tai, also known as tocai fruilano/friulano)
    • Colli Euganei Fiori d’Arancio (grape = moscato giallo, a sweet dessert wine made in the passito style)
    • Friularo di Bagnoli (grape = raboso)
    • Recioto di Gambellara (grape = gambellara, a sweet passito style wine)
    • Asolo Prosecco Superior (grapes = prosecco/glera)
    • Montello Rosso or Rosso del Montello (grapes = 40-70% cabernet sauvignon, 30-60% merlot and/or cabernet franc and/or carmenere)

Friuli-Venezia Giulia

  • The most north-eastern region of Italy, with Austria and Slovenia along the borders, there are 3 DOCGs and 10 DOCs.
    • Colli Orientali del Friuli Picolit (grape = picolit, a white dessert wine made in the passito style)
    • Ramandolo (grape = ramandolo, a local clone of verduzzo friulano, a white dessert wine)
    • Rosazzo (grapes = minimum 50% fruilano, 20-30% sauvignon, 20-30% pinot biano and/or chardonnay and maximum 10% ribolla gialla)


  • Liguria is a seaside region with Piemonte to the north and Tuscany to the east. There are no DOCGs in the region but there are 8 DOCs.  Native grapes include white grapes pigato and vermentino and red grapes rossese, ormeasco (dolcetto) and ciliegiolo)


  • One of the three main winemaking regions in Italy, there are 11 DOCGs and 39 DOCs.
    • Chianti (grape = sangiovese)
    • Chianti Classico (grape = sangiovese, must be from the historical area of Chianti)
    • Brunello di Montalcino (grape = sangiovese grosso)
    • Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (grape = sangiovese/prugnolo gentile)
    • Morellino di Scansano (grape = morellino, a clone of sangiovese)
    • Val di Cornia Rosso (or Rosso della Val di Cornia)
    • Carmignano (grapes = minimum 50% sangiovese, with 20% maximum canaiolo nero, 10-20% cabernet sauvignon or cabernet franc, 10% max trebbiano or malvasia bianco, 10% other authorized red grapes)
    • Elba Aleatico Passito (grape = aleatico)
    • Montecucco Sangiovese (grape = sangiovese)
    • Vernaccia di San Gimignano (grape = vernaccia)
    • Suvereto (grapes = sangiovese or cabernet sauvignon or merlot)

Emilia Romagna 

  • Made up of two distinct areas, Emilia and Romagna, this is the home of Lambrusco, the sparkling red wine.  There are 2 DOCGs and 18 DOCs.
    • Albana di Romagna (white wine, grape = albana)
    • Colli Bolognesi Classico Pignoletto (white wine, grape = pignoletto)


  • The Marche is on the eastern coast of central Italy with 5 DOCGs and 15 DOCs.
    • Conero (grape = at least 85% montepulciano, up to 15% sangiovese)
    • Vernaccia di Serrapetrona (grape = at least 85% vernaccia nera, it is a rare sparkling red wine that can withstand three fermentations)
    • Verdicchio di Matelica Riserva (grape = verdicchio)
    • Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Riserva (grape = verdicchio)
    • Offida (Rosso & Bianco) (bianco grapes = pecorino and passerina, rosso grapes = montepulciano)


  • Known as the “green heart” of Italy, it is the only region in Italy that doesn’t touch water.  There are 2 DOCGs and 13 DOCs.
    • Montefalco Sagrantino (grape = sagrantino)
    • Torgiano Rosso Riserva (grape = 70% sangiovese)


  • A region shaped like a backwards ‘y’, Lazio is on the west central coast of Italy and has 3 DOCGs and 27 DOCs.
    • Cesanese del Piglio (grape = cesanese)
    • Frascati Superiore (white wine, grapes = minimum 70% malvasia bianco di candia)
    • Canellino di Frascati (white wine, late harvest wine, grapes = same as Frascati Superiore)


  • In the central of Italy, this is the most mountainous region with 1 DOCG and 8 DOCs.
    • Montepulciano d’Abruzzo “Colline Teramane” (grape = montepulciano)


  • Formerly part of Abruzzo, Molise is the second smallest region in Italy. There are no DOCGs in the region but there are 4 DOCS.  The most common grapes of the region are white grapes (trebbiano toscano and bombino bianco/trebbiano d’abruzzo) and red grapes (sangiovese, montepulciano, aglianico and tintilia).


  • A region with three volcanoes (including Vesuvio), the volcanic soil helps grapes thrive.  There are 4 DOCGs and 15 DOCs.
    • Fiano di Avellino (white wine, grape = fiano)
    • Greco di Tufo (white wine, grapes = minimum 85% greco, maximum 15% coda di volpe)
    • Taurasi (grape = aglianico)
    • Aglianico del Taburno (grape = aglianico)

Apulia (Puglia)

  • Located in the heel of the boot, Puglia is a predominantly flat area and is the largest producer of wines in Italy.  There are 4 DOCGs and 29 DOCs.
    • Castel del Monte Nero di Troia Riserva (grape = nero di troia)
    • Castel del Monte Rosso Riserva (grape = nero di troia and must be aged at least 2 years)
    • Castel del Monte Bombino Nero (grape = bombino nero)
    • Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale (grape = primitivo, grapes are dried on the vine and produce a concentrated, sweet wine)


  • Considered the “Switzerland” of the south due to the influence of the Normans for 400 years, Basilicata is the most mountainous region in the south.  There is 1 DOCG and 4 DOCs.
    • Aglianico del Vulture Superiore (grape = aglianico)


  • Located in the toe of the boot, Calabria has 12 DOCs but no DOCGs.  The predominant white grape is greco biano and the predominant red grape is gaglioppo.


  • In the middle of the Mediterranean, Sicilia is the largest island and where Mount Etna is located.  There is 1 DOCG and 23 DOCs.  While not a DOCG, the most famous wine in Sicilia is Marsala DOC, a fortified wine made with white grapes grillo, catarratto and/or inzolia grapes.
    • Cerasuolo di Vittoria (grapes = 50-70% nero d’avola, 30-50% frappato)


  • One of the most ancient bodies of land in Europe, Sardegna is the second largest island in the Mediterranean.  There is 1 DOCG and 19 DOCs.
    • Vermentino di Gallura (grape = vermentino)