by Gina Mussio
Wine in Italy is as ubiquitous as pizza, pasta or gelato – it’s a staple!
Italians are proud of their wine and take it seriously, but they are far from pretentious. Wine in Italy isn’t for just the fancy, elegant or rich. It’s an everyman’s drink, good for any food you’re eating and found everywhere. Once upon a time a dash of marsala or other wine over a raw egg made for an abundant, caloric breakfast and even today many Italians wouldn’t think twice about a glass or two at a work lunch and it’s not uncommon to see Italians enjoying a mid-morning glass at their local bar.
In Italy the wine is mostly, well, Italian. Italians prefer to drink their local wine and many restaurants don’t even offer options from outside of Italy. After all, they have plenty to choose from!
Italy has an exceptionally high quality of wine, more than 400 grape varietals and produces more wine than any other country. That, together with its super open attitude to wine drinking makes Italy the perfect place to dive into the wine culture and try something new! Italians are proud of the history, quality and taste of their wine so if you’re planning on imbibing when in Italy it helps to know a thing or two before you go:
Drinking Wine in Italy
Whether its wine or beer or cocktails, Italians never drink without food. Even if it’s just a bowl of olives or a slice of cheese, you’ll never be served a drink without something to munch on.
When you order a bottle of wine from a restaurant in Italy the process should be nearly the same as back home. The server will bring the bottle to the table unopened. He or she will open it in front of you and ask who wants to taste it (chi assaggia?) then pour a small amount in your glass to taste. This isn’t about deciding if you like the wine or not – you’ve already ordered it! – it’s simply a way to check that the wine hasn’t gone bad. Though it’s difficult if you don’t already have a background with wine, you know it’s gone bad if it tastes moldy or like cork or vinegar.
You can also order wine by the glass and, if you order the house wine, you can usually order a ¼ liter (a little bit more than a glass) or a ½ liter, as opposed to an entire bottle. And don’t scoff – the house wine isn’t bad! The vino della casa is usually a local wine that pairs well with the restaurant’s food and can be the perfect place to start to learn about Italian wine.
It’s customary in Italy to fill the glass halfway, rather than up to the brim. This way it’s easier to manage, gives everyone the chance to have a glass from the bottle and invites those that want more to drink up. Don’t expect servers to come and fill your glass up for you after you finish it (whether wine or water). In general, servers come only when called and are much more reserved than their American counterparts.
DOC vs DOCG and What to Order
Italy has various organizations and classifications to preserve and protect its food and agricultural products. Like Champagne in France, some wines are “protected”, allowing only those grown in a certain way from a certain grape in a certain region to be given the name of that wine.
The two classifications you should be aware of when wine tasting in Italy is DOCG and DOC.
DOCG is the highest designation of quality for Italian wines. DOCG stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita or Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin. The strictest classification, DOCG wines have to be made in DOCG-protected zones and follow stringent rules.
The second classification is DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata or Denomination of Controlled Origin). These wines also have to be made in specific zones and have specific regulations to follow such as the production area, wine color, grape varieties, proportions and alcohol levels, as well as some questions of vinification and maturation techniques.
This classification was the first created in Italy. The DOCG wines were created roughly two decades later to further differentiate the top Italian wines from an already quality stock. All of the defined limits listed above are present, but with even more stringent minimum and maximums allowed, as well as an in-depth analysis and tasting from the Ministry of Agriculture.
The Brunello di Montalcino and the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, both from Tuscany, were the first wines to receive DOCG status in all of Italy followed closely by the Chianti from Tuscany and Piedmont’s Barolo and Barbaresco.
But these classifications aren’t the only measure of quality in Italian wines. The celebrated “Super Tuscans,” Tignanello, Sassacia, and Ornellaia wines, were originally thought of as table wines and had opted out of the DOC/DOCG process because they thought the stringent regulations hindered them from making the best wine possible. Since then, the classification IGT or Indicazione di Geografica Tipica has been added, which is designated for wine grown in a particular area without specifying the blend, such as the Super Tuscans.
Not only that, but you can find delicious wines without any of these labels, proving that when in Italy, all wine is worth a try!