Italy. The wine world's most confusing country?

Tom Cannavan

Administrator
I'm preparing for my next online tasting, "The Grand Tour of Italy" and, as always, checking my facts and adding in details to my presentation using various sources. It has struck me just how confusing Italy's regions, classifications and regulations are, compared to any other country, as witnessed by the contradictory information you will find when you research specifics: ask how many DOCs there are in the Veneto, for example, and apparently authoritative web sites will tell you it is 26, 27, 28, or 29, all information supposedly up to date. That's just a tiny example. Try to unravel the super-Tuscans and the various changes of classification in Bolgheri, the Maremma, and even for individual estates, and the information is different between, again, apparently authoritative web sites.

Last month my tasting was on the wines of Burgundy, which we often think of as 'confusing', but it was a cinch comapared to Italy - all of it, not just Piedmont! I guess there are historical reasons, maybe even stemming way back to the un-unified country and the still very strong local politics and decision making, but I've said before that Italy is a tough wine country to understand in detail, and this really bears that out.
 
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i agree with the principle Tom and I would guess you’re finding that many websites that claim to be authoritative, aren’t now, although they may have been at some stage, and aren’t well maintained enough
I’ve been doing an Italian wine course this year and compared to France it feels much harder to get to grips with and quite likely stems from the localised traditions and tastes of the pre-unified Italy that still remain strong today, and is why we love the diversity as well as get frustrated by the complexity, that can look almost like chaos
 
I'm not convinced about how complicated Italy is. Lots of DOCs, but many of the form "variety" de "region".

And "authoritative" websites are often wrong. Try googling to find how many grape varieties are in Alsace. It depends how you define "variety" of course, and what you mean by allowed/used, but nevertheless many are wrong.

(There is a however a lesser-known jolly good blog post that shows all the varieties allowed in Alsace AOC wines, which was accurate at the time it was written because the author went to the trouble of reading the cahier des charges. More people should go to primary sources.)
 

Tom Cannavan

Administrator
Steve,

I am talking from my experience of doing similar research dozens of times for dozens of different countries, and I will rest my case that Italy appears to me to cause the most confusion among commentators, even it is not actually more confusing. Care to give me chapter and verse on how many DOCGs there are in Prosecco, and what consumers can expect to read on a label? :cool:
 
If I can think of one common theme with my friends who enjoy wine (but don't approach it like us - happy to spend but not obsessive nor collectors etc), it's that they all find Italy extremely unapproachable and never really know where to start.
 
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I suspect that some of the reason is cultural, and also of relative importance. France was the most important wine country by far especially from the English perspective (less so from American or even Scottish).

But things are changing ... tastings focusing on Piedmontese terroir, some important references like Ian d’Agata’s book on grape types.

And is Alsace that well understood?
What is the reference work on the region? Can you write down all the Grand Crus (off the top of your head) and name a producer of a wine from each? (I think many here who could answer that question for Burgundy without any difficulty ... actually providing lists of producers for each Cru.)
 
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Tom Cannavan

Administrator
I suspect that some of the reason is cultural, and also of relative importance. France was the most important wine country by far especially from the English perspective (less so from American or even Scottish).

But things are changing ... tastings focusing on Piedmontese terroir, some important references like Ian d’Agata’s book on grape types.

And is Alsace that well understood?
What is the reference work on the region? Can you write down all the Grand Crus (off the top of your head) and name a producer of a wine from each? (I think many here who could that with Burgundy without any difficulty.)

Paul, yes, but although I have muddied my own waters by going on to name a couple of example regions, I was initially and actually talking about the whole country: there are large chunks of France that are much easier to understand than Burgundy (or Alsace arguably) but Italy seems almost wilfully hard to pin down in many aspects of its wine production and history.
 
Tom, I think you are right to highlight the local politics. I went on a trip to Alto Piemonte a few years back and met lots of producers from the different DOCs at a dinner. Although they had clubbed together to organise the trip with a view to publicising the wines to an international market, they were horrified when I suggested they should use the term alto Piemonte more to sell their wines or even Alpine Piemonte as they all have that fresh, lighter frame of Nebbiolo flavours than the langhe. In their view the wines of Lessona are completely different to Ghemme or Gattinara and so they sell them as such which adds to the confusion/complexity for consumers.

There seems to be almost a cultural preference to differentiate wines of one region from the next even if to an outsider they are pretty similar.

Another problem seems to be that the marketing of Italian wines is funded by the producers on a rather piecemeal basis and therefore agencies feel obliged to include the story behind each and every one of them, because they are paying their wages, which means you get a very muddled story.
 
When I first became serious about wine in the late 80s/early 90s I was very tentative about Italian wines because I found the whole subject much more confusing and difficult than with other countries. I don't think much has changed and I agree with Tom. My own confidence grew over time but it was some years before I'd risk investing significant money in Italian wines.
 
I do find France and Italy very confusing and rely on those who know more than me to keep me right. Add in a wee bit of the old Italian corruption and I’m totally lost. Try reading “The Dark Heart of Italy” by Tobias Jones for some insight into the more dodgy side of Italy.
 
Location
UK
I don’t think knowing how many DOCs or DOCGs exist in a region really tells you much at all so I wouldn’t worry - not on that score
 
Steve,

I am talking from my experience of doing similar research dozens of times for dozens of different countries, and I will rest my case that Italy appears to me to cause the most confusion among commentators, even it is not actually more confusing. Care to give me chapter and verse on how many DOCGs there are in Prosecco, and what consumers can expect to read on a label? :cool:
I would start by searching for Prosecco here:
It gives 4 hits. Then if you click on the "i" icons in the last column you get links to the documention on the PDOs. Clicking on all the avaliable "official journal" (or "OJ") links, and selecting the English version, I find descriptions of two DOCGs: "Asolo - Prosecco" and "Conegliano Valdobbiadene - Prosecco". There are also links to the Italian national documents, which you may need to run through Google translate. Not sure what you mean by "what consumers can expect to read on the label", but anything in the regs will be there.

Yes, it is a bit of a faff, but any information you get like that is truly authoritative, and I find it no worse than for French AOCs. I don't doubt that commentators say Italy is confusing - I have read such things myself too - but I just don't get it. I can't help but feel it is because they are used to the French AOCs and think they understand them, while Italy is relatively on the scene.

I figured this out when I was on my mission to understand Alsace DOC, and have documented what I found about researching PDOs and PGIs here:
Since writing that post, I see that the information available via the EU PDO database has been fleshed-out considerably, which helps a lot.

Compared to researching Georgian PDOs, anything in the EU is a walk in the park :)
 

Tom Cannavan

Administrator
I find descriptions of two DOCGs: "Asolo - Prosecco" and "Conegliano Valdobbiadene - Prosecco

Yet there is a separate/additional DOCG for Cartizze, and now various 'Rive' named on labels within Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG (and listed by some as separate DOCGs) and then on labels some producers will say 'Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG', some will say 'Conegliano DOCG' and some will say 'Valdobbiadene DOCG'.

I understand that a lot of this will be covered within official classification wording, and that some will misuse and mis-quote too, but I think it does add to the potential confusion.

Anyway, I've no axe to grind other than saying getting firm information on various aspects of Italian wine, without needing to translate technical, official documents, seems much harder than for other countries.
 
I note the current Decanter has a tasting of “Spain’s indigenous white varieties” where they highlight “149 wines tasted”. I look forward to their equivalent tasting for France, as I am sure it will provide me with a useful guide as to what Burgundy, Bordeaux, Alsace, Jura, Loire, .... to buy.
 
I don’t think knowing how many DOCs or DOCGs exist in a region really tells you much at all so I wouldn’t worry - not on that score
I agree.

As a more general principal - if it's not important don't say it, but if you do think it is important it is important to get it right.

That applies at least in anything aporoaching formal communication. If you are just kicking ideas around (as on this forum for example) it is a slightly different issue.
 

Tom Cannavan

Administrator
I would start by searching for Prosecco here:

Steve, I meant to say that if I had to do that, and wade through the jargon for every wine I reviewed or researched, I would just shoot myself in preference. But having said that, it's an invaluable resource and one I did not know about. Just occasionally it is going to be incredibly useful, so thanks for pointing out the link.
 
Hard to disagree with Tom. This is the place to look for an exhaustive list of DOCG and DOC and the equivalent of the INAO fiches: https://www.politicheagricole.it/flex/cm/pages/ServeBLOB.php/L/IT/IDPagina/4625. It is all in Italian.

I would also suggest to read the Oxford Companion when it talks about DOC/DOCG to have historical context. DOC/DOCG were modelled on French AOCs. In most cases they legalized the status quo in terms of vitculture or vinification, often with no rationale for the choices.For many years, DOC/DOCG were very easy to obtain and rules were stretched left, right and centre (Merlot and Cab Sav in the Chianti DOCG anyone? Bien sure). In a country where fraudsters thrive (Brunellopoli anyone?), the DOC/DOCG would give some comfort to the consumer. There was a further rush to expand the number of DOC/DOCG just before PGI/PDO rules were introduced at European level.

All of this contributes both to the mess Italy is in. The end result is, as shown in this thread, only the brave venture in discovering and understanding. The general public is unfussed and it prefers to buy an Australian Shiraz (sweep generalisation). I tend to go France or, even Germany, over Italy. (FYI my wine education is mostly anglo-saxon and I am not a big fan of my native country)

In relation to Prosecco, the Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG can appear on the label as Conegliano, Valdobbiadene OR Conegliano Valdobbiadene. The main reason for this is that everyone wants to retain their own identity. Wines from Conegliano are quite different from the wines of Valdobbiadene. Cartizze is not a DOCG per se. However if your grapes comes from the Cartizze hill in San Pietro di Barbozza/Santo Stefano/Saccol you can add to the above "Superiore di Cartizze".
Ah the Rive thing. It is originally thought to be a wine from a single vineyard but Rive means a very steep hill in the local dialect. It could comprise MORE than a vineyard. It needs to follow some specific rules. It is, de facto, a Prosecco Superiore. Superiore needs to appear on the label alongside the piece of land, i.e. Rive di Solighetto Prosecco Superiore di Conegliano Vadobbiadene/Conegliano/Valdobbiadene DOCG)
The other DOCG is Asolo or Colli Asolani (again both can appear on the label). The only DOC is the Prosecco DOC. You can add either Trieste or Treviso on the label.
(I was importing Prosecco back in the Days and I wrote quite a lot around the 2009 reform).

Apologies to everyone for strong opinions or generalisations.
 
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Tom Cannavan

Administrator
Hard to disagree with Tom. This is the place to look for an exhaustive list of DOCG and DOC and the equivalent of the INAO fiches: https://www.politicheagricole.it/flex/cm/pages/ServeBLOB.php/L/IT/IDPagina/4625. It is all in Italian.

I would also suggest to read the Oxford Companion when it talks about DOC/DOCG to have historical context. DOC/DOCG were modelled on French AOCs. In most cases they legalized the status quo in terms of vitculture or vinification, often with no rationale for the choices.For many years, DOC/DOCG were very easy to obtain and rules were stretched left, right and centre (Merlot and Cab Sav in the Chianti DOCG anyone? Bien sure). In a country where fraudsters thrive (Brunellopoli anyone?), the DOC/DOCG would give some comfort to the consumer. There was a further rush to expand the number of DOC/DOCG just before PGI/PDO rules were introduced at European level.

All of this contributes both to the mess Italy is in. The end result is, as shown in this thread, only the brave venture in discovering and understanding. The general public is unfussed and it prefers to buy an Australian Shiraz (sweep generalisation). I tend to go France or, even Germany, over Italy. (FYI my wine education is mostly anglo-saxon and I am not a big fan of my native country)

In relation to Prosecco, the Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG can appear on the label as Conegliano, Valdobbiadene OR Conegliano Valdobbiadene. The main reason for this is that everyone wants to retain their own identity. Wines from Conegliano are quite different from the wines of Valdobbiadene. Cartizze is not a DOCG per se. However if your grapes comes from the Cartizze hill in San Pietro di Barbozza you can add to the above "Superiore di Cartizze".
Ah the Rive thing. It is originally thought to be a wine from a single vineyard but Rive means a very steep hill in the local dialect. It could comprise MORE than a vineyard. It needs to follow some specific rules. It is, de facto, a Prosecco Superiore. Superiore needs to appear on the label alongside the piece of land, i.e. Rive di Solighetto Prosecco Superiore di Conegliano Vadobbiadene/Conegliano/Valdobbiadene DOCG)
The other DOCG is Asolo or Colli Asolani (again both can appear on the label). The only DOC is the Prosecco DOC. You can add either Trieste or Treviso on the label.
(I was importing Prosecco back in the Days and I wrote quite a lot around the 2009 reform).

Apologies to everyone for strong opinions or generalisations.

Filippo, that more or less backs up all of my points completely :) If it was as simple as telling people Prosecco can be DOC or DOCG Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Superiore life woud be easy, but add in the confusing "is it or isn't it a separate DOCG?" Cartizze and the couple of dozen Rives that might also appear, and consumers are probably completely baffled, or unaware, of the differences.

I guess it is not a million miles away from there being only one Grand Cru in Chablis, but 7 (or 8 if you include La Moutonne) climats that many think are separate Grands Crus, but in Italy the problem seems to proliferate, in an often very unnecessary way!
 
Filippo, that more or less backs up all of my points completely :) If it was as simple as telling people Prosecco can be DOC or DOCG Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Superiore life woud be easy, but add in the confusing "is it or isn't it a separate DOCG?" Cartizze and the couple of dozen Rives that might also appear, and consumers are probably completely baffled, or unaware, of the differences.

I guess it is not a million miles away from there being only one Grand Cru in Chablis, but 7 (or 8 if you include La Moutonne) climats that many think are separate Grands Crus, but in Italy the problem seems to proliferate, in an often very unnecessary way!

In the case of Chablis, the Frenchies had luck. The GC is only one but big enough to be split. Hence nobody notice the difference!

The local rivalries are so pronounced in Italy that usually go in the way of business. I can also add that Prosecco has 2 Consortiums: one for DOC and the other for DOCG. I believe this is illogical and borderline embarassing. The move of adding Rive is in line with what's happening in Europe: premiumisation through the proliferation of single vineyard offerings. The amount of single vineyard Champagne just exploded over the last decade (a MW paper or simply something on Wine-Pages would be helpful to shed some light on this). In the case of prosecco DOCG where you can harvest at 13.5 ton/ha (12 ton/ha for Rive), it may be work asking if adding Rive made sense. The hill of Cartizze has a great tradition of producing top prosecco. I can recall my Dad back in the 80s telling me about this (Cartizze is de facto the primus inter pares within the Rive space). Amongst all of the other Rive, none is nearly as famous. I can only recall Rive di Colbertaldo by Frozza and Walter Miotto,and Particella 68 by Sorelle Bronca (not a Rive but...)

(Here is the English version: https://prosecco-wine.s3.eu-west-1....s/2020-12/Disciplinare_Prosecco_en_2020_0.pdf)
 
I have one word on the subject: Germany. :eek:
As with Burgundy, I am sufficiently geeky to have dived in and understood Germany at one point in recent years. But then things change, and even I lose the will to keep up. I would add Bordeaux to that list, with its various non-AOC quality hierarchies that keep changing.

I also buy a lot less from the clasic regions now, so they are of less relevance to me.
 

Tom Cannavan

Administrator
Well, every wine region is complicated if you want to delve deeply into it: the more you know, the more there is to know. Intrinsically though, some countries (obviously New World is the prime example) have much simpler appellation systems and localised conventions, although already we can see that changing everywhere in the New World, in California or New Zealand or even Argentina and Chile, as winemakers, and I daresay promotional bodies and marketers, seek to make regions more granular or introduce more hierarchical classifications.
 
Location
UK
Come on gents! It’s not exactly news that the DOC/DOCG system is byzantine.

Analysing Italian wine from that point of view is like literary criticism via the Dewey system
 
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