Red wine is one of the most beloved and enjoyed beverages worldwide, and Italian winemakers offer some fierce competition to the global red wine market. Red wine is central to Italian culture, one which places great stock in fine food and drink.
Italian red wine is far more than just a product to be sold and consumed. It is a proud and rich tradition that spans back over the last 4000 years at least. Italian winemakers have studied and perfected the art of grape cultivation and winemaking over millennia.
Nowadays, Italy is one of the most prolific producers of red wine due to a coupling of industrial advancements and countless years of ancestral knowledge.
This article takes a deeper look at Italian red wine, its varieties, where it comes from, how it is classified, and how best to enjoy it.
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DOCG, DOC, IGT, & VdT
Most Italian wines are classified according to a stringent set of regulations and earmarks of quality. If you buy a bottle of Italian wine, it will usually be marked with a DOCG, DOC, IGT, or VdT stamp.
DOCG (which stands for ‘Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita’) wines are considered to be of the highest quality and only achieve DOCG status after being analysed and tested by a government-approved panel of experts. As of today, there are only 77 DOCG wines produced by Italy. The best Italian red wine is marked with a pink DOCG label, while white wines are marked with green DOCG labels.
- DOC (‘Denominazione di Origine Controllata’) wines are not inherently inferior to DOCG wines, depending on the region and specific quality parameters. However, DOC wines are more common and not as prestigious.
- IGT (‘Indicazione Geografica Tipica’) wines demarcate Italian wines that do not quite meet the strict standards of DOC or DOCG wines but are still a cut above the rest. Many IGT wines are made using less traditional methods.
- VdT (‘Vino da Tavola’) wines are the cheapest, most common Italian wines. ‘Vino da Tavola’ roughly translates to ‘table wine’, denoting simple dinner wine.
Best Italian Red Wines by Region
There are three primary regions that most connoisseurs would agree are the most prolific producers of high-quality Italian red wine: Veneto, Tuscany, and Piedmont. Each of these picturesque regions plays host to seemingly infinite rows of lovingly cultivated grapes, which are used in the production of the best Italian red wine.
- Veneto, home to the waterlocked city of Venice, produces 18% of DOC wines, making it the most prolific high-quality red wine-producing region in the country. It is most known for its substantial production of Pinot Grigio; however, it also makes use of exceptionally high-quality Corvina grapes to produce some of the finest Italian red wines.
- Tuscany is a close second to Veneto, producing 17% of DOC wines. It is known for ‘Super Tuscans’, an informal label that most experts agree began with Sassicaia – a Cabernet Sauvignon from 1944. Super Tuscans are distinct in that they don’t adhere to DOC parameters. They have, however, become incredibly renowned for their quality.
- Piedmont owes its remarkable success as a wine-producing region to its topography and climate. The cold air from the Alps and the warm air from the Mediterranean produce a series of unique microclimates that allows winemakers a variety of options for cultivating grapes. The Piedmont hills get fantastic sun exposure and warm temperatures, while the foothills of the Alps are much colder. Grapes from the cooler climate produce more acidic, lighter red wines.
Italian Red Wine Grapes
There is a vast number of Italian red wine grapes, many of which are used exclusively in Italy. They are most easily differentiated by whether they produce dry or sweet red wines. The nature and quality of the finished product depend on the climate of the region as well as the grapes used. Below are some of the most well-known grapes used in Italian red wines.
- Sangiovese grapes, which are used in some of the best Italian red wines, are prolific all over the Italian countryside. They do, however, produce significantly different wines depending on where they are grown. Generally, Sangiovese grapes are known for the dry, earthy wines they yield. The further south you venture, Sangiovese wines become lighter and more floral.
- Montepulciano grapes grow in Central Italy and very few other places in the world. They produce deeply coloured, semi-dry red wines with a bold flavour. The boldness of the tannins in Montepulciano grapes is often rounded out with other, milder grapes in Italian red wine.
- In Piedmont, the majority of the world’s supply of Barbera grapes can be found. It is recognisable by its unique liquorice flavour and dryness. True Italian Barbera grapes have high acidity, herbal notes, and a subtle fruitiness.
- Nero d’Avola grapes are grown mainly in Sicily and produce a bold Italian red wine with plenty of fruity notes. There are hints of black plum, black cherry, liquorice, and tobacco in these fruity yet pleasantly dry reds.
- Negroamaro grapes are often grown alongside Primitivo grapes. They have similar flavour profiles and fall on the sweeter side of dry reds. They have a light body and plenty of fruity notes. Negroamara and Primitivo grapes are often blended to get the best of both.
Italian Red Wine Pairings
Italian red wine compliments Italian cuisine perfectly. Most high-quality reds from Italy pair wonderfully with rich, meaty, tomato-based dishes. The best Italian red wines add another dimension to dining and are more than simply something to wash your food down with.
- Although most connoisseurs will insist that fish be paired exclusively with white wine, there are a few exceptions when it comes to Italian reds. Sangiovese, more commonly known as Chianti wines pair wonderfully with seafood.
- Sangiovese wine is also the perfect addition to a meal of rare beef, roast fowl, mushrooms, and tomato-based sauces. Alternatively, a common choice for meaty dishes (particularly beef) is a pairing of Cabernet Sauvignon.
- If you prefer not to eat meat, there are plenty of incredible pairing wines for vegetarian dishes. Depending on the acidity, fat content, sweetness, and overall flavour of your dish, you may wish to choose a red wine that enhances those elements instead of conflicting with them or overpowering them. Starchy, herby dishes pair well with Sangiovese, while creamy, cheesy dishes are better complemented by Pinot Noir.
There is a world of Italian red wine to explore out there, and thanks to our increasing interconnectedness, it is easier than ever to find them outside of Italy. What constitutes the best Italian red wine is something that is hotly debated both inside and outside of Italy, however, it is the diversity and quality of Italian red that gives it its prestige. Now that you are armed with a greater knowledge of this ancient craft, go forth and enjoy!