Italy is probably the oldest wine-producing region in the world and there are literally hundreds of different wines made there, many of them with unusual grape varieties that are rarely seen anywhere else. Mind you, while Italy is producing some of the most interesting wines you can find, they vary enormously in quality and you have to take a good look at label to avoid getting caught out.
That’s the other problem with Italian wines, at least for beginners. The labels can often be confusing, though probably not for the Italians. You see, the dominant name on the label could be that of the grape variety (like Pinot Grigio); it could be the name of the place the wine comes from (like Soave) or it could be the name of a broad wine region (like Chianti). It could also be the name of the producer (like Citra). Then there are those mysterious letters like IGP that are tacked on like an academic degree. Actually, that’s almost what they are, because they’re simply levels of quality. Almost, but not quite. They were introduced by the Italian Government in 1963 in an attempt to separate the sheep from the goats.
At the risk of boring you comatose, I’ll try to explain briefly what all the letters mean and I shall leave out the complicated bits. So sit up straight and try to look as though you’re interested. The letters DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) are the highest classification and mean that winemakers have to follow strict rules covering things like grape varieties, yield limits, and winemaking procedures. Samples are officially tasted and checked for quality, and to guard against fakes, bottles have a numbered seal across the neck. Partly as a result of all this palaver, DOCG wines are generally more expensive than others.
A bit further down the ladder are wines labelled DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) which are usually good and reliable, but the rules governing their production are not quite so strict. The majority of Italian wines carry this designation.
Then in 1992, the IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) classification was introduced and this allowed winemakers a bit more freedom. The classification focuses on the region of origin, rather than grape varieties, production methods or wine styles. The letters IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) are also sometimes used and have the same status as IGT. Don’t assume that these are “third class” wines, because some of them are really top-level products. The reason for this anomaly is that some winemakers want to produce high quality wines without being limited by the strict rules governing DOC or DOCG. As a result, you can find some excellent wines in this category.
Finally, at the bottom of the pile there’s Vino da Tavola (“table wine”), which is usually simple rustic plonk, most often sold in wine boxes or in those huge glass bottles that weigh as much as a small dog. Our local taxes have made these very basic wines rather expensive for what they actually are. Right, that’s finally it. I just hope you’ve made careful notes and committed all that to memory, because I am not going to explain it all again.
Citra Pinot Grigio IGP 2012 (white), Italy (Bt. 470 @ Friendship)
It should be fairly obvious that Citra is the name of the company (a co-operative actually) and Pinot Grigio (PEE-noh GREE-joh) is the grape, the same one as France’s Pinot Gris. The word gris means “grey” and refers fortunately not to the wine, but to the greyish-blue colour of the grape skins. Citra Vini was formed in 1973 when 7,000 small growers throughout the Abruzzi region opted to form a single wine cooperative with the intention of gaining international recognition for their wines. Citra is now the single most important winery in the Abruzzi region and produces well-made and authentic high-quality Italian wines.
This wine is a pale yellow with a greenish tinge and a delightful floral aroma. Depending on the effectiveness of your nose, you might detect hints of mature apple, rose and pear, citrus and white peach. There’s even a faint smell of boiled sweets in there somewhere. It’s really a very attractive little number. Come to think of it, about fifty years ago that’s what they used to say about me. The taste is off-dry, crisp, and light-bodied, very fruity with a satisfyingly long finish. It’s the kind of wine that’s lovely to drink on its own, despite the 13% alcohol content. Served cold, it would make an excellent partner for lightly cooked chicken or fish. It’s a lovely summery kind of wine and thoroughly Italian.
Cecchi Chianti DOCG, 2011 (red), Italy (Bt. 599 @ Villa)
Cecchi (pronounced CHECK-ee) is a well-known family wine maker which has been producing wine in the region since 1893. Chianti (kee-AHN-tee) is the most famous red wine from Tuscany and its name refers to a wine-producing area that runs roughly from Florence down to Siena a bit further to the south. Sometimes you see slightly more expensive wines labelled Chianti Classico which means that the grapes were grown in the more desirable central zone. At one time, Chianti was instantly recogniseable by its traditional straw-covered bottle, called a fiasco. They were used in their dozens to decorate the ceilings of many an Italian restaurant. In my student days, it was considered terribly Bohemian to have a few of these bottles around one’s room, ideally with a wax candle stuck in the top. These quaint bottles are still sometimes seen in wine shops but generally contain a fairly basic wine.
This is very attractive and typical Chianti. It has the DOCG tag and if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know what that means. The wine is a dark ruby-red with the characteristic smell of sharp sour cherries, herbs, rhubarb and violets. You might even pick up the faint aroma of moist tobacco. These interesting aromas come largely from the Sangiovese grape which makes up 90 percent of the blend. The taste is dry, sharp and fruity with a good balance of acidity. Like so many other Italian wines, it makes an excellent food partner. It comes at 12.5% alcohol and would work well with rich roasted meats.
Of course, pizza and pasta always go well with Chianti because the tangy wine contrasts well with the texture of the food. Just to make sure, I even tried it with a home-made mushroom pizza prepared specially for the occasion. The two of them worked perfectly together, although I don’t suppose many people could be bothered making pizza at the end of such a tiring day. I just hope you appreciate the trouble I go to.