First off: is it possible navigate through the countless red wines produced in Italy?
The straight answer is yes, with some reading and (a lot of) drinking. Italy is not only the largest wine producer in the world (by volume) but also the one offering the greatest diversity of wines, with an incredible 3,000+ registered grape varieties (fact: it was called “Enotria” by the Greeks, meaning the land of wine) and over 250 thousands confirmed winemakers. The long and narrow shape of Italy with mountains running across it means that each Italian region has its different soil and climate, and obviously, you guessed it, many and different wines. Put it another way, if you were to taste a new Italian wine every week, it would take you 20 years to taste them all. The good wines will talk to you, the great ones will sing!
To make it simpler (not really), Italian wine labels are perversely confusing and unclear. Back in the 1960’s the Italian government tried to set things clear and categorize wines into IGT, DOC, and DOCG (in ascending order of quality, with some notable exceptions). Let’s take a look at what these are:
- Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) wines indicate the region where they’ve been produced (i.e. Tuscany), the main grape variety used (i.e. Sangiovese), and the vintage of the wine (i.e. 2015);
- Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) wines indicate a more definite area where the wine was produced (i.e. Chianti), with maximum yields (meaning how many bunches of grapes can be grown on a single plant, it is a measure to control for quality), and specific rules on methods of production and grape varieties
- Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) wines indicate an even smaller area of production (i.e. Chianti Classico), even lower yields, and stricter rules on production methods, which should mean higher quality.
The problem is there can be some really great wines classified as IGT or not even that, just because they are produced outside a specific area, or using different production methods from the DOC or DOCG rules. In Tuscany, these wines are known as “Super Tuscan” (credit to James Suckling for coming up with the name), to differentiate them from the rather uninteresting and dull IGT commonly found across hideous gifts shops in Italy, right next to genitals’ shaped pasta. Similarly, it’s not hard to find easily forgettable wines falling under DOC or DOCG labels.
Here are our top 5 red wines from Italy you should get your hands and mouths on
Brunello di Montalcino
Made with 100% Sangiovese grapes. Brunello comes from the vineyards surrounding Montalcino and rolling across the beautiful Val d’Orcia, to the south of the medieval town of Siena, Tuscany. Aged for at least 5 years from harvest before being released on the market (6 for the Riserva), Brunello di Montalcino is one of the true great red wines of Italy.
Thanks to the thicker and darker skins of Brunello (compared to Sangiovese found elsewhere), the wine has bold red fruit, strong tannins, and high acidity. This allows Brunello to develop and age beautifully, so while it’s great to taste the new vintage (which right now would be 2013), make sure you hide a couple of bottles in the cellar and wait a few years to drink it.
Price range starts around €30. Some we love: Ragnaie, Col d’Orcia, Argiano, Castiglion del Bosco, Podere le Ripi, Gianni Brunelli, Le Potazzine.
Barolo and Barbaresco
Both made with 100% Nebbiolo grapes in Piedmont, with vines surrounding the town of Alba (also known for its incredible white truffle) – Barbaresco on the east side of Alba and Barolo on the south-west. While both areas produce world-class red wines, they have some differences. The soils of Barbaresco are richer in nutrients, while Barolo’s are more calcareous. Both wines smell and taste of cherry and roses, but Barolo is typically higher in acidity and tannins. They also follow different rules in terms of aging, 2 years for Barbaresco and 3 for Barolo (Riserva wines age 2 years longer in both cases).
Similarly to Brunello, Barbaresco and Barolo were famous for taking years (if not decades) to express their full potential. Young bottles were typically very high in acidity and tannins, making them very “closed” and almost unpleasant to drink at first. More recently however, modern winemaking techniques have helped young wines to come forward and be ready to drink as soon as they hit the market. So, enjoy one now but by all means lock one up for when your older, it’ll be worth the wait! Price range start around €30. Some we love: Principiano, Produttori del Barbaresco, Poderi Gianni Gagliardo, Fontanafredda.
Chianti Classico is another Sangiovese based red wine made in the heart of Tuscany in a region called (go figure) Chianti, between Florence and Siena. It is one of the oldest wines to be identified with a specific production area, thanks to the then Granduke of Tuscany Cosimo III. The word “classico” (meaning classic) was added only in 1932 to indicate a wine made in the original production area. Chianti Classico today is made with minimum 80% Sangiovese, and the rest with both indigenous varieties (i.e. colorino, canaiolo) and/or international ones (merlot, cabernet sauvignon, etc.). There are 3 separate Chianti Classico, varying depending on the aging period: Chianti Classico (1 year), Chianti Classico Riserva (2 years), and Chianti Classico Gran Selezione (2.5 years). The production area is relatively large, varying greatly, producing more of a colorful mosaic of different soil, altitude and climate, birthing many different styles of Chianti Classico.
In general, Chianti Classico wines display a ruby red colour, and have a prevalent taste of fresh red fruit, with high acidity and tannins. Most Chianti Classico are to be drunk young (up to 5 years), but the good ones have the potential to keep developing and improving for much longer. Finally a word of caution: the quality range you can find in Chianti Classico is very wide (too much if you asked me), so you can find some nasty bottles for €5.00 which I’d stay clear of. If that’s your budget, I’d advise you to try something different from a lesser-known area (where value for money should be greater, at least in theory). For a good bottle of Chianti Classico, expect to spend in the €10-20 range. Some we love: Riecine, Bindi Sergardi, Villa di Geggiano, Castello di Fonterutoli, Casanuova di Nittardi, Volpaia and Felsina.
Amarone della Valpolicella
Another truly great Italian red wine comes from Valpolicella, an area surrounding the fabulous town of Verona. Amarone is a blend of indigenous grapes from Veneto, with the majority being made of Corvina and Corvinone bringing the cherry and spice flavours, and the rest consisting of Rondinella (more floral), and Molinara (high in acidity). What makes Amarone so special (and expensive) is simply the way this wine is made. Once grapes have been hand-harvested, they are placed on straw mats and left to dry for 120 days. At least 40% of the water content must be lost during the process, which concentrates the sugars and flavours.
The raisined grapes then begin a very slow fermentation which can last up to 50 days, before beginning the aging process in oak or chestnut barrels (chestnut being more traditional). Aging requires a minimum of 2 years for Amarone della Valpolicella, and a minimum of 4 years for Amarone della Valpolicella Riserva. So what does it taste like? Amarone is a bold wine, think black cherry, fig, brown sugar and chocolate, with some spice. All this is balanced by a medium to high acidity and high alcohol, making Amarone a truly unforgettable wine that is best drunk with a few years on its shoulders. Sadly for us, the long and complex making process means you’ll struggle to find a bottle of Amarone for less than €40-50. Some we love: Bertani, Tommasi, Speri.
Great wines (the best wines), from Tuscany, no regulatory fuss. By the late 1970s, winemakers were tired of the strict rules on how to make DOCG and DOC wines, which were no longer guaranteeing a quality taste. So to turn things around, they started to add international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to their Sangiovese to make something completely new. The results were great and the wines sold fast, especially abroad. Probably the first Super Tuscan was Tignanello by Piero Antinori and consultant Giacomo Tachis, a blend of 80% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc. Many others followed quickly, and the myths of Sassicaia, Solaia, Siepi, Ornellaia, Masseto and so on were born over the years. Because there are no rules on winemaking, Supertuscans range in style, quality, and prices is very wide, going from a 100% Sangiovese from Chianti Classico to a Bordeaux blend from Bolgheri. Most of the red wines on the Tuscan coast (in particular from Bolgheri) are Supertuscans.
Price range starts from €10-20 up to whatever you can afford, there are virtually no limits. Some we love: La Gioia by Riecine (Chianti Classico), Concerto by Mazzei Castello di Fonterutoli (Chianti Classico), Solengo di Argiano (Montalcino), Nearco e Olmaia by Col d’Orcia (Montalcino), Zac by Principe Corsini (Chianti Classico), Prima Pietra by Prima Pietra (Costa Toscana), Amore e Follia by Podere le Ripi (Montalcino), Altrovino by Duemani (Costa Toscana), Rocca di Frassinello by Rocca di Frassinello (Maremma), Verruzzo e Tinaia by Monteverro (Maremma).