How to read an Italian wine label

A few years ago I went with my daughter to an evening session at The Wine Academy in Rome. We had a informative time but with poignant moments. It was just the two of us and a Canadian couple.  They were there to celebrate their anniversary but it was clear that only one of them was celebrating, that was the one that was dead serious about his wine in an unattractively pretentious way.

I am sorry to say that the husband’s pompous gravity piqued our sense of humour and his jargon-filled declarations (he had begun instructing the teacher by now) on the noble rot inspired a series of sotto voce witty repartees on our part, which, with the benefit of continuous tasting, seemed to us to become funnier and funnier. He was oblivious to our mirth to begin with, but eventually he picked up that we weren’t as impressed by his utterances as he thought we should have been. “You ought to listen” he commanded my 19 year old offspring, looking her up and down disapprovingly and then adding with a disgusted twist of the lip, “you wouldn’t know a Bordeaux from a Burgundy, I’ll bet”. (Go to this post to read what she had already learnt at Berry Brothers and Rudd on that subject).

The evening was capped deliciously for us by my daughter’s sabre-sharp parry to the above accusation which demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that she was a lot more knowledgeable about French wine than he was. Revenge is sweet.

But I digress…. I mentioned that the evening was also informative and indeed it was. One of the most useful things we learnt was how to read a wine label… or rather, just how misleading a wine label might be.

how to read an italian wine label
Paying attention at the Wine Academy in Rome.

Reading an Italian wine label

There are fuller notes below the image.

  1. Producer or estate name
  2. Vintage – the year it was made
  3. The designation, as indicated by the terms Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Guarantita (DOCG); Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC); Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT); or  Vino da Tavola (VdT). For more information on each of these terms, see below; for more information on denominations in general, go to Confused By PDIs, TSGs, PDOs, DOCs….What Does It All Mean?

3a) Vino da Tavola (VdT) is the ‘lowest’ category. This doesn’t necessarily mean it is the lowest quality. It simply means there are fewer rules applied to how it is made – grapes can come from anywhere and aren’t necessarily even specified – it will simply tell you whether it is sparkling, white or red.

3b) Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) is the next level up. At this level the geographic source of the grapes will be stated.

3c) Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC). Both area and grape is specified. When the area is a well-known brand there can be, literally, turf wars over the borders – for example between the Vino Nobile produced in Montepulciano and the Brunello produced in Montalcino some twenty miles away.

3d) Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Guarantita (DOCG). This is supposedly the Rolls Royce of Italian wine. The area is the defining factor – only areas with a respected (minimum five years) track record can produce a DOCG – there are 74 of them, all listed helpfully on Wikipedia. These wines have a numbered governmental seal on the foil covering the cork.

And there’s more information on the label on the back of the bottle. Again, more notes below the image.


4. Grape variety. The DOC designation always includes provisions for wines to be labelled by the type of grape (in this case Nebbiolo) although usually only the DOC wine is listed. There are over 350 types of grape variety officially registered in Italy.

5.  The appellation – a legally defined geographic area which gives the area in which the grapes are grown.

6. You’ll also see the alcohol content….

7. Riserva is for wines aged for a minimum of a year

8. Nobile is just part of the description of one or two DOCG wines, most usually vino nobile di Montepulcino – in fact I can’t name a second one. Vino nobile di Montepulciano is aged for at least two years (three years if it is a riserva) at least one of which must be in oak barrels. This post mentions a good one to try.

So the label on the front of the rather good wine from Puglia in the image below is telling us that:

  • Its name is 62 Anniversario
  • Because it’s a riserva, it’s been aged for at least two years (in this case for at least 18 months in wood)
  • It’s made from Primitivo grapes
  • The grower is the San Marzino cooperative

For more posts on wine, follow this link.

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