Italian Wine Guide for Beginners

Italian Wine Guide for Beginners
Tuscany, Italy Paul Quayle / Getty Images

With over 800 wine grape varieties, 20 uniquely designated winegrowing regions, and hundreds of years of winemaking history on the books, Italy's wine scene is a glorious adventure from grape to glass. Tuscany and Piedmont represent Italy's hot shots in terms of regional recognition and production, with the collective Tre Venezie (meaning the "three Venices") of Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Friuli rounding out the dominant Italian wine region players. 

Italy's Top Wine Regions

Piedmont: Known for the big, burly wines of Barolo and Barbaresco, Piedmont sits high and tight in Italy's northwest corner. Home to some heavy-duty red wines and the ever-popular, light-hearted bubbles of Moscato, this particular Italian wine region is dominated by three key grapes: Barbera, Nebbiolo, and Dolcetto. The highly concentrated, ultra-dry red wines of Barolo and Barbaresco are both built on the late-ripening grape of Nebbiolo.

Tuscany: Where the wine magic happens. Most folks think of Italian wine and immediately images of Tuscany come to mind. Rolling hillsides, medieval castles, walled cities, and endless vineyards all collide to create collective images of the Tuscan wine region. Tuscany's wines are based firmly on the Sangiovese grape, bottled as Chianti, and come in various levels of quality and price. Super Tuscans represent a unique "renegade" wine that's blended with Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot (as well as other Bordeaux varietals).

Alto Adige: Tucked into the base of the Italian Alps, locally dubbed the Dolomites, the wine region of Alto Adige has to be home to the world's most stunning vineyard views. White wines reign in this DOC with Pinot Grigio leading the charge. Cool, crisp nights and warm sunny days allow for impressive temperature changes between day and night and give rise to excellent acidity in the grapes. The wines of Alto Adige impress with a medium body, dry, crisp styles, and bright aromatics.

Navigating Italian Wines

From Sangiovese to Trebbiano and the wide viticultural variations that lie in between, navigating the wine shop shelves to find an Italian wine that will complement a Friday night lasagna can be a fun-filled experience.

While Italy has successfully planted the vast majority of the dominant international grape varietals, the country's domestic vines are what offer the true flavor characteristics that have made Italian wines world renown for ages. With literally hundreds of wines produced in Italy annually, it is no wonder that selecting Italian wines can be a bit intimidating. Deciphering Italian wine terms and names, interpreting Italian wine labels, learning Italian wine classification systems, understanding regional grape growing zones, and discerning grape varietals that do not always fall into the "familiar" category are all part of the Italian wine adventure. ​

Generally speaking, Italian wines can be divided into two main categories: Table Wines and "Higher End" DOC or DOCG Italian Wines. Italy's table wines tend to be less expensive red or white wines that are produced to be consumed in the easy-going atmosphere of an Italian-style family dinner. Sometimes they are sold in larger jugs other times it's in a basic 750mL bottle, either way, they are the mainstay of an Italian dining table. Table wines are often fruit-forward wines, some are sparkling, most are light-medium bodied and all carry an affinity for regional Italian fare. 

High-end Italian wines range in quality designations, from good to superior. With over 2000 native grape varieties covering varied terrain, growing in forgiving climates and all packed on one outstanding peninsula, you can imagine that the resulting wine combinations would be just as diverse as the subcultures that surround them. Super Tuscans, Barolo, Barbaresco, Chianti Classico Riserva, and Amarone will lean towards the higher price points. 

Italian Wine and Food Pairing

Italian wines are made for Italian food. The two go hand in hand, and like a good marriage, both are typically enhanced by the other. The wine to pair with everything from spaghetti and meatballs to backyard BBQ fare is Chianti. Or consider Dolcetto d'Alba as another solid red table wine that is made for Italian fare. If you are looking to crank on some steak or other heavy red meat, then take a turn with Piedmont's Barolo or Barbaresco wine finds.

Both are built to handle high fat, high protein with full flavors, powerful tannic structure, and incredible acidity. While not cheap, they are perfect for special occasions where the meat dish is presented front and center. Pinot Grigio is Italy's most popular white wine variety and for good reason. It highlights incredible acidity and makes for easy food pairings. Perfect for seafood, an assortment of appetizers and favorite poultry picks, Pinot Grigio is Italy's go-to white wine. 

Beyond Italian Table Wines, the Sky Is the Limit

High-end Italian wines range in quality designations, from good to superior. With over 2000 native grape varieties covering varied terrain, growing in forgiving climates and all packed on one outstanding peninsula, you can imagine that the resulting wine combinations would be just as diverse as the subcultures that surround them.

Italy's Top Wines and Grapes

  • Super-Tuscans: Comprised of mostly Sangiovese, blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot or Syrah, typically quantify quality, and are thus on the upper end of the price spectrum (ranging from $25 - $100+). Due to unique blends and varied growing terroirs, Super-Tuscans cannot be easily pinned to one style or stereotype. Super-Tuscan producers to scout for include: SassicaiaViticcio, ​Antinori, and Tenuta dell'Ornellaia.
  • Barolo and Barbaresco Wines: Good Barolo and Barbaresco wines, derived from the noble Nebbiolo grape are typically reserved for Sunday dinners or celebrations. These wines can range in price from $35 to $100+ depending on the vintage and producer.
  • Amarone Wines: The vast majority of Amarone wines come from the Valpolicella area, in Italy's northeast corner. They are typically considered one of Italy's big, bold red wines, Amarone has fruit-forward flavors of cherry, raisins, plums, and spice. They are made from grapes that have been partially dried and historically have had higher alcohol contents (14-16% range). Top Amarone producers to consider are Masi, Spirit, and Allegrini.
  • Pinot Grigio: As for better quality Italian white wines, often Pinot Grigio comes to mind. For Pinot Grigio, Alto Adige has it going on. Deeply aromatic, vivid white wines with flavor and presence. Consider Elena Walch, J. Hofstatter, Santa Margherita and Weingut Niklas for some stellar Pinot Grigio finds.