Words by Carla Passino - Pictures by Alessandro Puccinelli

Understanding the labels on Italian wine bottles is like taking a geography test - and failing. You can just about make out that Chianti Classico comes from a handful of villages in Chianti, Tuscany, but how about Collio? And where the heck does Sassicaia come from?

For the uninitiated - especially those who hail from the New World and are used to choosing their wine by grape variety - navigating the Italian wine racks is as nearly as tricky as moving around the French ones. Or perhaps even trickier because Italians, who are, after all, creative people, like to spice up things by mixing and matching obscure geographical indications (such as Salice Salentino) with grape varieties (Cannonau) or even fantasy names such as Ornellaia. All rigorously followed by hostile acronyms such as DOC, DOCG or IGT.

Luckily, help is at hand for aspiring oenophiles. Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch have produced a clear, down to earth guide to Italian wines, Vino Italiano. At some 500 pages, this is a weighty tome (and one slightly more geared towards the American audience) but it does a great job of introducing the layman to the best of each Italian region and understanding the fundamentals of Italian wine.

Italian grape varieties by region

In the introduction, for example, they explain the basics of reading a label, with details on Italian wine laws, classifications and key grape varieties (even though, they say, “trying to keep track of all grapes varieties in Italy is like driving in Naples - chaotic and exhausting”). So you will learn that Nebbiolo dominates in northern Italy, Sangiovese in the centre and Aglianico in the south - at least as far as reds are concerned. And you’ll come across previously unheard varieties which are indigenous to just one or, at best, a handful of regions - Primitivo in Puglia, for example, Nero d’Avola in Sicily or Nuragus in Sardinia.

An exhaustive regional overview will then guide you to the best wines and vintages, identifying key grape varieties and styles for each area. All this is sprinkled with useful maps, lush photography, an overview of the local winemaking culture and traditional recipes to try with the wines (thumbs particularly up for the Tuscan wild boar).

Top producers of Italian wines

Even better, Bastianich and Lynch tell it like it is, explaining, for example, why a bottle of Soave can just as easily be a vinous wonder as a disappointing experience.

“Originally defined in the 1930s, [the Soave DOC] consisted of a clusters of hills between the communes of Soave and Monteforte d’Alpone, east of Verona,” they write. “In the years after the Soave DOC was created, the “official” production zone was expanded into the plains to the west and south to accommodate giant industrial wineries. Today, only about 20 percent of all Soave produced is from the original “Classico” zone.
If you pick up a bottle of Soave with no knowledge of the producer, you may get one of the mass-produced, insipid wines that gave the zone such a bad image in the past, or you can get an excellent, elegant white you didn’t think existed.”

To make sure you only lay your hands on the excellent bottles, they provide a very useful list of top producers for each area.

Also interesting for those who like to scratch beneath the surface is a potted history of Italian wine, which explains why after years of making honest plonk, the Bel Paese suddenly stepped up the quality of its vinous production.

“Throughout Italy, it is a familiar story,” the authors write. “The father had some vineyard land and made its living selling grapes to a local cooperative winery. But now his children are replanting those vineyards, building a cellar, buying new oak barrels for aging and vinification, and producing high-end wines under their own label.”

Add to this that Italy has had a run of excellent vintages between 1997 and 2004, and it becomes apparent that, as Bastianich and Lynch say, “this is a great moment in time for Italian wine.” Which makes a book like Vino Italiano all the more useful and delicious.

PS: in case you can’t sleep without the answers to the vinous questions I posed earlier on: Collio Goriziano is a small area around the city of Gorizia, in Friuli Venezia Giulia (don’t worry, most Italians won’t have heard of it either). And Sassicaia? It’s a fantasy name, not linked to any specific location, but the wine is made in Tuscany and labeled as IGT (typical geographical indication) Toscana.

Vino Italiano is available for sale on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com through the links below.

Related stories

From Aglianico to Zibibbo: an easy a-z of Italian grapes
Wine of the Month: Le Serre Nuove dell’Ornellaia
Nebbiolo Masterclass