Italian wines are the biggest-selling imported wines in the United States, but just how well does the average wine consumer know them? Probably not much beyond Chianti or pinot grigio.
Part of the problem may be with the nomenclature (some wines are named for a region or place, others for the grape varietal used), funny-sounding grape varietals (Italy has more than 2,000), geography (Italy's 20 regions are crisscrossed by more than 300 wine zones) or even Italian wine classifications, which don't always guarantee quality.
Trying to distill all this onto a small wine label can be challenging.
"If there is one country where the label language is least useful, I would say Italy," said Mike Baker of Chicago's Wine Discount Center. "In Tuscany, for example, what is Chianti, exactly? Or, what is an IGT?"
There aren't simple answers. Chianti is a wine from a specific region of Tuscany and must contain at least 75 percent sangiovese grapes. Chianti Classico is a wine produced in a smaller area of the Chianti region. According to the New Wine Lover's Companion, the rest of Chianti is divided into seven subzones and the winemaker can choose to put the subzone on the label or just the word Chianti. A Chianti riserva is a wine aged for at least two years and five months before being released.
IGT is short for indicazione geografica tipica, an Italian wine classification that denotes the wine is representative of its geographic region. (I've written abut this classification before. If you missed that column, you can read it at chicagotribune.com/billdaley; look for "Studying Italian.")
I asked wine experts to name some of the Italian wine terms found on labels that they think you should know about.
First up is David Poweska of Binny's Beverage Depot in Plainfield:
Frizzante: Half the bubbles of a fully sparkling wine.
Asti: Wines labeled Asti can be either sweet or dry, he said. The sweet includes the fully sparkling Asti or the frizzante moscato d'Asti. For the dry version, barbera d'Asti is the most widespread example.
Gallo Nero (black rooster): A producers group in the Chianti Classico region. "While they do require producers in the consortium to submit samples every vintage for quality assessment, I've never heard of any producer being denied the Gallo Nero seal," Poweska said. "Not a guarantee of high quality or a guard against low quality."
Here are some must-know terms from Tom Benezra of Sal's Beverage World stores.
Ripasso: A process in which some Valpolicella wines are "re-fermented in casks containing the lees from a prior batch of amarone wine," Benezra said. Amarone is a big and expensive wine made by fermenting partially dried grapes. Ripasso wines "can be excellent value, a way to enjoy a hearty, full-bodied wine for under $20 per bottle," he said. "Although many books indicate that the word ripasso cannot appear on the label, it often does."
Barrique: Said Benezra, "Although this is a French word, it was popularized by the Italians, particularly 'super Tuscan' and Barolo producers who wanted to distinguish their wine style from traditional wines which were aged in large oak containers."
Rufina: A wine region known for its Chianti. It is a sub-region of the large Chianti region.
Other terms you might encounter, with definitions from "New Wine Lover's Companion," include tenuta, an estate that grows its own grapes and bottles the wine; vendemmia or vintage, and vigna or vigneto, both meaning vineyard.
What else can a consumer do when confronted by a complex or confusing wine label? Talking to the store staff always is a good start. Experiment with varietals or regions you aren't familiar with. Baker suggested consumers scan the back label too.
"Look for quality importers on the back label, such as Vias Imports, Vin Divino, Neil Rosenthal," he said.
Vigna means vineyard and in this case means a vineyard designate wine, Vigna del Gris.
Chianti Classico designates a specific, high-quality region within the larger Chianti.
Riserva, in Chianti, means a wine aged at least two years and five months before release.