When is a Montepulciano not a montepulciano? When it’s a
montepulciano, and not from Montepulciano.
So are most people when trying to buy Italian wine. The
amount of grape varietals grown in the big, European boot is
staggering—estimated at more than 2,000—and the regions are just as prolific.
Unlike Germany and France, every area of Italy grows grapes that are used to
make wine. The best known are the Tuscan areas of Chianti and Montalcino, and
the Piemonte area of Brunello. There are hundreds more, however, that make both
well-known and little known wines. That’s where it can get confusing.
When navigating the tangle of vines that make up the Italian
wine landscape, the most important thing to help you is the label. This may
sound simplistic, but if you remember the basics about how the Italians label
their wines, it will make it easier for you to track down something you like—or
at least know the right questions to ask the sales person or sommelier.
Like France and Germany, Italy has wine laws that require
producers to include specific grapes in wines that feature only an area’s name
on its label. For instance, if a wine is called Barolo, that means that it is
from the area of Barolo (which is a sub region of Piemonte). It also means
that, due to Italian wine law, this red wine is made exclusively from the
nebbiolo grape. The reason for this naming practice is the same as it is in
France: quality. The idea is that if a specific Italian wine is so spectacular
as to be known the world round, it should be associated with the specific area
where it is made and not with the grape it is made from. Nebbiolo can be grown
anywhere, but Barolo can only be made in Barolo.
What about all the wine made in places that don’t have names
like Barolo, Chianti and Montalcino? That’s where wine naming in Italy becomes
unique. In these other areas, the name of the wine will actually tell you
everything you need to know. Take, for instance, the white wine Trebbiano
d’Abruzzo. What the name of a regional Italian wine like this tells you is what
the wine is made of (the trebbiano grape), and where it is from (the Abruzzo
Now that everything’s clear, there will never be any reason
to be confused when purchasing Italian wine ever again. Right?
Sadly, this is not the case. As with the riddle I posed in
the opening, there will always be strange and confusing conundrums in the
Italian wine world. This is the result of an ever-evolving language forged from
different regions that, until the 20th century, had little to do with each
other aside from proximity. Montepulciano, the grape, grows throughout central
Italy, but most famously in the area of Abruzzo. There, it is made into the
popular montepulciano d’Abruzzo. While there are many delicious montepulciano
d’Abruzzos made with style and finesse, most are considered quaffing wines for
the masses. On the other hand, Montepulciano the area is a medieval village in
the region of Tuscany. There, a wine called Vino Nobile di Montepulciano has
been made for hundreds of years. This wine isn’t made from a grape called Vino
Nobile (it is made from a clone of sangiovese called prugnolo), but the name
comes from the noble reputation of those who drank it. Along with its Tuscan
brothers Montalcino and Chianti, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano has been
considered one of the three great wines from Tuscany, though that status has
fallen a bit in recent years.
The main thing to remember when tasting Italian wine is
geography. Take notes on what wines you like from specific Italian regions.
This will help you the next time you are in a wine store or at a restaurant and
you are confronted with nothing but a name staring back at you.