Ask any wine enthusiast and they’ll probably tell you Italy is one of the toughest and most intimidating wine regions to learn. The vastly abundant variety of Italian wines alone is enough to make your head spin. There are more than 900,000 registered vineyards, 20 regions, and 1,000 grape varieties in Italy. It is the world’s leading wine-producing country, overtaking France’s number one spot in 2015. In 2016, Italy produced approximately 49 million hectoliters of wine. The United States produced just about half this amount. To put this into a little more perspective, consider the fact that Italy is roughly the size of the state of Arizona. For a region this size to produce such a significant quantity of wine, the entire country essentially is one giant vineyard.

Italian Wine Regions

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As if this already isn’t enough to try to wrap your brain around, Italian wine bottle labels also can seem mind-boggling. For example, the following is a bottle of wine I tasted recently at the 2017 Italian Wine and Flos Olei Tasting: Casale del Giglio Mater Matuta Rosso Lazio….

Italian Wine

Casale del Giglio Mater Matuta Rosso Lazio 2013

Now, unless you’re already familiar with this, how would you know what it is? With this particular wine, Casale del Giglio is the producer, Mater Matuta is the name of the wine (after the Roman goddess of fertility and birth), Rosso is Italian for “red” (indicating it is a red wine), and Lazio is the region. Indicazione Geografica Tipica is one of Italy’s four wine classifications, which I’ll cover later. What about the grape variety? It’s not listed on the label. It happens to be a Syrah and Petite Verdot blend. I wouldn’t have known this had I not been told prior to tasting it.

What’s interesting, and part of the confusion, however, is while some wines may be named after the region, others actually may be named after the grape. According to Karen McNeil’s The Wine Bible, “Even the simplest Italian wine labels can be confusing, because sometimes the wine may be named after the grape variety used to make it (such as barbera) and at other times named after the place where the grapes grew (such as Barolo).” Some wines even use both the grape and the region on the label. For example, the wine Montepulciano d’Abruzzo combines the grape, montepulciano, with the region, Abruzzo. Though, taking it a step further and adding to the perplexity, the wine Vino Nobile di Montepulciano isn’t even made from the montepulciano grape. Rather, it’s made from sangiovese. Factor in the sometimes unclear Italian wine laws and you understand how it can become confusing.

Nonetheless, regardless of the mystification surrounding Italian wines, a basic understanding is necessary for any serious wine lover. There’s a reason Italy is the leading wine-producing country and the United States is the number one consumer of Italian wines. Put simply, Italians produce excellent wine, lots of it. The good news is there are just a few regions most people focus on: Veneto, Piedmont, and Tuscany. Learning these three regions will provide you a solid foundation of Italian wines. I’ll cover them briefly throughout this article. First, let’s get into some Italian wine classifications.