The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine

Italy is home to some of the world’s most beloved and widely recognised wine regions, producing a vast array of styles and varietals that are enjoyed by wine lovers all over the globe. From crisp white wines made from indigenous grapes like Trebbiano and Vermentino, to full-bodied reds like Barolo and Amarone della Valpolicella, there is an Italian wine for every palate and occasion.

In this guide, we will delve into the rich history and cultural significance of Italian wine, explore the country’s diverse wine regions and grape varieties, and provide tips on how to select, serve, and pair Italian wines. Whether you are a seasoned wine connoisseur or just starting your journey of wine exploration, this guide will provide everything you need to know about the vast and varied world of Italian wine. So, let’s dive in and discover the beauty and complexity of one of the world’s oldest and most celebrated wine cultures.

What is the history of wine making in Italy?

We need to go far back – very far back – to get even a little close to the beginnings of winemaking in Italy. “The Boot” was colonised by the Ancient Greeks in 8th century BCE, so that’s nearly 3000 years ago – and local winemaking was already well underway when they got there. The Greeks were known for wine production themselves, and planted the first French vineyards at around the same time, but the indigenous Italians were producing and enjoying wine long before the Greeks arrived. What the Ancient Greeks did bring, though, were more refined techniques for planting vines and more organised winemaking practices, which laid the foundations for the wine industry to grow.


As the Roman Empire began to rise, so did the popularity of wine. Romans enjoyed a much higher alcohol content than we do today, and mixing it with water at the point of consumption to modify the strength was the general practice. This became a standard feature of most dinner parties – and the mixing proportions would depend on the tastes of the host! They also enjoyed adding different flavours to the mixed wine – herbs, spices, honey and salt were all used as flavour enhancers.

Many of the Roman winemaking practices laid the foundations for modern ones: they knew that ageing a wine could improve the flavour, and they were the first to use wooden barrels for storing and maturing their wines. They catalogued grape varieties, knew about the impact of different terroirs, and exported their wines far and wide across the Empire as it grew.

As the Empire fell and the exports dried up, winemaking continued in Italy in the abbeys and monasteries up and down the land – although largely, the wine was consumed only by their inhabitants. But when the Renaissance brought a rebirth of arts and culture, it also brought a revolution in who produced wine and who could sell it, in countries across Europe. Italian vineyards, winemaking and exports went from strength to strength in the centuries that followed. There was a major blow across Northern Europe in the late 1900s, when a vine louse arrived from across the Atlantic, devastating vineyards – but thanks in part to the work of scientist Louis Pasteur, they were able to recover. Initially, vineyards were replanted for quantity to revive the industry rather than quality; so this meant that much of the Italian wine produced in the early 20th century was rather more downmarket that its reputation had enjoyed in previous years. But in the 1960s, all that was set to change, as rigorous nationwide classification and labelling laws were introduced – along with other exciting developments in Tuscan wine production (read our guide to Super Tuscans here).

Today, the reputation of Italian wine is as strong as ever – and there is truly a bottle for every taste, from full bodied Italian red wine from Piedmont, to crisp white Chianti Classico, and the ever-popular sparkle of Prosecco.

Why is wine important to Italian culture?

Winemaking plays a huge part in the Italian domestic economy, and its worldwide exports – but it runs deeper than that. Given how long it’s been part of Italian industry, culture, food and society, we think it’s fair to say that winemaking is in Italy’s blood. Wine has been used in religious and cultural rites and celebrations there for thousands of years. It’s produced in homes and by artisanal wine producers, as well as at vineyards and wineries across the country. Italy’s grape harvest rituals and festivals are ancient and legendary.

A single glass of Italian wine contains three thousand years of heritage, hymns of gratitude to the land’s terrains and climates, and an unbreakable bond with the enjoyment of food. It’s a true love story.

Which grapes are used in Italian Wine?

Here’s a selection of the most widely-used grape varieties used in Italian winemaking – the ones that make a full bodied Italian red from Piedmont, and the Italian grape that makes a dry white wine. The rich and varied terrains and climates mean that Italian wine has it all.

Italian White Wine Grapes

Pinot Grigio

originally from France as pinot gris, it is now grown extensively in northern Italy and produces light, crisp and dry white wines. For more details see our Ultimate Guide to Pinot Grigio.


there are six varieties of this grape, with Trebbiano Toscano(Ugni Blanc) being the most widely planted, particularly in central Italy and across the rest of the world. It also yields light, crisp flavours. Another member of the Trebbiano family is Trebbiano di Soave which by DNA analysis has been shown to be the same as Verdicchio(See below).


this one’s a more acidic grape, and is planted mainly in the central east area of Italy, in the Marche region. The high acidity makes it quite versatile, and it’s used to produce dry as well as sweet and sparkling wines.


widely grown in the Piemonte region at the foot of the Alps, this one produces fresh wines that are delicious with no ageing required.

Moscato bianco

the Italian name for the French variety, muscat blanc à petits grains. It’s light, sweet and is best known for producing Asti Spumante, in the Piemonte region.


the primary grape used for producing prosecco, in the only two regions that can legally produce it: Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Veneto. Glera must make up at least 85% of the grapes used.  

Italian Red Wine Grapes


this is easily the most-planted grape variety in Italy, and is used in some of the most famous Tuscans: Brunello di Montalcino, Rosso di Montepulciano, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and many “Super Tuscan” wines.


the second most-grown grape variety, which takes its name from a town in Tuscany. It grows well with a high yield, and is renowned for its strong tannins.


a black grape variety, grown since the thirteenth century in Piedmont. It’s at the heart of the region’s Barolo and Barbaresco wines.

Nero d’Avola

southern Sicily’s most widely-grown red wine variety, giving a full-bodied, fruity wine that ages beautifully and blends well with other wines.


soft and fruity, this grape is grown only in Piedmont and its wines are best drunk while without ageing.


a fruity variety grown in northeast Italy. Corvina produces delicious barrel-aged wines, and Amarone della Valpolicella, made from dried grapes.


introduced by the Greeks, this variety is predominantly grown in Campania and Basilicata. It’s known for its dark and musty flavours.

Cabernet Sauvignon

this grape variety made its way to Italy from France in the early 1800s. It’s now grown most commonly in Tuscany, as one of the chief components of the “Super Tuscans”, and in Sicily.


grown widely in the Puglia region, this is the Italian name for the grape which original comes from Croatia: zinfandel.


this is the name for the grape variety and a lightly-sparkling (frizzante) style of red wine, which can be made entirely of the grape, or blended with others.

What are the top Italian Wine Regions?

Each region has a different “terroir” – not just location, but climate, soil and environmental factors – than give the grapes and their wines distinct flavours and characteristics. Let’s work from North to South…


Piemonte is the Italian spelling of the region also known as Piedmont, at the foot of the Alps mountain range in the north of Italy. It’s one of the more famous Italian wine regions, producing some of the most famous Italian wines: Barolo and Barbaresco from the Nebbiolo grape, and Asti Spumante from the Moscato. The icy cold of the mountains sits alongside the warmth of the Mediterranean coast, and the best vineyard locations are found on the south-facing hillsides.

Alto Adige

With mountains and a Mediterranean coastline, the Alto Adige region borders Austria and Switzerland as well. The mild climate means that almost all grape varieties can thrive here, and it claims the highest share of DOC wines of all the Italian wine regions.

Toscana (Tuscany)

Home to the cities of Florence, Siena, Pisa, and Montepulciano, Tuscany has a wealth of history and winemaking intertwined. With central hills as well as coastal regions, it’s produced some of the most diverse and best-known wines in all of Italy, including Chiantis and Montepulcianos – and its Super Tuscans production paved the way for a revolution in wine production and classification.


In north-eastern Italy, Veneto is home to one of the country’s biggest tourist destinations – Venice – and has terrain that ranges from the shores of Lake Garda to the sea. These diverse terrains mean diverse grape varieties: Garganega, Corvina, Rondinella and Glera are all grown here, and produce some of the most famous Italian wines: Soave, Amarone, Valpolicella, and Prosecco.

Lombardia (Lombardy)

Mountains and lakes dominate the terrain in Lombardia, in the north of Italy. It’s home to lots of smaller vineyards and artisan wineries, as well as producing the sparkling Franciacorta, and red Valtellina.


The “heel of the boot”, Puglia is a narrow strip of land with a lot of coastline. The air is saltier, the climate is hotter, and the wines are distinctive: it’s well known for producing Primitivo and Negroamaro, as well as the lesser-known Aglianico and Uva di Troia.


This little island off the west coast mainland has mountains and hillsides too, and it’s perhaps one of the less well-known Italian wine regions. Its white wines are chiefly made from the Vermentino and Nuragus grape varieties, and its reds from Cannonau (the Italian name for Grenache) and Carignano.

Sicilia (Sicily)

The biggest island in the Mediterranean, it’s the most diverse too, in the cultures and peoples who have settled there across the millennia – and its volcanic earth (thanks to Mount Etna) is the perfect ground for viticulture. The most common variety grown on the slopes is Nero d’Avola, alongside Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio, and the white Carricante variety.

How is Italian Wine Classified?

Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG): the highest quality level, created in 1980 because it appeared that the highest classification at the time wasn’t discerning enough for the range of quality it allowed for – so this category is the best of the best. Most DOCG wines currently originate from Piemonte, Toscana and Veneto.

Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC): formerly the top spot, this class means “designation of controlled origin” – so only wines that come from that area may carry the area name, such as Prosecco. Each DOC has its own rules about varieties, harvest yield caps, and how long a wine should be aged for.

Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT): This is the broadest category. All the grape varieties should come from the IGT region on the bottle, but the other standards that govern DOC wines do not apply. IGT was introduced to accommodate the rise of the Super Tuscans, which adopted the use of French grape varieties grown in Italian soil – not recognised under previous DOC classifications. This is a lower category, but does not necessarily mean that the wine is poorer quality than DOC or DOCG ones.

Vino da Tavola (VdT): the lowest ranking, this is table wine – the grapes can be any variety, and grown anywhere in Italy. It’s not usually exported.

How is Italian Wine Labelled?

A typical Italian wine label will usually include the name of the winery, the vineyard, the vintage, and an abbreviation of its classification (eg DOCG, DOC, IGT or VdT). It may also have information about how long it’s been aged – see Italian Wine Terms for more details.

What are the most famous Italian wines?


From the north, and heavy on the tannins (read more about tannins here). It’s a full bodied fruity Italian wine, and often carries the highest wine classification available: DOCG.


also from the Piemonte region; but where Barolo is fruity, Barbaresco is earthier, and some wines are aged for up to four years before sale.


a sparkling red from the north, which rose to great popularity in the 1980s. It has a pale pink hue and fruity aromas.

Chianti Classico

made from Sangiovese grapes and mostly in Toscana, Chiantis are full-bodied and dry, and go exceptionally well with meaty Italian dishes and strong cheese. The Classico is subject to rigorous rules around production and ageing, and often carries the prized DOCG classification.

Amarone della Valpolicella

One of the Veneto region’s most prestigious wines, the grapes are partially dried before pressing. The wines are usually aged in oak barrels, sometimes for up to 10 years.


a sparkling red from the north, which rose to great popularity in the 1980s. It has a pale pink hue and fruity aromas.

What is the Italian wine equivalent of….

Cabernet Sauvignon? This grape variety is grown all over Italy now, but especially in Toscana, where it forms the basis of many Super Tuscans, blended alongside Merlot and Sangiovese varieties.

Malbec? Sangiovese is a similar variety, and gives similar flavours, although it has slightly higher levels of acidity. 

Pinot Noir? This variety is known as Pinot Nero in Italy, and does best in the cooler conditions of the north, similar to where it thrives in France.

Chardonnay? This variety is widely grown in Italy, with similar results to its more famous French cousins when it’s grown in the north of the country – but you can find Chardonnays throughout Italy, as far south as Sicily.

Sauvignon Blanc? Vernaccia, a grape variety grown in the north, can produce wines with similar tones to those from Sauvignon Blanc varieties – although SB is also grown itself in Italy, and its popularity is gaining strength.  

Brunello di Montalcino: this DOCG wine must be made with 100% Sangiovese grapes, and is produced in the town of Montalcino, south of Florence in the Toscana region. It has a longer than average maceration period – when the juice is left in contact with the skins, seeds and stalks, to draw out more flavours. Ageing of the wine must be for at least five years.

Italian Wine Terms:

Ripasso: a technique that “re-passes” a wine across dried grape skins, to augment and enrich the flavours, and triggering a second fermentation.

Super Tuscan: a new style of wine, using French grape varieties mixed with Italian ones for fantastic results –  (read more about Super Tuscans here)

Rosso: red wine

Bianco: white wine

Rosato: rose wine

Vino Spumante: sparkling wine

Vino Frizzante: semi-sparkling wine, more gentle than spumante

Vino Dolce: sweet wine

Vino Secco: dry wine

Annata: the vintage year of the wine

Riserva: this wine has been aged – the amount of time will depend on the wine, the rules of its classification. Usually found only on DOC and DOCG wines.

Classico: this wine comes from a particular area within a region, and will be bound by the stricter regulations relating to that area under wine classification rules. Usually found only on DOC and DOCG wines – such as Chianti Classico.

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