Understanding Italian Wine Labels

Even for the most experienced American wine drinker, deciphering Italian wine labels can be especially difficult. A little bit of information goes a long way, however, and with a little understanding of the laws surrounding Italian wine, anyone can make an informed selection when browsing Italian wines. In this post, we’ll break down Italian wine labels and what you can learn from them, so you can identify and remember good wine selections in the future.

Italian Label Basics

The front label of a bottle of wine is typically the winemaker’s opportunity to inform and advertise to the consumer what their wine is all about.

In “old world” regions like Spain, France, and Italy where wine is produced, both high in quality AND quantity, government regulations require much more information to be displayed to represent what is in the bottle and from where its contents originated.  In Italy, you will typically find the wine’s producer, vintage, denomination (more on this in a moment), and even a name for the wine itself, if denomination and other clues do not distinguish it enough.  Here’s an example of an imported Italian wine label (front and back):

negresco front label 2                          negresco back label

The front label is straight from the producer and features the name of the wine “Negresco,” the producer “Provenza,” and the denomination of Garda Classico, as well as some other important words and phrases. For now, we know or have reasonably inferred some basic things about the wine, like who made it and what they named it, but we don’t really know these things in any kind of context or detail.  So what do those other Italian words and phrases tell us about this wine?  Let’s assume for a minute that we are in Italy and don’t have the English words provided on the American importer’s label on the back to help us:

negresco edited In this example, the wine known as “Negresco,” can be further identified by the words below as one of a company called “Provenza,” which is an Azienda Agricola.  It also lets the consumer know that Provenza is located in the municipality of Desenzano del Garda (D/G) in the province of Brescia (BS).

There are many different phrases like “Azienda Agricola” that designate the type of business producing the wine.  Here are a few more you are likely to see:

  • Azienda- “business,” “landed property” or “estate.” Azienda Agricola has a connotation of a commercial farm, and can also mean that it is a business (in this case a winery) that is producing the actual product (grapes) and is selling that product under its own label.  An Azienda Vinicola, however, does not need to own land and can simply be a wine-maker. This term is used as long as 51% of the grapes being used to make wine were purchased from other sources.  These bottles will also read “imbottigliato da” or some version of “bottled by” on the label.
  • Ca’ or Casa- “Casa” (literally a building, house, or habitation– sometimes abbreviated as Ca’) is a term used around Italy, with Casa Vinicola taking on a specific meaning as a winery/negociant for others’ grapes.
  • Cascina- “farm house,” or other structure that also stores cheese and other dairy products.  Used in Piedmont as either farmhouse, winery, or dairy farm by definition.
  • Cantina- “cellar” or “tavern”- It could mean a few things, but likely indicates a winery with some sort of a food/beverage service component, like a wine bar or restaurant.
  • Fattoria- “farm,” used often in Tuscany to denote that the winery is also a farm for other products such as olives and olive oil
  • Podere- “country estate with farm house”  This term has actually historically denoted the seat of agricultural power in the area and carried a certain powerful connotation
  • Poggio- “hill”- Often used in Tuscany as part of winery names.  Sometimes labeled “il poggio” on some wines to denote being made from grapes ripened by sun available only on hilltop plots.
  • Produttore- “producer”
  • Tenuta- “estate,” or more specifically a “land holding” or “property.”  Many weighty producers like Tenuta San Guido and Tenuta dell’Ornellaia carry this designation.
(Thanks to dobianchi.com for first collectively defining most of these terms, partially paraphrased in this entry)

These words are important in helping identify who makes the wine you’re holding, as the producer (like Provenza in the picture above) will not necessarily present their name as the biggest words on the label.

The other circled area of the picture is equally as important as who produced the wine, and that’s the denomination of the wine itself.  The denomination, also known as “classification,” or “style” appears on the label and will always be adjacent to one of the following phrases: “Denominazione di Origine Controllata” (or “DOC”), “Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (“DOCG”), Indicazione Geografica Tipica (“IGT”).  These phrases are government labels that let the consumer know that these wines come from a specific area, follow certain rules for production, and are of a certain degree of quality.  Without following exact rules regarding things like vineyard maximum yields in a season, percentage of certain grape(s) in an established style of wine, strict adherence to a relatively small geographic growing area, and literally countless other regulations, wines cannot legally be sold bearing these specific words.  This is especially true of “DOC” and “DOCG”-marked wines, as those two denominations are given only to styles and regions that have established a consistency of quality and tradition in the way the style is made.

In other words, DOC and DOCG wines have some degree of a good reputation and therefore standards to keep it that way.  It’s no guarantee of actual quality from wine-to-wine, but an indicator of following the practices that gave the best examples of the style their reputation.

DOCG is the highest mark that can be given to a style of wine, and is typically reserved for extremely well-established wines such as Barolo, Barbaresco, many varieties of Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Amarone and other world-class examples.  IGT is something of a foil to DOC and DOCG wines.  It is a classification that came into being as a somewhat rebellious reaction to the creation of strictly-regulated DOC and DOCG denominations, whereas IGT wines can refer to a more general growing region and an almost completely blank slate of regulations for producing wines.  Ever see a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot made in Tuscany– or even a 100% Tempranillo?  An all-French or Spanish grape combination isn’t likely to ever garner an Italian DOC or DOCG mark (though it’s not impossible– think of Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris!), but Italians have the freedom to make such creative foreign blends on their native soil under the IGT denomination.

negresco front label 2     negresco back label

Back to the labels.  

In this wine’s case, Provenza’s “Negresco” is considered a “Garda Classico Rosso,” a red (“rosso”) wine style that comes from a fixed growing area around Garda, is a traditional style for the area (“classico”), and has followed the rules to earn the title of “Garda Classico DOC” on its label.  To an American, Garda Classico may be an unfamiliar blend, but the DOC designation lets you know it has some significance in Italy and that there is likely plenty of information readily available if more research is required before purchased.

There are still things we’d really like to know about this wine, and if not displayed on the front label, the back label of a wine should contribute the rest of the required information, whether supplied by the Italian winery or its American importer.  Sometimes Italian wines don’t have labels for English-speaking countries, so it’s helpful for the importer to do a little translation or simply list the pertinent information in English, as in the picture below.

negresco back label

The two most important things the consumer should know here which aren’t provided on the front label are the vintage (the year during which the grapes in the wine were grown) and the percentage of alcohol in the wine. Over time, the vintage of the wine can become known as an indicator of quality with or simply as a footnote briefly observed (or not) by the buyer. Either way, it must be present on the bottle. The alcohol content (usually rounded to .0 or .5% in Italy) is also important for the consumer. It can indicate to some extent what the consumer can expect to taste and also how much to consume in one period.

Misrepresenting the type or blend of grapes used to create a wine, or using grapes grown in an area different from the one on the label (among other things) is considered “wine fraud” and can result in jailtime for the offender, not to mention the deathblow dealt to their business and reputation.