ITALY UNTITLED: A Beginner’s guide to Italian wine

So, for a long time Italian wine has been my Achilles heel. To say that it is one of the most sacred and traditional wine producing countries, I feel slightly embarrassed to have neglected it for so long.

I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on wine (yet), however my knowledge of other regions, French and Canadian in particular is pretty strong. At the moment of writing, I find myself in the position of General Manager of the Sheffield branch of Veeno. Veeno is a small chain of Italian wine cafes that provide authentic, high quality meats and cheeses from all over Italy and serve predominantly Sicilian wine.

I applied for this job with the intention of wanting to expand my knowledge on Italian and Sicilian wine whilst also applying the skills and knowledge I have developed and honed in regards to hospitality and the alcohol industry. In previous articles we have talked about different wine regions and appellation laws, but shied away from Italy. Now, I think it is time to give a beginner’s guide to Italy and Sicily.

Italy as a country traditionally is divided. Just like England, there is a bit of a North and South divide. The North of Italy is traditionally affluent and the south is poorer and working class. The differences don’t stop there and a bigger difference, in terms of wine anyway is that of climate. The climate in the south is very Mediterranean. Long, hot summers with blistering sun creating delicious, rich, tannin filled red wines made from grapes like Primitivo and Negroamaro. Then there’s the north, in some areas in particular, especially to the west near the Alps, the climate is a lot colder. The winters are harsher and the summers are humid. There are number of well known red varietals from Northern Italy like Barbera d’Asti/Alba, lovely smooth low tannin, high acidity wines from Piedmont, in the Northwest or Valpolicella from Verona, Veneto in the Northeast.

Italy is such an amazing country and it boasts a hell of a lot of different varietals. At Veeno, we have wine from several varietals from Sicily alone, like Grillo, Grecanico (Garganega), Inzolia, Nero D’avola, Perricone, Cattaratto, Syrah Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. These are just a few of the grapes used but in the whole of Italy there’s literally hundreds of different grape types used in wine making. I’m going to just give a few examples of the big hitters, the big wine regions and how to read a wine label.


 Montepulciano is a grape and the most famous region where it is produced is Abruzzo. Tuscany, Central Italy. Montepulciano from Abruzzo tends to be dark in colour, medium bodied and contain noticeable tannins. There are normally fruity and spicy tones to Montepulciano and can be aged and develop richer aromas and tannic flavours.


Chianti is a place in Tuscany and is most well known for its wine named… Chianti. It is made typically from the Sangiovese grape. Sangiovese is derived from the Latin term Sanguis Jovis, which means ‘Blood of Jupiter’. It is typically a grape high in acidity and normally produces light-medium bodied red wine.

When making Chianti and adhering to its appellation laws, Sangiovese has to be the predominant grape but there are other grapes that are permitted to ake up the blend such as Canaiolo, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.


Gavi is one of my favourite white wine styles. It is crisp, dry and refreshing, with citrus and lemon aromas. Gavi is a place located in Piedmont, the North west of Italy, in the Province of Alessandra. Gavi has been known to have a likeness to Chablis or other Italian wines such as Pinot Grigio. Appelation laws stipulate that when making Gavi, it has to be a single varietal wine, made entirely of the Cortese Grape. I reviewed a decent and very affordable Gavi last year. Read about it here.


Primitivo is largely planted in the region of Puglia (the heel of Italy), a region with high temperatures and blistering sun and the wine produced there is typically full bodied with rich tannins. Historically wine makers would actually send Primitivo up to Tuscany for it to be used in blends, as it wasn’t seen as a prestigious or high quality wine. Now it is one of the most planted grapes in Italy. Primitivo is also known as Zinfandel in the USA, which has lead to an increase in its popularity.

 Nero D’avola

Oh Nero D’avola. It’s such a lovely grape. Nero D’avola is one of the most widely planted grapes in Sicily and it produces lovely rich tannin filled red wine. At Veeno, we have several different styles of Nero D’avola, ranging from our riserva, which has been aged for long periods of time in oak barrels, to our lovely house wine, which is blended with Merlot and aged in stainless steel to give it softer, fruity tones. Avola is a village in the south east of Sicily and that’s where the name of the grape comes from.

Wine terms. If you click here you can find out a bit more on Italian wines from a previous post that we published last summer, all about reading wine labels.

There are some wine terms that may confuse the everyday wine drinker when it comes to Italian wine, but fear not. I’m going to explain a few of them.

Classico – When you see a bottle that reads ‘Classico’ e.g. Chianti Classico it means that the grapes used to produce that wine were grown in the specific region of Chianti. Regions have expanded so a wine can be called Chianti if the grapes are grown in the ‘Greater Chianti area’ but Chianti Classico is made from grapes that were grown in the ‘heart’ of Chianti. In the oldest, most genuine part if you will.

This same theory applies to Gavi. If you see a bottle and it reads Gavi di Gavi, it isn’t a typo, it simply means that the Cortese grapes used to produce this particular wine were from the commune in Gavi.

Riserva – Riserva means that a wine has been aged for longer in Oak barrels. In Italy, the classifications for a wine to be a riserva change from region to region and grape to grape, but it generally means that the wine has been aged longer, normally in oak and then sometimes in the bottle before being released. This practice helps the wine to mature and develop rich tannins and aroma from the oak.

Superiore – Superiore, in theory means that a wine of higher alcohol content and better quality. Wines that have a superior label have to be passed by a governing body and it normally means the wine has been produced from richer, concentrated grapes that have been produced from a low yielding vine.

Appassimento – Appassimento is a term to describe the process in which the grapes are dried before being fermented. This increases the sugars and body of the wine in general. In Nova Scotia, Luckett Vineyards apply this method to their ‘Phone Box Red’ signature blend.

Ripasso – A wine that has gone through the appassimento style of drying.

There you have it. A brief, beginner’s guide to Italian wine, the culture it comes from and a cheat sheet for if you ever find yourself looking at a load of ‘gibberish’ when trying to buy Italian wine but are too embarrassed to ask the store clerk what it means.

– J A M E S









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