Italian Wine 101: Italian Wine Intro and Chianti!

Italian Wine 101: Intro to Italian Wine and Chianti
After spending a few months virtually cruising around France, you have hopefully gained some insight into affordable French wines. In case you missed France, the posts are available here. Ready for more? Let’s jump over to Italy.

No time? Jump right to the Cheatsheet here:

Italian Wine 101 & Chianti Cheatsheet

Italy wine map

Italy is made up of 20 independent regions and every single one makes wine. map courtesy of

Italian Wine Overview
Italy isn’t the first place that comes to mine when you think about “rules”, but they do have some wine rules that can help you when you shop and drink.

Italian Wine Naming
Italian wines are named in a variety of ways, depending on the region.  Remember, Italians are not particularly fond of rules!

  • City/Region Name – Like much of France, many Italian wines are named for the city or region they are from, not the grape. Examples: Chianti (city), Barbaresco (city)
  • Grape Name – in some regions, the wines are named after the grape such as Primitivo (from southern Italy in Puglia), or Pinot Grigio (multiple areas in northeastern Italy).
  • Combination of Grape and City – most confusing of all, many wines include both the grape and city name.  Examples: Vernaccia (grape) di San Gimignano (town), Barbera d’Alba, Brunello di Montalcino.

Like the AOC system in France, Italy has a system for qualifying wine growing areas and types of wine. There are 4 basic levels in the Italian wine pyramid:

  • Table Wine (bottom of the pyramid) – can be anything and is often the carafe of house wine served at low cost. These wines can be delicious, so don’t hesitate to try them! Can be any grape, basically no rules. They are either red (rosso) or white (bianco).
  • IGT (or IGP) – Lots of choice available to the winegrower here.  IGT indicates grapes typical of the region and wine made in a typical style of the region.
  • DOC – Controlled Denomination: A specific region with exact boundaries. Required grapes are listed as well as many other conditions in the vineyard and winery. Example: Rosso di Montalcino. DOC wines are generally high quality and you have some idea of what the wine will taste like if you’ve had another DOC wine of the same type.
  • DOCG – Guaranteed Controlled Denomination: This is the pinnacle of Italian wine. Only the highest quality wines of a region are included in DOCG rules. DOCG wines have tighter controls, and are likely a smaller region than outlined by DOC rules.  Example: Chianti Classico.

Chianti Classico comes from a smaller region, within the general Chianti region.

Unlike wines from the US, where these terms have no meaning, Italian wines with these words on the label tell you something specific:

  • Classico – Typically, the original vineyard region. As wines get popular, vineyards expand out onto less advantaged land. Classico on the label tells you the grapes are from the original, higher quality vineyard land.
  • Reserva – A wine which has been aged longer than required, almost always a full year longer.
  • Superiore – A wine made to a higher standard than required by the DOC regulations. For example, a wine aged in oak which isn’t required to be aged in oak.
Coltibuono Chianti Classico

Coltibuono is a good quality, moderately priced Chianti producer.

Enough Study, Let’s Drink Some Chianti!


  • < 10€ in a shop in Europe
  • <$20 per bottle in the US in a wine shop or grocery store
  • 2-3x the wine shop price if you’re ordering off the winelist in a restaurant – ouch.
Black rooster of Chianti Classico

The black rooster of Chianti Classico, only Chianti Classico, nothing else


Chianti Fast Facts

  • Chianti is from Tuscany and is the best known of all Italian wines. It has certainly gone through its’ scandals over the years, but generally, the quality is very good today.
  • The classic straw wrapped bottle is no longer in vogue, too bad, as they made great candleholders after the wine was gone!
  • The main grape used in Chianti is Sangiovese.  Most Chianti is a blend with Sangiovese as the main grape.
  • There are different levels of Chianti: Chianti, Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Reserva, generally ascending in price. You may also see the name of a town after Chianti, these wines are similar to Chianti Classico in quality.
  • Look for the Black Rooster! The winegrowers in the Chianti Classico region got together and secured the rights to the black rooster symbol (above). You see it on every bottle of Chianti Classico.  Chianti need not apply!

Budget Chianti (<$20 per bottle in the US)
Label – look for the following: Chianti DOCG ($7-20), Chianti Classico DOCG ($15+ with the black rooster). DaVinci is a large brand with a nice, inexpensive Chianti. Coltibuono makes nice wines and has Chianti, Chianti Classico and above. Banfi is another large brand, widely available and good.

What to expect from Chianti
Pale to medium red color, you can often read a newspaper through it. Why you would want to do that, I don’t know, but you can (and it’s how we judge the depth of color). You might smell ripe red cherries and an earthy, non-fruity aroma which might remind you of leather. Most Italian wines have very lively acidity, they are meant to be consumed with food. So by all means, get some food for your Chianti!

Food – Chianti is delicious with pizza, pasta, burgers, it can even go with grilled or richer seafood like grilled shrimp. Anything with tomatoes or tomato sauce will go great with Chianti.

Coltibuono Chianti Classico

Important label notes: 2014 is the vintage. Note this is a Chianti Classico. Note DOCG is written out. Coltibuono is a high quality, affordable producer

In the Wine Shop
Advice to help you in the wine shop:

  • There are thousands of bottles of wine from hundreds of regions.  Go in the shop with a plan: I am looking for a Chianti or Chianti Classico, under $20. 9,000 bottles in this shop mean nothing to me.
  • Look for the DOC or DOCG sticker on the bottle. After you get used to it, you’ll recognize Italian wines from across the room!
  • Don’t hesitate to ask the salesperson for help, they will often be able to steer you to a great choice in your price range.

In case you missed it earlier, download the link below to your phone. Voila! You have a quick reference to use when in the wine shop or restaurant.

Italian Wine 101 & Chianti Cheatsheet

Pizza cooked on a Primo ceramic grill

Tomato sauce, Toscana sausage, sliced, onions, mushrooms, topped with Mozzarella. Cheese on top keeps the pizza “burn-the-roof-of-your-mouth” hot for much longer!

Homework Assignment
Buy a bottle of Chianti, enjoy it with your favorite pizza and leave a comment on what kind of pizza is your favorite. Mine is sausage, mushroom & olive.

Next installment (hopefully in July):

  • Italian Wine 101 – Piedmont: Nebbiolo and Barbera

Italian Wine 101 and Chianti more at


6 Responses to “Italian Wine 101: Italian Wine Intro and Chianti!”
  1. Vino Travels says:

    Very informative! Is this a new series you’re doing?

    • Hi Jen,
      Yes, I started a Wine 101 section on request from my 26 & 28 year old “kids”. They wanted less wine geek speak and more affordable choices. I started with key wines of France, now it’s on to Italy. Kind of fun to stick to just the key facts and good but inexpensive wines!

  2. Found an italian market in Lyon, Ruffino Chianti DOCG + prosciutto & mushroom pizza. Even better with Burrata for dessert.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Chianti, Chianti Classico Chianti is a light to medium bodied red blend made from the Sangiovese grape blended with a variety of other allowed grapes. You might smell ripe red cherries and an earthy, non-fruity aroma which might remind you of leather. Most Italian wines have very lively acidity, they are meant to be consumed with food. So by all means, get some food for your Chianti! Anything with tomatoes, such as pizza or pasta.  Another classic to to pair Chianti with a rare steak. If you’d like to learn more, jump to a prior Italian Wine 101 post focusing on Chianit, here. […]

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