Reading an Italian label is usually straight forward: there’s the winery name, perhaps the vineyard that the grapes came from, the year, and an abbreviation (DOC, DOCG) or a phrase (Vino Da Tavola). Have you ever wondered what a DOC wine is, and how it differs from a Vino da Tavola?

There are four major categories of Italian wines:

  • Vino Da Tavola
  • Vino a Indicazione Geografica (IGT)
  • Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC)
  • Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG)

Vino Da Tavola (VdT, in the wine books) is the lowest class of wine, a wine made by the producer as he sees fit to make it. There are few rules, other than that the stuff not be poisonous. Most is insipid, thin, weak, and acidic, the sort of wine that used to be sold in jugs and is now sold in tetrapacks. However, there are also some spectacular Vini da Tavola, wines made by extremely good producers who have decided to make something that doesn’t qualify for a superior status because of its composition or the way it is made. Antinori’s Tignanello is a superb red wine that contains too much Cabernet to qualify as Chianti Classico, for example. Badia a Coltibuono’s Sangioveto is named after a grape type, and therefore can’t be called Chianti Classico though it’s about as Classico as one could hope to find (and very good too). Though most of the stellar Vini da Tavola are Tuscan, a number of Piemontese producers are beginning to experiment with them too. However, whereas Tuscans blend Sangiovese with varying amounts of other grapes (usually Cabernet or Merlot), or vinify French grapes by themselves (Collezione De Marchi L’Eremo, a Syrah, or Fontodi’s Pinot Noir, for example), Piemontese blend Nebbiolo and Barbera, under the theory that the Nebbiolo will supply the tannins, while the barbera will supply acidity (Giorgio Rivetti’s Pin, for example, is wonderful). So, with Vino da Tavola you either get plonk or something spectacular.

Vino a Indicazione Geografica is just that, a wine produced in a specific area. There’s nothing special about most of it, though there are some nice exceptions — Teruzzi & Puthod’s Terre di Tufo, for example.

Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) is the Italian answer to the French AOC. DOC wines are produced in specific well-defined regions, according to specific rules designed to preserve the traditional wine-making practices of the individual regions. Thus, the rules for making Barolo differ markedly from those for making Chianti Classico. The winery can state the vineayrd that the grapes came from, but cannot name the wine after a grape type (doing so would cause confusion, because there are some DOCs named after grape types, for example Brunello di Montalcino), and cannot use a name such as “Superior.” Since a wine has to meet certain standards to qualify as DOC, the quality of Italian wines as a whole has improved since the first DOCs were established in the 1960s, though in some cases the rules drawn up by the commissions had unexpected effects — Super Tuscans (VdT) arose from the requirement (since dropped) that producers put white grapes in their Chianti Classico.

Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG). Similar to the DOC but more stringent. Allowable yields are generally lower, and DOCG wines must pass an evaluation of a tasting committee before they can be bottled. The establishment of DOCG wines has again resulted in an overall improvement in the quality of Italian wines — it doesn’t make sense for a producer whose vineyards are in a DOCG area to produce wines that aren’t good enough to qualify. The only drawback is that in some cases the areas are too large (all of Chianti, about half of Tuscany, is DOCG for example, despite fluctuations in quality from place to place). To help clarify matters, Roberto Stucchi, of Badia a Coltibuono, would like to see sub-zones established for the larger DOCG areas to help identify the superior wines. He doesn’t expect it to happen any time soon, but it does sound like a good idea.