Ah, Italy – what a beautiful, hedonistic, disorganised, frustrating country! Italy can provide wine lovers with so many distinctive, unique flavours and styles, bottles full of Italian verve and creativity. It also sluices forth rivers of disgracefully thin, characterless stuff to be sold under its most commercially useful names: Pinot Grigio, Soave, Valpolicella, Lambrusco, Frascati and the like.

Although the key to understanding Italy is to understand that it is a group of regions rather than a single homogeneous country, from the heady, often sweet, ferments of the deep south to the delicate sub-alpine essences of the north, it is possible to generalise about Italian wine styles to a certain extent. Reds have a certain bitterness that is by no means unpleasant. In fact it is so addictive that I find Italy is the one country I come home from positively determined to continue to drink its wines (rather than, as usual, desperate for a complete change). Italian white wines, once distinguished by their lack of aroma and lack of obvious fruitiness (very un-modern), are now generally very well made, offering an attractive combination of fruit and refreshment. 

Understanding Italian labels

bianco, white.

cantina means literally ‘cellar’ or ‘winery’. A Cantina Sociale is a co-operative winery.

Classico, usually the original heartland of a wine zone. Something to head for.

cru is, especially in Piemonte, a specially designated vineyard.

DOC, Denominazione di Origine Controllata, Italy's failed attempt at a system of distinguishing its superior wines fashioned in the image of France's appellation contrôlée. Some argue it was imposed too early and too strictly, others that it was too late and not strictly enough. The truth is probably that the Italians do not willingly submit to regulation. For the consumer, DOC means precious little, for in many DOCs the allowed yields are often far too high to concentrate quality in the resulting wines. DOP or Denominazione di Origine Protetta is an alternative, equivalent term.

DOCG, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, the super-DOC category introduced for the 1982 vintage and to which some DOCs have since been promoted. DOCG wines are reliably among Italy's better bottles though promotions have sometimes been purely political.

fattoria, farm (a podere is even smaller)

frizzante, lightly sparkling.

IGT, Indicazione Geografica Tipica, a category of wines created in 1992 as an approximate equivalent of the French Vin de Pays. It now sits alongside the IGP or Indicazione Geografica Protetta denomination and either term may appear on bottles.

liquoroso, strong, usually fortified.

metodo classico or metodo tradizionale, bottle-fermented (sparkling wine).

passito, strong (and usually sweet) wine made from dried grapes.

Riserva, generally denotes prolonged ageing under carefully prescribed conditions.

rosso, red.

secco, dry.

spumante, fully sparkling.

Superiore, usually a little higher in alcohol (0.5 to 1%).

tenuta, wine estate or smallholding.

vendemmia, vintage.

vendemmia tardiva, late harvest. 

In a nutshell

Fascinating, diverse - and frustrating.