The Successful Collector, by Julian Hitner; Wine education for us all – understanding Italian labels

Part II: the ABCs of IGTs:

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

When the Italian DOC/DOCG system was first established in 1963, it didn’t take long for its many flaws to come to the fore. Above else, it failed to anticipate the radical changes Italian wine-making would take in terms of overall quality in the impending decades.

Let’s put it another way: though it may come as a surprise to some, with very few exceptions the wines of Italy in the 1960s weren’t all that impressive. Chianti was a weak, albeit passable concoction made of red and white grapes; Barolo was excessively tannic and unapproachable for the first two decades of its existence; and few people had ever even heard of Brunello di Montalcino or Amarone della Valpolicella. In short, the wines that Italy is most famous for today were not long ago either poorly made or barely known outside of the regions they came from.

Worst of all, the rigid regulations governing the production of such wines as Chianti Classico prevented producers from experimenting with better methods of winegrowing. By law, wines like Chianti Classico were obliged in the 1960s to contain at least 10-30% Trebbiano and Malvasia Bianca; permitted yields were a ridiculously high 80 hl/ha; and no percentage of French varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot were allowed.

TignanelloCue the Antinori family and the debut of Tignanello of 1970. Though crafted from grapes grown within the Chianti Classico denominazione, the wine could not be labeled as such because it did not follow the traditional varietal formula. The wine was 100% Sangiovese and matured in French oak barrels (Piero Antinori began adding a little Cabernet Sauvignon in 1975). As such, the wine could only be labelled as Vino di Tavola, the lowest possible ranking for Italian wines. But a bottle of Tignanello sold for more than most Italian wines. Overnight, the imperfections of the DOC/DOCG system were clear.

Even worse, it took over twenty years for a partial solution to be reached. In 1992, a new classification was put in place alongside the DOC/DOCG system: the Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) system. Though not without its limitations, ‘Super Tuscans’ such as Tignanello were finally no longer obliged to be labeled as Vino di Tavola, but as IGT Toscana.

Oreno Sette PontiFast forward to 2012 and the IGT system has become almost as ubiquitous as its DOC/DOCG counterpart. For wine lovers nowadays, the most important thing to understand about the IGT system is that it is only used for wines that do not adhere to the traditional grape/winegrowing requirements as prescribed under the DOC/DOCG system. But it is not an extra guarantee of quality! Though there are plenty of premium Super Tuscans made by winemakers throughout Tuscany and other parts of Italy, the vast majority of IGT wines are fairly simple and straightforward, relatively inexpensive, and should not be confused with wines like Tignanello and Solaia (Antinori), Oreno (Sette Ponti), or Saffredi (Pupille)—a few personal favourites.

OrnellaiaJust as important, the IGT system should not be confused with wines formerly labelled as Vino di Tavola but now have their own specific DOC/DOCGs. The most significant example of this is Bolgheri DOC, where renowned estates such as Sassicaia, Ornellaia, and Le Macchiole are located. Though Sangiovese is permitted, most of these wines are made entirely from Bordeaux varietals, ranked among the best in Italy.

These points notwithstanding, the IGT system is not very difficult to grasp. Like everything else about winegrowing Italy, all it takes is a little patience, a little studiousness, and a little tasting. The latter is the most rewarding…

Have a look at all of Julian’s Successful Collector Reviews.