Italy’s Quality Standards

Similar to Canada, France and Germany, Italy has developed its own safeguards where grape growers and producers must adhere to strict regulations in order to be certified.  The laws also govern things like the type of grapes used, the alcohol content, and how long the wine is aged.

Italian certification falls into three categories of decreasing strictness: DOCG, DOC, and IGT.

Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) wines contain the DOCG letters on the label.  For the consumer this means that the producer followed the strictest regulations possible to make that wine. The wine is tested by a committee that then authenticates the geographic location and the quality of the wine. There are currently only a handful of Italian wines that qualify for DOCG status.  DOCG wines are easy to identify as they contain a numbered government seal attached to the neck of the bottle.

Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) wines are much more commonly found. The rules governing quality and authenticity are still very strict, but not quite as stringent as those containing the DOCG insignia. For instance, the geographic zone might be a little bigger or the rules about what kind of grapes might be a little more relaxed.  The letters DOC will be found on the label, similar to DOCG.

The final quality designation is Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT).   This category was created after the DOC and DOCG designations in order to accommodate growers who couldn’t meet all the DOC or DOCG requirements but were still producing good quality wines. 

The following will help provide an understanding of the information commonly found on an Italian wine label.

  • Abboccato = Slightly sweet
  • Amabile = Medium sweet
  • Amarone = Dry red wine made from dried grapes
  • Azienda/Tenuta/Podere = Estate
  • Bianco = White
  • Cantina = Winery
  • Cantina sociale = Co-operative winery
  • Chiaretto = Pale red or dark rosé
  • Classico = Denotes the traditional, theoretically superior, vineyard area within a DOC/DOCG zone
  • Dolce = Sweet
  • Frizzante = Slightly sparkling
  • Imbottigliato all’origine = Estate bottled
  • Metodo Classico = Sparkling wine made by the classic Champagne method
  • Novello = Describes light, fruity wines intended for early consumption rather than cellaring
  • Passito = Generic term for wine made from dried grapes (usually sweet but occasionally dry)
  • Recioto = Sweet red or white wine made from dried grapes (a form of passito)
  • Ripasso = Full-bodied, powerful wine style made by re-fermenting wine with amarone grape skins
  • Riserva = Denotes extended aging (in cask, then bottle) before the wine is sent to market
  • Rosato = Rosé
  • Rosso = Red
  • Secco = Dry
  • Spumante = Sparkling
  • Superiore = Wines with greater concentration and higher alcoholic strength
  • Vendemmia = Vintage
  • Vigneto = Vineyard
  • Vin Santo = A dessert wine style originally from Tuscany, generally made from air-dried grapes
  • Trebbiano = A name shared between many different Italian grape varieties, planted almost everywhere within Italy. It is dark gold or amber-coloured with high acidity and a rather neutral flavour profile

I myself have sampled quite a few Italian wines over the years and they have not all been DOCG or DOC.  I have found that IGT wines are often very similar in taste to their higher rated cousins.  In general, the quality standards are very good. 

With Italian wines I am more inclined to purchase what intrigues me and not pay so much attention to whether it contains a certain insignia.  It is also interesting to note that the price point of DOCG wines is often no higher than, and sometimes even less than DOC or IGT wines.

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Drink or lay down and how to cellar those you keep

Given all of the images of wine cellars out on the internet, people often get the impression that most wines should be held for many years before popping the cork and enjoying the contents.  However, in reality 90% of wine that is released by the wineries is ready for consumption when it is released and 99% within 5 years of release.  Only 5 to 10% of wines will improve after a year of cellaring and only 1% will continue to improve after 5 to 10 years of cellaring.

In order for a wine to benefit from aging, it requires a high acidity level.  Acidity adds to a wine’s vibrant, full-bodied texture. It fades with age, so cellared wines must start out with a high level of acidity. Wines with low acidity (<0.65g/100ml), like Pinot Grigio, will become flat much sooner and lose most of their flavour in a short period of time.

The second characteristic of a cellarable wine is a significant amount of tannin.  Tannin is created by allowing the grape skins, seeds and stems to remain in the juice after processing.  Additional tannin is created when the wine is stored in wooden wine barrels (French Oak or American Oak).  Bold tannins give wine the structure to age well.  Tannins create the dryness in wine and can make the wine somewhat bitter. In a young wine they can make your mouth pucker up, somewhat like a sip of a strong black tea.

Without tannins and acidity, there is nothing to be gained by keeping a wine for more than a year or two.  When a wine is kept beyond its prime it begins to lose its flavour and becomes very acidy.

Wine reviewers and vintners can give you suggestions as to how long to retain a particular wine.  Why guess when you can take advantage of their free advice.

If you are going to store wine, whether it be for a week, a month or a decade, there are some dos and don’ts to consider  to help ensure that wine tastes as good as it should.  You don’t need to have a wine cellar or even a wine fridge to store wine but there are some things to keep in mind.

Most importantly all wine should be kept in the dark.  Both sunlight and incandescent light can harm your wine.  Think of wine as being like fabric.  Fabric exposed to sunlight can bleach out the colour and eventually cause the material to rot.  Light has a similar effect on wine, causing the wine to begin breaking down, resulting in lost flavour and spoilage.

If you have a means of chilling your wine, the experts have differing opinions but generally speaking it seems safe to store them anywhere between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit, although 55 degrees is believed to be about the perfect temperature.

If stored at a temperature over 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the wine will age more quickly than expected and therefore begin losing flavour and aroma.  It is also beneficial to keep your wine stored at as consistent a temperature as possible.

Traditionally wine is stored on its side.  This is done in order to ensure the cork remains wet.  If a cork is allowed to dry out, over time it will shrink and allow oxygen into the bottle.  Once wine is exposed to oxygen, it quickly spoils leaving you with an undrinkable surprise when you open it. 

Even though not all wine has a cork any more, another reason for laying a bottle on its side is to allow for the equal distribution of the sediment that is often found in a wine with high tannin content.  During the aging process the tannins can solidify and drop to the bottom.  With the bottle lying on its side, the solids are distributed more evenly, keeping the flavour of the wine consistent from the first glass to the last.

Once you have placed your bottle in its resting place, whether that is in a wine cellar, wine fridge or even a closet, it should not be disturbed until you retrieve it to drink.  You don’t want to shake up the tannins that have been slowly settling in the bottle.

One final no-no and my pet peeve is never store wine in an open wine rack in a kitchen.  Kitchen designers seem to love including a wine rack in the end of an island or even worse, next to the stove.  I admit these wine racks often look very enticing and professional but resist the temptation to slip a bottle of wine into one.  The kitchen is the brightest room in the house with the greatest fluctuation in heat and humidity – a total wine killer.  The only time wine should appear in the kitchen is when it is being poured into a glass.

Lastly, when you go to serve that bottle of wine, both reds and whites should be pulled from the fridge or wine cellar about 20 minutes before opening to be allowed some time to warm up a little.  On the other hand, if your wine has been stored at room temperature, even most red wines should be chilled for a few minutes before serving.

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Germany’s Quality Standard

Germany’s wine governing body is the Association of German Quality and Prädikat Wine Estates known as Verband Deutscher Prädikats- und Qualitätsweinguter (VDP).  This is an association of about 200 top German wineries. Membership is voluntary but requires adherence to strict standards well above those required by German wine law.

Since 1910, the VDP and its black eagle logo have been an important, although unofficial, symbol of German wine quality. The association has created its own wine quality system based on the vineyard classification terms ‘Grosse Lage’ and ‘Erste Lage’ (similar to France’s Grand Cru and Premier Cru).

Grosse Lage is used only for Germany’s very best vineyard sites – small, carefully demarcated areas with clear site-specific characteristics. Yields on these sites are limited to 50 hectoliters per hectare, which generally equates to about 8,000 kilograms of grapes per hectare, if that is any help giving you a visual.

Grosse Lage vineyards produce Grosses Gewächs (a dry wine). A Grosses Gewächs may be either white or red wine, depending on the vineyard.

Erste Lage identifies first class vineyards with distinctive characteristics, but which rank a little behind Grosse Lage in terms of quality. Yields are limited to 60 hectoliters per hectare.

From a government perspective, German wine is classified into 1 of 4 quality categories: Deutscher Wein, Landwein, Qualitätswein (QbA) and Prädikatswein. The latter is further divided into levels of ripeness: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein and Trockenbeerenauslese.

  • Kabinett = the lowest level of Prädikatswein.  It is lower in ripeness than Spätlese
  • Spätlese = a white wine made from fully ripe grapes harvested late in the season
  • Auslese = a late harvest white wine  made from grapes that are riper than Spätlese
  • Beerenauslese = made from individually selected grapes that are very ripe. Usually these grapes have been affected by Botrytis cinerea, (noble rot), further concentrating their high sugars. As a result these wines are rare and costly.
  • Eiswein = an icewine/dessert wine produced from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine.
  • Trockenbeerenauslese = a medium bodied dessert wine with the highest sugar concentration of any German wine ity. Yields

Each of the quality categories is determined by the level of ripeness that the grapes have achieved by the time they are harvested. Generally speaking riper grapes provide more aroma and more flavourful wine. It is interesting to note that ripeness is used as the basis of the quality scale because it is not uncommon for grapes to not fully mature before being harvested.  This is due to the cool climate conditions which can reduce the growing season.

The German wine law identifies Prädikatswein (previously referred to as Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP)), as representing graduating ripeness levels in ascending order: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, BA, and TBA. These wines are all naturally produced with no chaptalization (no sugar is added).   This sounds like a winner to me.

The second category is Qualitätswein (QbA).  These wines must comply with the regional appellation laws and are tested for compliance by an official committee.  The laws ensure that the wine is from one specific wine-growing region, is made of approved grape varieties and reached sufficient ripeness for a quality wine.  Those wines that successfully meet the standard receive an AP-Number.

About three-quarters of all German wine are in this category.  A QbA wine must be made exclusively from grapes grown in one of Germany’s 13 official wine regions, called an Anbaugebiete.

It is interesting to note that the wines in this category are chaptalized (have sugar added to the juice before fermentation to increase the alcohol level after fermentation).  

The third category is Deutscher Wein, which consists of normally ripe and slightly under ripe grapes. This class of wine is primarily consumed in Germany with very little being exported to North America. These wines only have to comply with few restrictions and the wines are not officially tested. They do not have an AP-Number.  This would be the equivalent of France’s Vin De Pays and Europe’s IGP category.

A superior type of Deutscher Wein is Deutshcer Landwein, which has a minimum of 0.5% more alcohol. The wine must come from one of 19 specified wine districts. A Landwein must not contain more than 18 grams of sugar per liter.

From my interpretation I would see only the Qualitätswein (QbA) and Prädikatswein being a worthwhile pursuit in your wine search.  Grosse Lage and Ertse Laga wines would be included in these categories. Personally I am not a fan of incorporating sugars that are not part of the natural fermentation process, so I limit my own search to Prädikatswein grade wines.

Here are some hints that will help you interpret German wine labels.

  • Amtliche Prüfungsnummer (A.P. Nr) = Quality control number, granted after official quality testing
  • Anbaugebiet = One of Germany’s 13 wine regions
  • Bereich = One of Germany’s 39 wine districts, which make up the 13 Anbaugebiete
  • Einzellage = Single vineyard, meaning the grapes used to produce the particular wine came from one vineyard.  This helps to ensure quality control and consistency of the grape content
  • Erste Lage = High quality vineyard, similar to France’s ‘Premier Cru’
  • Goldkapsel = ‘Gold capsule’, indicating a producer’s finest wine
  • Grosslage = Collection of vineyards; the opposite of Einzellage above
  • Grosse Lage = Top-quality vineyard, similar to France’s ‘Grand Cru’
  • Grosses Gewächs = Dry wine from a Grosse Lage vineyard
  • Gutsabfüllung = Estate-bottled wine
  • Halbtrocken = Medium-dry
  • Liebfraumilch = Semi-sweet style, made most often from Muller-Thurgau grapes
  • Oechsle = Unit of must-weight (grape sugar content)
  • Prädikat = ‘distinction’, or ripeness level
  • Rotwein = Red wine
  • Rotling = Rosé wine made from red and white grapes
  • Schillerwein = Rotling-like rosé style from Württemberg (and N.Switzerland)
  • Sekt = Sparkling wine
  • Trocken = Dry
  • VDP Verband Deutscher Prädikats = Qualitätsweinguter, which is described above
  • Weingut = Wine estate
  • Weinkellerei = Winery
  • Weissherbst = Rosé made from a single red-wine grape variety
  • Weisswein = White wine

I have had a number of wonderful German Rieslings and Gewürztraminers over the years and I must admit that I have not paid attention to the quality rating the wine has had.  However, not being a fan of overly sweet wine, I do pay attention to the scale of dryness.  

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What Wine is Best for Me?

I sometimes hear that although someone prefers red wine over white wine, they have to drink white wine because red wine causes them grief, usually in the way of heartburn or headaches.  Don’t give up hope quite yet; there are some potential remedies that may allow you to enjoy red wine again.

 For anyone suffering from heartburn after drinking red wine, quite often it is the tannin that is the culprit.  Therefore, I suggest trying younger, fresher wines, such as Baco Noir and Pinot Noir and stay away from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah/Shiraz.   The young fresh wines will contain less tannin.

Another good way to determine how much tannin is in a red wine is to look and see how long the wine can be kept for.  In the Vintages section of your local LCBO this is identified by the wine bottle icon found on the description card attached to the display shelf.  The bottle will either be vertical, on a slant, or horizontal.   Wines with higher contents of tannin are ones that can be retained for at least several years.  Those will be the ones with the horizontal or slanted bottle icon.

This being said, the reds with the slanted bottle icon should not be automatically rejected.  Those that have been released within a couple of years of being produced  and recommended for consumption within the next couple of years, will have considerably less tannin than those that can be cellared  for a number of years.  It will require experimentation to determine how much tannin your stomach will comfortably tolerate.

I also suggest avoiding red wines from warmer climates, such as Australia and South America.  These wines tend to be bolder and stronger in flavour than wines from countries such as Canada or France.  Wines from warmer climates tend to have longer growing seasons, thus intensifying the wine which can result in a higher degree of tummy agitation.

If red wine gives you headaches tannin again can be the instigator.  Tannin consists of plant chemicals that contain antioxidants that can generate neurotransmitter serotonin.  This in turn can cause headaches in some people.  Selecting a red wine that contains lower amounts of tannin may be of great benefit.

However, tannin is not the only cause of headaches.  Some individuals lack the ability to breakdown the high level of histamine that is contained within the red grape skins.  The result is a type of allergic reaction that comes in the form of a headache.  The recommended solution for this is to take an antihistamine before consuming your favourite red.

Finally, a local potter once told me that a pottery wine challis that is unglazed inside will neutralize the tannin thus making the wine easier on both the stomach and the head.  It may be worth the investment to see if it works for you.  The worst case would be you have a new fancy wine vessel taking space in your cupboard that can be repurposed.

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