Italian wine classification is like a pyramid. Look at the top: you will see the best wine. You will see Barbera d’Asti.
As the other wine producing country, Italy also has laws to indicate wine quality. Essentially, there are four classifications known as “The Pyramid of Quality”. The highest quality wines, characterized by strict production rules and the highest value, are at the top of the pyramid. Low quality wines characterized by the fewest restrictions and lowest value are at the base.
The Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, DOCG, is Italy’s highest wine classification. These wine have the deepest relationship with their production areas. Some examples are Barbera d’Asti, of course, but also Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino.
Denominazione di Origine Controllata, DOC, is the next level down. A wine marked DOC is produced in a specific, well-defined region according to strict wine-making rules designed to preserve the local traditions. Piemonte DOC and Prosecco DOC are examples of this.
Both DOCG and DOC are the categories that fall under the EU’s “Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Area” definition. Specific Area means that all DO wines are produced in a well-defined geographical area with precise chemical and organoleptic characteristics which have been established in advance according to the specific production criteria Disciplinari di Produzione.
These specifications determine the types of wine that can be produced, Tipologia, Riserva, or Superiore; the varieties of grapes that can be used; the allowable yield per hectare; the conversion efficiency of grapes into wine, usually 70%; the alcohol percentage; and the type and duration of aging. All the grapes, 100%, used in the production of DOCG and DOC must be produced, and usually processed and prepared entirely within the delineated geographical area.
Italian law also requires that the DO wines’ quality must be controlled. Before being allowed on the market, the wines undergo physio-chemical and organoleptic analyses to ensure they meet the Disciplinare di Produzione’s standards.
The DOCG wine rules are more stringent than those for the DOC. The yield of grapes is lower, additional labeling is required, and the wine must be aged longer. To obtain the G of the DOCG, the wine must have been certified DOC for at least five years. DOCG wines are also sealed with a numbered governmental stamp across the cork which is not obligatory for the DOC. This stamp in your guarantee that the wine you paid dearly for was produced with strict adherence to local wine making rules.
Indicazione Geografica Tipica, IGT, wines are the next step down from DO wines. IGT indicates the name of a region or a specific location and is used to describe a wine coming from there that has determined (but not all) qualities, a reputation or other characteristics that can be attributed to that specific geographical region.
At the base of the pyramid, the lowest quality standard, is Vini Varietali. Varietali means a wine produced from a specific grape variety which is sometimes, mostly for a select few grapes such as Chardonnay and Merlot, printed on the label. Vini Varietali on the label tells you only that the wine is made in Italy. There are not many interesting Vini Varietali wines in the United States as these wine are mostly made to be consumed in their local regions.
Post Script: Beginning in 2009, the European Community reformed the wine classification system to equate the wine growing and production legislation with the ones already existing for the rest of the agricultural and food products. Now only two classifications are provided:
-Wines with geographical indication, DOP and IGP
-Wines without geographical indication, Vini varietali
Italy allows the continued use of the traditional designations to characterize quality wines. DOCG and DOC both correspond to DOP; IGT corresponds to IGP.