The Italian DOC/G system does (and doesn’t) matter

Photos by Tracie B.

A number of folks have posted recently about the Italian appellation system, bemoaning the fact that there is no “official” comprehensive list of DOCs and DOCGs. Back in NYC, my friend and colleague James Taylor posted at the VinoNYC blog: “as is the case with most things governmental in Italy, the system for classifying its wines can be apparently simple but deceptively complex, and can oftentimes cause a headache.” (In case you are not familiar with the Italian appellation system, see the note following this post below.)

Out here in Texas, Italian Wine Guy recently updated his list of DOCGs. His is the most comprehensive list that I know of. (Considering how much Italian wine he “touches,” as he likes to put it, as the Italian wine director for behemoth distributor Glazer’s, you’d think the Italian government would give this dude a medal. He certainly deserves one.)

It’s remarkable to think that neither the Italian government nor its Trade Commission, nor the Agriculture Ministry, nor the Italian Wine Union publish an online, comprehensive, definitive, exhaustive, up-to-date list.

But does a list really matter? Especially now?

IWG notes that while some might wonder why such a list is really necessary, it is important “because sommeliers studying for their tests want and need this information [and] anyway, it is kind of fun trying to figure a way through the labyrinth of Italian wines on that (or any) level.”

The point about sommeliers studying for their exams is a valid one: as Franco and I reported the other day at VinoWire, none of the three finalists in the recent AIS sommelier competition recognized a Langhe Bianco DOC (and one of its producers is no less than the Bishop of Barbaresco, Angelo Gaja!). Needless to say, the award was conferred to one of the contestants despite this glaring lacuna. The fact of the matter is that in the U.S. we perceive these regulations in an entirely different perspective — one that reveals our pseudo-Protestant and quasi-Progressivist tendencies and predilections for precision and accuracy.

One of our (American) misconceptions about the Italian appellation system is that it was designed to protect the consumer. In fact, as Teobaldo Cappellano pointed out in last year’s Brunello Debate, the DOC/DOCG system was created to protect “the territory,” i.e., the production zone and the people who live there and make wine.

On August 1, 2009, the DOC and DOCG system was essentially put to rest by newly implemented EU Common Market Organization reforms. August 1 was the deadline for the creation of wine appellations by EU member states and from that day forward, the power to create appellations passed from member states to the EU. The deadline created a mad rush to create new DOCs and DOCGs in Italy. Beginning with the current vintage, all wines produced in the EU will be labeled as Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). The new designations will recognize and allow labeling using the members states’s current appellation classifications. But from now on, no new DOCs or DOCGs will be permitted.

It’s important to note that the DOCG does denote a higher standard of production practices: generally, lower yields, longer aging, and a second tasting of the wine by local chambers of commerce (after bottling but before release), thus conferring the “G” for garantita (guaranteed). But even though the DOCG classification has been used historically as a more-or-less deceptive marketing tool (like this pay-to-play press release on the just-under-the-wire new Matelica DOCG), it does not necessarily denote higher quality. Think, for example, of Quintarelli’s 1999 Rosso del Bepi Veneto IGT, his declassified Amarone. A few years ago, when I called him to ask him about this wine, Giuseppe Quntarelli told me that he thought it was a great wine and wanted to release it but he felt it wasn’t a “true Amarone” and so he declassified it. (Yes, I hate to break the news to you, Bob Chadderdon, you’re not the only person in the U.S. allowed to speak to Quintarelli. He complimented me, btw, for my Paduan cadence!)

The rush to create new appellations (and in particular, new DOCGs), has created a great deal of confusion and in some cases commotion. I’ll post more on the subject later this week: self-proclaimed xenophobe, racist, and separatist agriculture minister Luca Zaia truly stirred the pot with the creation of a Prosecco DOCG. Stay tuned…

*****

Currently, the Italian appellation system has three basic classifications for fine wine: DOCG, DOC, and IGT.

Acronymic articulations and translations:

DOCG: Denominazione d’origine controllata e garantita (Designation of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin)

DOC: Denominazione d’origine controllata (Designation of Controlled Origin)

IGT: Indicazione Geografica Tipica (Typical Geographical Indication)

There are wines still labeled VdT, i.e., Vino da Tavola or table wines but few of them make the Atlantic passage. In other words, few cross that body of water otherwise known as the “great misunderstanding.”

6 thoughts on “The Italian DOC/G system does (and doesn’t) matter

  1. Will incorporate this info into our weekly wine seminars…there’s always a blurb about DOC/DOCG/IGT. Nice work as always! Btw, I may mess up a degustazione cieco w/some wines, but not a Langhe Bianco! We serve it quite a bit at Mozza.

  2. I shall dedicate some time taking care of the wikipedia pages in English and Italian.

    If you’re ok with it i could source from your list for the DOCG pages.

    The Italian wikipedia pages have some nice information about many grape varieties and DOC appelations.

    I find that easy to find and reliable info about Italian wines are very important.

    When i go out to sell wine i expect the people that i talk into, for example, Valtellina Superiore or Valtellina Sforzato, would go google for it and found enough info to help them introduce the wines to their customers. Otherwise we’ll have to drink Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello forever; not that i would mind but my bank account would go red quickly, and the sense of exploration and discovery that is so fun to follow in the wine world, would suffer.

  3. Jeremy:

    I’ll post on this soon, but for now, good on you to bring this subject up, as it is a critical one for understanding Italian wines. On the one hand, the DOC system is vital, if only to offer consumers some protection. For example, if they purchase a Chianti Classico, they need to know the grapes are from that area and that there is a minimum of 80% Sangiovese in the blend. If not, then a producer can label the wine as IGT Toscana. A simple and elegant solution.

    Yet clearly there are far too many DOCs. How may people could tell you from what region the Offida DOC originates? (it’s from Marche.) More importantly, does it really matter to anyone but the local producers? Do consumers care if a beautiful bottle of Pecorino from Marche is from the Offida DOC or whether it’s an IGT Marche? Does the wine taste better one way or the other? The DOC system has become terribly confusing and bottom line, that doesn’t help Italian producers in their efforts to sell wine in this country or any other country, for that matter.

  4. @Lorenzo there’s no doubt in my mind that the Italian wineries (and importers of Italian wine) who are enjoying the greatest success are those making wine education a central element in their sales program. It’s so inexpensive to host content on the internet these days and make it accessible (through proper tags). If the Italian government, trade commission, and/or agriculture minister is listening: I am available to create content and/or translate!

    @Tom I love Offida! I think that the new system will have its pluses and minuses. On one level, it will simplify the many fantasy names out there with varietal labeling. At the same time, varietal-labeled wine could eclipse many of the great “traditional” wines. It’s important that the custodians of the new appellation system use it wisely (i.e., the Italian National Wine Committee).

    @Adrian and Alfonso thanks for reading… I hope these posts are helpful and useful…

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