The Italian DOC/G system is dying

Whenever my students, readers, or colleagues ask me about the Italian DOC and DOCG systems and what is the difference between the two, I always tell them: It’s important to keep in mind that the Italian appellation system was created not to protect the consumer or to enhance Italian producers’s capabilities in marketing their wines. It was created — as the dearly missed Teobaldo (Baldo) Cappellano pointed out in the Brunello Debate of October 2008 — to protect the territories where the wines are produced.

There is a widespread misconception of the system — for which Italian producers and North American educators are to blame — that the DOCG denoted a higher level of quality “controlled and guaranteed” by authorities for the protection of consumers. In fact, the DOCG represents more rigorous “monitoring” (as we would say in UN-speak) of practices “on the ground,” intended to protect the appellations themselves. In other words, these more stringent regulations were created and implemented to ensure that once a winemaking tradition was officially established, it would enjoy the support of the state when threatened by outside forces or internally unscrupulous producers.

Today, over at VinoWire, Italy’s A-number-1 wine blogger Franco Ziliani and I have posted his observations and commentary on the creation of Italy’s first-ever DOCG for rosé.

Salice Salentino Rosato, you wonder? Or a rosé from Nebbiolo or perhaps Sangiovese? No, Italy’s first rosé DOCG is Castel del Monte Bombino Nero, an appellation that allows for the following grape varieties:

Bombino Nero and/or Aglianico and/or Uva di Troia from 65-100%. Other grapes allowed in the production of this wine, by themselves or blended, include non-aromatic grape varieties recommended and/or authorized by the Province of Bari, provided they are grown locally, [for] up to 35% of the blend.

As they say in Italian, siamo arrivati alla frutta, in other words, it’s time for the [poison-laced] fruit at the end of the meal, a common technique for assassination in the Middle Ages.

The Italian DOCG system has been co-opted, colonized, and raped (there is no better word) by misguided and misinformed, greedy robber-baron Italian producers and money-grubbing politicians who have used lobbying and gerrymandering to create a false “luxury brand” for the sole purpose of lining their pockets with dollars of innocent North American consumers. How many times have you visited a wine store where some young and well-intentioned sales person has told you: See the DOCG label on the Chianti Classico? That means it’s a better wine than the DOC.

Today, the Italian DOCG system is the saddest form of wine writing (vinography) that I have ever encountered. It makes me want to heave.

For the most up-to-date and ever-growing list of Italian DOCGs, see Alfonso’s post here.

The new Italian DOCGs, Derrida, and the moral bankruptcy of the Italian appellation system

I will speak, therefore, of a letter.

Of the first [seventh] letter, if the alphabet, and most of the speculations which have ventured into it, are to be believed.

Jacques Derrida, “Différance” (1968)

If the alphabet is to be believed, then I imagine we must seriously consider the three new DOCGs announced by the Italian government last week: Frascati Superiore, Cannellino di Frascati, and Montecucco Sangiovese. (See my paraphrase of the agricultural minister’s press release at VinoWire and see Alfonso’s wonderfully parodic treatment here.)

Of these — in an era when the Italian DOC/G system has been rendered essentially obsolete, save for its campanilian value, by the EU CMO reforms and adoption of the overarching PDO and PGI system — the most intriguing and least absurdist is the Montecucco Sangiovese.

Montecucco (in the Tuscan province of Grosseto) has grown significantly in the last 5 years, both in terms of quality and investment, and the wines raised there are aggressively marketed to the domestic and foreign markets. But the thought of a Montecucco DOCG remains laughable at best. When the DOCG was created (the first was awarded to Brunello di Montalcino in 1980), it was ostensibly intended to denote superior quality: the G in DOCG meant that the appellation had been controlled and guaranteed (in a second round of tasting after bottling) by Italian authorities before its release. Although I can find no official statement addressing the reasons for its creation, it was conceived and has been subsequently perceived as an elevated category reserved for Italy’s finest wines. As much as I wish the growers, producers, and bottlers of Montecucco well, I’d be hard-pressed to name a bottling of Montecucco that impressed me the way certain bottlings of Brunello di Montalcino, Barolo, Barbaresco, Aglianico di Vulture, Taurasi, or Amarone del Valpolicella have (for the record, among others, I’ve tasted scores of Montecucco in Paganico with the media director for the Montecucco growers association).

But the thought of a Frascati Superiore DOCG and its sister Cannellino di Frascati DOCG requires mental gymnastics too strenuous for my current state of mind. I, like my blogging colleague, Franco Ziliani, shook my head in disbelief and despair when I read the news. In an editorial posted today at VinoWire, Franco observes that “the Frascati DOC is made up of 800 grape growers who span 1,400 hectares of surface area and who produce 150,000 quintals of grapes destined to become 110,000 hectolitres of wine vinified by roughly 30 winemakers and bottled by roughly 40 bottlers.” A year ago, he points out, the Italian government applied to the EU for “emergency distillation” for Frascati bottlers so they could distill their unsold wine and reap EU subsidies. Today, Frascati has two new DOCGs. When’s the last time you tasted a Frascati that you would but in a class with Italy’s or Europe’s greatest fine wines?

Read Franco’s editorial, “The Letter G Is No Magic Wand,” translated to English by me, here.

“There is nothing outside the text,” said Derrida (in)famously. To which he often added, “everything is a text. This is a text,” as he gestured about. In the light of this observation, the G in DOCG must mean something within the (con)text… mustn’t it?

But the more closely we look at the G (borrowing from an aphorism by Karl Kraus), the more distant it appears. In fact, it has come to mean nothing beyond an insipid, vacant, morally bankrupt, and politically corrupt marketing conceit. (In the Veneto, for example, bureaucrats have created a DOCG ex novo, with no historic precedent, the Malanotte DOCG, a DOCG created before any wine labeled as Malanotte was ever released! Conceived in 2009 and awarded in 2010, the DOCG will be made available to consumers for the first time at the end of this year.)

But as Alfonso’s updated DOCG list reveals (as does the subsequent handwringing that reverberates throughout the blogosphere every time he updates the list), we recognize the signifier (the letter G) and our will to decipher its signified is so great that we are compelled to ascribe meaning. (Anyone familiar with the writings of Lacan will recognize the imagery in Alfonso’s post of biblical proportions.)

If Derrida were alive today to deconstruct the DOCG as text, he would illustrate how the différance created by the letter G is but a series of misunderstandings whereby its function is conceived, misconceived, perceived, and misperceived in its Atlantic crossing until its meaning no longer has any connection to its author.

Parodying Nietzsche, French semiotician Roland Barthes wrote famously that the author is dead. But it was Woody Allen who said, Marx is dead, Lenin is dead, and I don’t feel so good myself.

My thoughts exactly!

The new DOCG list and a killer Offida Pecorino

Above: The 2008 Offida Pecorino Le Merlettaie by Ciù Ciù is the best Pecorino I’ve ever tasted in the U.S. Really, really dug this wine.

“Official” is a relative qualifier in Italy. And I make that statement with all due respect and sans ironie. In the linear, Protestant thought processes of the Anglo-Saxon mindset, actors tend to see things in “black or white,” “day or night,” “yes or no”… In the non-linear, Catholic all-embracing Romance understanding of the world and the way it works, lines are blurred and absolutes are malleable. (Does anyone remember Bertolucci’s treatment of absolutes and Plato’s cave in Il conformista, 1970?)

Above: Le Merlettaie is named after the famous lacemakers of Offida. The merletto a tombolo (tombolo is the pillow used to make the lace) is one of the great national treasures of Italy. I found this video showing how the lace is made.

In the wake of the publication of Alfonso Cevola’s update DOCG list, contentious emails have been hurled across the internets this morning debating the currency of the “official” number of DOCGs. I guess it depends what your definition of “is” is.

The only thing I know for certain is that Alfonso has done the wine world a service by compiling and diligently updating the list. Whether you’re a Master Sommelier candidate studying for your exam or your a server in a fine-dining establishment who wants to be able to discuss the Italian appellation system intelligently with your patrons, his list is an indispensable tool in deciphering the canon law of Italian wine.

Above: To DOC or DOCG… I say “schlemiel, schlimazel!” Pecorino, when vinified in a traditional manner, is delicious (BTW, the schlemiel spills his soup on the schlimazel.)

I can also confirm that Offida Pecorino will be equally delicious when it attains its new “Terre di Offida” DOCG status. The one that we drank last night showed sturdy acidity and a wonderfully viscous mouthfeel, with nutty and stone fruit notes.

In other news…

Last night, Tracie P made ragù alla bolognese for Nous Non Plus and the utterly inimitable and magical David Garza who came over to listen to our tracks and sprinkle some of his amazing gold dust on us. He brought a beautiful 1964 handmade nylon string guitar and it was amazing to hear him play and noodle on the patio before dinner. He’s performing the last concert of his residency at the Continental Club (gallery) in Austin on Monday night.

Nuthin’ but a G thang: an updated list of DOCGs

I will spare you my Derridian dissertation on the différance that a G makes between the DOC and DOCG designations (nor will I comment on the superfluousness of the recent political jockeying that resulted in a DOCG boom for Italian winemakers).

As one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century once said, it ain’t nuthin’ but a G thang.

I will, however, point you to an updated list of DOCGs authored by Alfonso (above).

In other news…

Sunset yesterday in La Jolla where I’ve been busy delivering wine for my wine club Do Bianchi Wine Selections and visiting with mama Judy and Parzen brood (jamming out with nephew Cole after dinner last night, him on upright piano and me on guitar, was a highlight).

How does the song go?

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.”

Accattone and old Italian Cabernet

Above: The label on Gasparini’s Capo di Stato (Head of State) depicts Charles de Gaulle as Alexander the Great. The original owner of the estate, Count Loredan Gasparini, was the descendant of a Venetian patrician and doge. Imperialist leanings with your Cabernet, anyone? I used to drive through Venegazzù in the Trevisan hills where this wine is made nearly every week on my way to play gigs when I was a student in Italy in the early 90s.

Last night, following meetings and a business dinner in Dallas, I headed over to Italian Wine Guy’s house for a killer bottle of wine and one of my favorite films, Pasolini’s Accattone (1961)

In my view, Cabernet Sauvignon is a terribly misunderstood grape. In the U.S. and Italy people tend to drink it when it’s too young and too tannic (and as a result, too many modern-style winemakers trick it out to make more “drinkable” early on). This nearly 30-year-old beauty was stunning: lively acidity, truly silky tannin, and gorgeous red fruit. I haven’t tasted any recent vintages of Capo di Stato lately but this wine was made before the barrique craze took off in Italy (following Maurizio Zanella’s historic trip to California with Luigi Veronelli).

There was some irony in sipping such an extravagant bottle of wine and watching a film about a Roman small-time pimp, set in the squalor of the outskirts of Rome. Accattone was Pasolini’s first film and it launched his career as a leading and highly controversial filmmaker and intellectual.

In this sequence, Accattone, played by Franco Citti (remember him from The God Father II and III?), has accepted a challenge and bet that he can survive a dive from a bridge into the Tiber after consuming a large meal. The danger, as is perfectly clear to any Italian, is not the dive itself but rather the contact with water immediately after eating. Throughout the film — which is sometimes funny and ultimately very sad — Accattone (The Sponger) is constantly complaining about how hungry he is and devising schemes to get a free meal.

In other news…

Check out Tracie B’s Joly post over at Saignée, part of the 31 Days of Natural Wine series there. I’m at a Starbucks outside Waco right now catching up online. I’ve had a rough couple of days with work and other stuff. But knowing I’m going to see that lovely lady tonight is like sugar in my bitter coffee.

In other other news…

You can download a really cool new Italian DOC and DOCG map here.