How to Navigate a Wine List in Italy

From understanding wine culture in Italy to a little cheat sheet with some of our favorite Italian wineries by region, here’s everything you need to know when faced with a wine list in Italy!

We’ve all been there… you go to a restaurant, you’re handed the wine list, and you have absolutely no clue on which wine to order. That’s when your eyes turn to the right column of the list and you base your selection on the price of the bottle.

You think to yourself that the most expensive wine bottle is going to be the best one, right? WRONG! That’s not how to navigate a wine list in Italy (or anywhere else for that matter)! Keep reading as we give you precious advice on how to order wine in Italy.

With our tips for navigating an Italian wine list, you'll sound like a born-and-bred Roman.

Red, white or sparkling wine?

First things first, when navigating an Italian wine list you need to ask yourself whether you’re going to have red wine (vino rosso), white wine (vino bianco) or sparkling wine (prosecco)?

On what should you base your decision? On the type of food that you intend to order! Your best bet is always to ask the sommelier. He or she will know how to pair your wine with food!

Most people think that white wine should be ordered with seafood, and red wine with meat. But that’s not entirely true! There are many red wines that are great with seafood too; it all depends on balancing out the flavors. Prosecco, a famous Italian sparkling wine produced in the north of Italy, is usually ordered for aperitivo.

The best places to try wine in Italy? In the famous wine bars, called enoteche.

First step of navigating an Italian wine list: narrowing it down between red, white, or sparkling.
Yes, you CAN order red with seafood!

Glass, bottle or …?

Should you order a glass of wine or a bottle of wine? It all depends on how much you want to drink! But if you’re two people and you plan on having two glasses each, definitely go for the bottle—it’ll turn out cheaper in the end since one bottle of wine is usually five glasses!

If you’re at a restaurant, you’re going to have the option of ordering a bottle of wine (750 ml), a half bottle of wine (una mezza bottiglia, 375 ml) or a glass. But if you’re in a no-frills restaurant like a Roman trattoria or osteria, you’ll also have the option of ordering other sizes of the house wine.

The most famous wine carafe sizes in Rome are known as un litro, for a liter, the mezzo litro or foglietta for half a liter (500 ml), un quartino, for a quarter of a liter (250 ml), and the chirichetto for a fifth of a liter (200 ml). The smallest of all is the sospiro or sottovoce, which literally means sigh or whisper. The sospiro is a tenth of a liter and it’s called this because the customers who ordered it would whisper it to the waiter, as it was the smallest wine size and usually meant you didn’t have enough money to buy a bigger carafe.

Considering the wine glasses are smaller at these no-frills restaurants, a litro is around 8-10 glasses, a mezzo litro is around 4-5 glasses, a quartino is about 2-3 glasses, a chirichetto is around 1-2 glasses and the sospiro is one glass.

When navigating an Italian wine list, consider how many people will be drinking. A bottle may end up being the best bargain.
Dining with a crowd? A bottle (or several) may be your best bet.

Wine Classifications: DOCG, DOC or IGT?

Any wine enthusiast will tell you that knowing your wine classification is important! But what do “wine classifications” mean?

Simply, they’re a way to indicate and trace where the grapes were grown and where the wine was produced. As you may know, certain wines can only be produced in specific geographical areas, and therefore are classified by their place of origin, or appellation.

The strictest type of wine classification in Italy is DOCG, Denominazione di Origina Controllata e Garantita. Wines with these classifications have to be made in DOCG-protected zones in Italy and have to meet strict standards.

Another famous classification is DOC, Denominazione di Origine Controllata. Like its sister DOCG, these types of wines have to be produced in specific areas with specific regulations. It’s the Italian version of the French AOC classification, Appellation d’Origine Controlee.

Then we have the IGT classification, Indicazione di Geografica Tipica. This type of wine label means that the wine has to be made in a particular region, but the wine can be a mix of different grapes.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that DOCG wines are the best though! Some of the Super Tuscans are made with blends of grapes grown in different areas, such as the Merlot and Cabernet, and are therefore “downgraded” to the IGT classification, but they’re incredible wines!  

When navigating an Italian wine list, knowing your wine classifications (like DOCG) can come in handy.
Chianti Colli Senesi is one of the Italian wine regions that boasts the DOCG label. Photo credit: Revol Web

What about the house wine?

There are restaurants, especially trattorias, that serve what is known as vino della casa, house wine. It’s a type of wine that belongs to the least strict wine classification in Italy: VdT or vino da tavola. These types of wines don’t have strict regulations, they just need to have been produced in Italy.

Back in the days, the vino della casa was wine that was produced by the restaurant’s owners. Today, house wine is actually a wine that has a good price-quality ratio, that the owners purchase at a very low price, and is generally ordered by customers who don’t want to spend too much money on wine. For this reason, you can’t know if the house wine that you’re being served is of good quality or not. If you don’t want to risk it, ask for the wine list.

In any case, if you’re ever in Rome at Trattoria Da Teo, their red house wine is quite good, and you can definitely go for it!

Don't always be afraid of the house wine when reading an Italian wine list. It's not always the best, but isn't always half bad.
Don’t always be afraid of the house wine—some are actually quite good.

Some of our favorite Italian wineries

So after all this chit chat, let’s get to the point! What are some good wines that you can order during your stay in Italy?

Most Italian wine lists are divided into the regions where the wine was produced, so read on for some of our favorite wineries by region. And don’t worry, there’s something for every budget!

The Lazio region around Rome is famous for white wines like Malvasia and Trebbiano and red wines like Merlot, Sangiovese and Cesanese. It’s not one of the most famous Italian wine regions but you’ll find some good wine here! While ordering at a restaurant, keep in mind wineries like Casale del Giglio, Falesco and Marco Carpineti.

If you’re searching for a red, then a wine from Tuscany is the way to go. Tuscany is famous worldwide for its red wine, from the Sangiovese (Chianti) to the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Canaiolo Nero. Some wineries to keep in mind as you order are Castello Banfi, Marchesi Antinori and Bolgheri.

When navigating an Italian wine list, pay attention to the regions!
The idyllic vineyards of Tuscany are home to some of Italy’s best reds. Photo credit: To Tuscany

Go for a Friuli-Venezia Giulia wine if you’re into white wines with more aromatic flavours. Famous for Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, but also look out for their Merlots. A-list wineries are Jermann, Livio Felluga and Lis Neris.

For one of the best reds, choose from the Veneto region and keep your eyes open for the Valpolliccella (Corvina) and Merlot for reds, and Soave and Pinot Grigio for whites. Not to mention the world-famous prosecco! Wineries to keep in mind are Masi, Bolla and Quintarelli Giuseppe.

Another great region for red wine is Umbria. This region is known for its sweet Sagrantino, Merlot and Sangiovese. If you’re into white, Grechetto and Trebbiano are the local production. Arnaldo Caprai, Perticaia, Lungarotti are all great wineries to remember!

Piedmont is yet another world-famous wine region, and they have a great mix of reds and whites. They’re famous for the Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto for reds and the Arneis, Cortese (Gave) and Moscato D’Asti for whites. Wineries to remember are Marchesi di Barolo, Ceretto and Braida.

Whether you’re ready to put your Italian wine-ordering skills to the test, or you’re still feeling a little shaky on the basics (understandable—there’s a lot to think about!), come join us on our Trastevere by Night: Evening Food & Wine Tasting Experience. You’ll learn about some of our all-time favorite Italian wines, and even try several of them for yourself so you can pick your own favorite!

2 Comment

  1. Jessica Frederick says
    July 19, 2019 at 1:25 am

    Thanks for the education!

    Reply
    1. Devour Tours says
      July 23, 2019 at 6:08 am

      Go forth and drink wine! 🙂

      Reply

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