Understanding Italian Wine Labels

(Originally published January 2001)

One of Hanes's ongoing tasks is to learn to "get" Italian wine and thus most fully appreciate the wonders of one of the largest (both in quantitative and qualitative terms) wine producing countries in the world. From the northern region of Alto Adige/Südtirol down to Piedmont and Tuscany, continuing further on through Umbria to Apulia and Sicilia in the south, the variety of Italian wines is perhaps unmatched in any other country. There are diverse wines for white wine lovers, dessert wine lovers and most of all red wine lovers. Yet, one thread bonds all these far-flung and heterogeneous wines -- the labels are impossible to read!

There's lots of problems in reading Italian wine labels but first and foremost is the fact that these producers seem to think that people speak Italian. Hey, come on! You'd think it would kill these folks to write out all the necessary information in good, old plain American. But no, it's "imbottigliato all'origine" this and "denominazione di origine controllata" that. It's bad enough that they don't tell you on the bottle what grapes are in Barolo or Brunello and there's like 18 zillion different types of, and names for, Sangiovese grapes. But innocent wine swillers also have to try to make heads or tails of what the winery name is! It could drive someone to drink... So, Hanes thought he would provide a "cheat sheet" of common words found on Italian wine labels that could confuse and prevent one from finding the Italian wine for which one may be searching. Just as (hopefully!) you wouldn't walk into a wine store and ask for that Chardonnay from "vineyard" or "hill," recognizing these words in Eye-talian can help all parties involved in a wine purchase avoid embarrassment and get the desired goods.

First, there are the words that more or less correlate to "vineyard" in English. While part of the producer's name, these words are NOT the names of the producer (e.g., you need to say "Stags' Leap Winery" not just "Winery"). Words to recognize in this category are:

Tenuta - a large estate or property
Fattoria - a medium to large wine growing property
Podere/Poderi - a small wine farm or property, sometimes part of a fattoria
Vigna/Vigneto - a single demarcated vineyard with a particular name (like "Smith Vineyard")
Feudo/Feudi - a fief or estate held on feudal tenure
Azienda Agricola - a crop producing farm, not necessarily limited to wine production, that grows all its own grapes
Azienda (Casa) Vinicola - same as azienda agricola but also buys grapes grown elsewhere for their wines

There are other words that refer to various geologies or terrains that get included in wine producers' names and these words should not be taken for proper names although they are required to complete the name of the producer or particular wine:

Ronchi - terrace
Ronco - hillside vineyard
Bricco/Bric - high, steep ridge vineyard (usually assumed to be of high quality)
Colli - hills
Poggio - mound or knoll
Sorì - vineyard site of the highest quality, usually facing south
Valle - valley, dale

Lastly, there are other assorted words that refer to wine property buildings or the producers themselves that sneak into the wine producer names. These may be more obvious but still need to be recognized:

Cantina - a cellar, winery or wine shop
Villa - town house
Castello - castle
Cascina - the house on a farm property where not only wine is produced
Produttore/Produttori - producer, grower
Viticoltore/Vignaiolo - vine grower

Once all these common words or terms are memorized, you'll be in "buono" shape to order the correct bottle of Italian vino in the restaurant or wine store of your choice. Then all you have to worry about is trying to taste, appreciate and experience the hangover from the over 2,000 grape varieties planted in Italy...