rimessa tastings - answering the most common italian wine questions

10 Most Common Italian Wine Questions

In Wine Insights & Thoughts by Lindsay GabbardLeave a Comment

New to wine or just curious to learn more? Having hosted thousands of wine tastings, I’ve noticed that most people start by asking me some of these common Italian wine questions.

Watch the video below and read on for the answers to those questions so that you can start to get more familiar and comfortable on your wine journey:


What is the difference between Prosecco and Champagne?

Well, nearly everything except they both contain bubbles.

Prosecco comes from the northeast of Italy, from the region of Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia and Champagne from Champagne, France.  A common misconception is that Prosecco just means a sparkling wine from Italy, but it can only be given the name Prosecco if it comes for the designated areas of Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia declared by the consortium.

Prosecco comes mainly from the Glera grape varietal, while Champagne is mainly made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.

The time to make them, and style used, varies.  In both cases, yeasts and sugars are added to spark a secondary fermentation.  Prosecco can be made in a few months via the Charmat (or Martinotti) method, aka in pressurized steel tanks, and goes immediately out to supermarket shelves for consumption within a year, while Champagne requires a minimum aging of 18 months (36 months min. for vintage Champagne) before it can go to the market and is made in the Method Champenoise, or metodo classico, which means the second fermentation takes place in the bottle it will be sold from.

And of course the obvious difference is the price. Seeing how quick and easy it is to make a Prosecco, now you can understand why.  Apart from the beautiful hills of the Valdobbiadene, most of where Prosecco is made is on flat valley floor and often next to corn fields.  It's a highly industrialized area, not resembling the romanic and bucolic scenes often associated with wine regions of Italy.  To give you an idea of just how industrialized this area is - nearly 500 million bottles of Prosecco are made annually!
P.S. Italy does have a region dedicated to making wines similar to Champagne called Franciacorta (just east of Milan).  The grapes used are very similar to Champagne and the winemaking style is the metodo classico, with a minimum of 19 months before the wine can head to the market.
View of green vines on sloping hills in Veneto

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What are sulfites and why are they in wine?
The story with sulfites is a bit more complex than what meets the eye. Most consumers see ‘contains sulfites’ on the label and immediately assume that these are the reason for their hangover.
Maybe, but maybe not.  First of all, nearly ALL wines contain sulfites, as they are a natural byproduct of fermentation, but we’re speaking of a low number like 20ppm.  The issue with sulfites is how much gets added to the wine. This you’ll never know unless you can try to get it out of the winemaker, as it is never mentioned on the label, and it can be up to 350ppm!
So why are sulfites added?  In essence they are a preservative and microbial killer. Yeasts are ambient, microbial and impossible to control, and are responsible for many of the aromas in wine - good and bad. So, when a winemaker needs every single bottle to taste the same, they need to be sure no ambient yeasts give different aromas to the wine. And who needs every bottle to taste the same?  Big brand names making hundreds of thousands and millions of bottles per year which will end up on supermarket shelves.  Mass market consumers are not looking for a 'surprise' - they want to know exactly what they are getting and sulfites will render every bottle consistent (even if it kills the life and wildness in the wine).  Some sulfites are also required for importation and for wines which will travel long distances for extra protection from long shipping times. 
Sulfites will fall away over time, so wines which are destined for decades in the cellar often start with higher counts in order give a little protection to the wine over time.
What causes headaches in wine?
It’s not always the sulfites, but since they are the only thing required to be noted on the label (over 10ppm, it must be declared, but pretty much every wine comes in around 25ppm), they take all the blame. In fact, only 1% of the population is known to have a true allergy to sulfites.
So what else could it be? Well, for one, there’s something called alcohol in all wines and if you drink too much, it’s known to cause dehydration and headaches. But let’s skip to the other issue - wine does not have an ingredient list, meaning that as the consumer, you’ll never get to know exactly what caused your headache. In the US for example, there are 74 approved additives which can be present in wine, and they know that if they listed them all, your romantic idea that wine is just made from grapes will be crushed and you’ll likely not buy it in the future.
And for a curve ball… Many people are on the natural wine kick, assuming that natural wines are ‘better’ for you. Perhaps in many ways they are. But ironically, wines which have lower sulfites actually contain higher histamine counts, which for some (like me!) causes inflammation and congestion that evening and into the morning, as histamines are a known toxin and can give many people a bad inflammatory response.
customized wine label of Italian wine from Traclo
How do I understand Italian wine labels?
Which grape? Where is it from? Is that the winemaker’s name or…?  Sure, it’s complex, but at the end of the day, it’s just wine.
Remember that Italian wine is labeled often by a place, not a grape varietal, because it was the place (and terroir) that gave rise to the flavors and aromas. And this makes it very confusing since there are so many places.
Americans or those from the New World often ask ‘well how do I know which grape it is?” as New World wines are labeled by varietal, and there’s a marketing reason behind this. Americans were unfamiliar with the tastes of European wines as they didn’t live there or have easy access to those wines. In the 70s, the Californians started making some nice wines but no one really drank wine. So in a clever marketing tactic, they said ‘why don’t we label by varietal since there are only a couple handfuls to memorize - like Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc etc - and people buy what they are familiar with (it’s a cognitive bias we have). This made wine more easy and approachable, but destroyed the original concept of wine which was that it was meant to express the flavors of an area.
Unless you study wine and will need to take a test, knowing the . At home, go to a wine shop instead of a supermarket and tell them what you usually drink and ask them for a recommendation for an Italian wine which has a similar profile. Italy is one of the most complex and beautiful places - understanding it is nearly impossible but enjoying it is simple and pleasurable.
What is DOC/DOCG and are they better?
Let’s be honest - Italy is just not as scrupulous as France is when it comes to the AOC classification system.  The DOC system was designed by the Italian government to improve the quality of wine which had plummeted by the 1950s, by laying out certain rules and regulations to bring consistency to a region, which was essentially the ‘brand’ of the wine. Vino da tavola essentially would have no rules. DOC slightly more rules on which grape or blends could be used, minimum percentages, aging techniques and lengths, etc, with DOCG being the top echelon awarded to the most prized regions, whose wines would also be tasted yearly for government approval of the quality.
The only issue is that Italy historically has had problems with corruption. This means that payoffs often allow people who shouldn’t be in a DOC zone to get in, and plenty of times a vino da tavola (table wine) can be as good if not better than a DOCG wine. For those who know of a $500 bottle of wine called Sassicaia, remember that it started off as a vino da tavola before the government took note of its success and elevated Bolgheri (where it is made) to a DOC region.  Some rules were meant to be broken 😉
What is a Super Tuscan?
The simple answer - a wine made in Tuscany not following the rules to be classified as a DOC or DOCG wine which often requires the predominant use of indigenous grapes like Sangiovese, and rather being made with a dominance of the International grapes like Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah.
These unclassified wines starting taking on popularity with winemakers in the 1970s when the lack of flexibility from the government on experimenting with other varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot which were having international success, which gave way to the new category of IGT wines in 1992.  You’ll likely recognize a few names like Tinganello, Sassicaia, Ornellaia and Solaia.
Super-Tuscan. It’s not very Italian sounding is it? You may love these wines and fine if you do, but know that they are often frowned upon by traditionalists who ask 'why do we need to have French grapes in Italy when we have so many indigenous ones making incredible wines?’. They often appeal to tourists who are less familiar with local wines because we like what we know.
Think about it…if you could choose between a Cabernet or a Schioppettino, which would you choose?  Most of you will say Cabernet, because we often ‘like’ what we know, or what is familiar. But what is the point in coming all the way to Italy to drink the wines you have access to back home??
What is an orange wine?
No, it’s not a wine made with oranges. In simple terms, it’s a white wine made in the style of a red wine.  Red wine only turns red because it spends time macerating with the skins (as the insides of nearly all grapes are clear and lack any pigmentation).
You may also hear the term “skin contact”, “skin fermented”, “macerated” or “amber” wine. White grapes are actually more golden in color and so the wine extracts that amber or orange color and hence gives the wine its name.
Beware, because these wines have slightly different organoleptic sensations than you are used to for white wines which are often filtered and clarified, as tannins are picked up from the skin contact and seeds and give the wine more of the textural feeling you'd expect from a red wine. You’ll often want food around for these wines too, in order for them to be properly appreciated, and they pair with nearly anything.
Orange wines are nothing new.  Wine was being made this way back as far back as when wine originated some 7,000+ years ago in Georgia, and certainly thanks to Josko Gravner (the most respected Italian winemaker of orange wine), we’ve seen a total revival of these wines here.
What is corked wine and how do I identify it?
Corked wine mainly happens due to the chemical compound called TCA (2,4,6 – trichloroanisole) which forms when natural cork fungi come in contact with particular chlorides found in bleach and other winery sanitation and sterilization products.
While it won’t hurt you as a human in any way, it just puts a damper on the wine, and often makes it lack any vibrancy with rather off-putting aromas of wet cardboard, moldy aromas, or wet basement smells. Sometimes you can only identify it by smelling the cork and tasting the wine 20 times because it’s so subtle, but sometimes, it knocks your socks off.
Don’t forget a wine without a cork, cannot be ‘corked’, so for all the screw cap haters, they do have some pretty big benefits. People often ask what are the chances that a bottle is corked, from my experience, it’s actually far less than 1%, but the generally accepted average is around 1-3% of bottles.  
Should I decant?
Most often no, unless you are trying to separate the sediment from an old wine, or look fancy, but beware. Decanting exposes the wine to an extreme amount of oxygen which can usually be accomplished in a more gently way by just opening the bottle a couple hours early or by swirling it around in your glass before you sip.  And those decanter gadgets?? To me, it’s like shaken baby syndrome for a wine. Sure, they can help cheaper wines but be careful with good wines. And once exposed to that much oxygen, the wine generally has a faster ticking clock for how long it will remain good for.
Remember that wine is about time and enjoyment - the experience shouldn’t be rushed. When you get home from work, open the bottle, take a sip, and it’ll be ready in time for dinner.
How long can wine stay open for?
It totally depends on the age, the quality and color. Most supermarket wines, especially reds, don’t last much more than 24 hours.
White wines are known to last for up to 2 or 3 days because they are often stored in the refrigerator. Reds sit out on your counter, and depending on what your room temperature is, that could be a bad thing.
Heat destroys wine. But some reds with high tannins, like Barolo or Barbaresco, can often hold up for a few days if not exposed to any heat. Too much exposure to oxygen is usually what makes a wine turn to vinegar. This is why decanting should be used with discretion, as if all of the wine is not drunk, it may not last until the next day.
Some natural wines ironically are also much better after they have been open for multiple days, but it’s hit and miss. Have fun experimenting when you can!
Hopefully this insight into the most common Italian wine questions has been helpful! Want to test out your newly-acquired tasting skills? Find out how to join the Roscioli Italian Wine Club here.

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