Italy’s wine laws are based on the wine laws of France. On July 30, 1935, a branch of the French Ministry of Agriculture was formed to manage the administration of the process of making wine. It was called the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO). This system of regulating France’s wines was an evolution of earlier codifications, passed in 1905, 1908, 1911, 1914, 1919, and 1927. They were based on the practices of men such Baron Le Roy du Boiseaumarié of Chateaux Fortia in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) translates as “controlled term of origin.” AOC is a safeguard of authenticity, not only for wines, but also for other agricultural products, such as cheeses, poultry, honey, and butter. AOC has also been the basis for the wine laws of many other countries, including the USA, Spain, Portugal, Germany, and Italy.
Although there are references to wine laws in Tuscany as far back as 1716, Italy’s wine regulating system as we know it went into effect in the 1960’s. The great leap forward came in 1963 with a presidential decree, commonly known as the DOC wine laws. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, the equivalent of the French AOC.
Under this system, Italy’s Ministry of Agriculture controls and standardizes many of the grape growing and winemaking processes. Some of the most important elements are:
Areas of production and permissible grape varietals
Color (there used to be White Chianti and Red Frascati) Permissible yield per hectare (high yield equals overproduction) Winemaking practices (pruning, fertilizing, etc.)
Number of vines per hectare
The consumer is guaranteed an accurate vintage and the wines must be typical and exemplary. The finished product must conform to high standards of taste, color, fragrance, and flavor, as well as chemical composition, alcohol, and acidity. These regulations are strictly enforced.
Italy puts its wines into 4 categories:
I. Vino da Tavola (VdT): These are simple table wines, which are forbidden to put on their labels a vintage, a grape varietal, or a growing area. They run parallel to France’s Vin de Table. Some of Italy’s best wines were originally VdT wines, but have been upgraded to IGT or DOC status. Examples include Sassicaia and the Super Tuscans, such as Tignanello.
II. Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT): This strata was created in the 1990’s to service as a middle ground between the DOC and VdT categories.They are the equivalent of the French Vin de Pays. IGT is a broad geographic classification. IGT wines are vintage dated and varietals are permitted to be displayed on the labels. The winery has a lot of latitude. Some of Italy’s best, most revered, most expensive, and highly collected wines are IGT. They are the proprietary wines of significant wineries. Others are inexpensive blends that offer good value.
III. Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC): DOC is the equivalent of the French AOC. Today there are over 300 defined DOC zones throughout Italy.This number increases annually because local growers apply to the Ministry of Agriculture for entry into DOC status, once they indicate that they are producing a special wine from a special delimited geographic area. In 1966 Vernaccia di San Gimignano became Italy’s first DOC wine. The DOC may apply to table wines, fortified wines, and sparkling wines. With approved legal terms, such as Riserva or Novello, certain DOC wines may be defined by age. Almost 25% of all of Italy’s wines are designated as DOC today.
IV. Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG): This category, uniquely Italian, was created in the 1960’s. At the time no wine qualified as DOCG. By the 1980’s, however, several of Italy’s historic areas became the first wave of DOCG wines. They range from large appellations, such as Chianti, to smaller ones, such as Ramandolo. The salient features include a requirement to be bottled within the zone of production and that samples be submitted to a board for tasting and approval. Approved wines are granted a special strip, issued by the Ministry of Finance, usually placed on the capsule area of the bottle. Wines that do not qualify to be worthy of DOCG stature must be sold as VdT, a much lower category in quality and price. Today only a few dozen Italian wines and wine zones qualify to be DOCG.
Please note that there is no classification for a varietal on its own. Varietals must be linked to an approved geographic zone; e.g., Pinot Grigio del Veneto IGT or Pinot Grigio Collio DOC. The wine laws of Italy have helped immeasurably to set standards and eliminate fraud. Ultimate quality depends on the individual wineries. So we see $10 Chiantis and $50 Chiantis; $30 Barolos and $300 Barolos. Italy’s wine laws are consistent with the regulations of the European Union (EU).