With 400-plus grape varieties and over 2,400 wine styles, Italy is a paradise for oenophiles. The days of straw-bottled Chiantis are a fading hangover and the country is now producing some of the world's most coveted vini (wines).
So, what to pour: a brawny Barolo, a zesty Soave, or a cultish Super Tuscan? Uncork the basics with the following guide to Italy's top drops.
The incredible variety of Italian wines reflects Italy's own geographic diversity, from the crisp, Alpine landscapes of Friuli, Alto Adige and Valle d'Aosta, to the genteel hills of Tuscany, to the sun-baked soils of the south. Greater fluctuations between day and night temperatures deliver higher acidity to many northern wines. In the hotter south, late-harvesting grapes result in bold, robust, full-bodied drops.
Beyond these general guidelines are the many nuances of each growing region, from microclimates to soil variations. Pour a Piedmontese Barolo grown in the comune (parish) of La Morra and the chances are it'll be more elegant and fragrant than those from the next parish, a reflection of its limestone-rich Tortonian marl.
From DOCG to VDT: decoding the label
Italian wines are categorised according to an appellation system. The most prestigious drops are labelled DOCG (Denominazione di origine controllata e garantita). Subject to blind tasting tests, they're bound by strict regulations regarding growing areas, grape varieties and winemaking method. Rigid rules also govern DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata) wines, though these are not subject to any nail-biting taste test.
Rebellious by nature, IGT (Indicazione geografica tipica) wines aren't bound by the same traditions, resulting in more experimental blends. Last and least is VDT (Vino da tavola), straightforward mass-produced table wine.
Label decoded, it's time to explore some of Italy's finest grapes and the wines they make.
A sparkling duo
A luxe, invigorating blend of chardonnay, pinot nero and pinot bianco, Franciacorta DOCG is Italy's answer to French champagne. Hailing from Brescia province in Lombardy, Franciacorta is made using the metodo classico (classic method), which sees a second fermentation in the bottle. Star Franciacorta producers include Ca' del Bosco (cadelbosco.com) and Berlucchi (berlucchi.us).
Less complex but more affordable is northern Italy's favourite pre-dinner tipple, prosecco. Its finest versions are produced in the DOCG triangle between Valdobbiadene, Conegliano and Vittorio Veneto in Italy's Veneto region. Prosecco's finest makers include Masottina (masottina.it) and Bisol (bisol.it).
Pinot grigio and pinot bianco
Crisp, easy-drinking Pinot Grigio reflects the cooler climate of its main growing areas: Veneto, Alto Adige and Friuli. The latter is home to Venica & Venica (venica.it), one of Italy's top pinot grigio producers. Also grown in the region is the more full-bodied pinot bianco, often defined by medium acidity and crisp pear and apple notes. Toast to simple pleasures with tipples from Eugenio Collavini (collavini.it), Livio Felluga (liviofelluga.it) or Pierpaolo Pecorari (pierpaolopecorari.it).
Posher than the pinots is Friuli's pale, golden Friulano. Spanning crisp and light to rich and full-bodied, its notes commonly evoke pear and bitter almond. The minerality of younger Friulanos mellow with age, with oaked versions delivering a creamier flavour. Intrigued? Look for standout examples from Livio Felluga (liviofelluga.it), Schiopetto (schiopetto.it) and Borgo San Daniele (borgosandaniele.it).
Finer variations of this everyday grape include fresh, citrusy Trebbiano Toscano. Found in Tuscany and Umbria, it's one component of Tuscany's much-loved dessert wine Vin Santo. Further south, rugged Abruzzo is home to floral-scented, honey-textured Trebbiano d'Abruzzo. For a stellar sip, seek out a bottle of Valle Reale's Vigna di Capestrano Trebbiano d'Abruzzo DOC (2012).
Garganega shines brightest in the Veneto provinces of Verona, Vicenza and Padua. The grape's star product is Soave DOC, named for the small medieval town east of Verona. Dry and light, Soave's notes range from honeydew, peach and apricot, to citrus zest and subtle salinity. Aged varieties offer greater elegance and intensity. Among its finest producers are Ca' Rugate (carugate.it) and Suavia (suavia.it).
Coast-loving Vermentino shows off its crisp acidity, savoury notes and saline minerality in cooler climes. It's the main grape in whites from the Colli di Luna DOC wine region, encompassing the coastal hills around Massa in Tuscany and La Spezia in Liguria. Air-dried, it's also a principle component in Cinque Terre Sciacchetrà DOC, a silky, amber-hued dessert wine from Liguria's precipitous coastline. Across in Sardinia, Vermentino delivers white blossom aromas, vibrant acidity and a splash of minerality in the island's prized Vermentino di Gallura DOCG.
Tuscany and Piedmont tussle for the title of Italy's top wine region. The latter's prized grape is Nebbiolo, featured in Piedmont's DOCG heavyweights Barolo and Barbaresco. Serious oenophiles the world over go gaga for Barolo's powerful structure, distinctive tannins and decadent notes of rose, truffle, tar and chocolate. Somewhat less tannic, Barbaresco still makes an impact with its marked acidity, spice and floral notes.
Seek out Barolos made by Michele Chiarlo (michelechiarlo.it), Fratelli Alessandria (fratellialessandria.it) or Elvio Cogno (elviocogno.com), and Barbarescos from Tenute Cisa Asinari dei Marchesi di Grésy (marchesidigresy.com) and Fiorenzo Nada (nada.it).
Corvina creates some of Veneto's must-try wines. Top of the heap is cult-status Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG, an intense, complex creation with a long finish and notes ranging from raisin, cherry and raspberry, to dried prune, plum, violet and mint. It's made using the passito method, which sees the grapes semi-dried on trays for up to three months, then aged in Slavonian oak barriques. An expensive wine made for long-term cellaring, its celebrated makers include Tommaso Bussola (bussolavini.com), Allegrini (website.allegrini.it) or Giuseppe Quintarelli.
Sangiovese is to Tuscany what Nebbiolo is to Piedmont. This revered grape constitutes at least 80 percent of top-tier Chianti Classico DOCG, produced in the Chianti Classico DOCG zone between Florence and Siena. The result is a medium-bodied red with firm tannins and hypnotic notes ranging from cherry and mint to wild herbs and spice. The grape is also behind Tuscany's plummy Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG; voluptuous Morellino di Scansano DOCG; and aromatic Brunello di Montalcino DOCG.
Seek Chianti Classico made by Monteraponi (monteraponi.it) and Castello di Radda (castellodiradda.it), Vino Nobile di Montepulciano by Podere Le Berne (leberne.it) and Poliziano, and Morellino from Poggio Trevvalle (poggiotrevvalle.it) and Roccapesta (roccapesta.com).
The term Super Tuscans usually refers to Tuscan blended reds using non-indigenous grapes, including merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon. A good way to identify a Super Tuscan is by the wine's name. More often than not, it will be original, with no reference to a particular grape variety or growing region.
A-listers in this category include Tenuta San Guido's (tenutasanguido.com) Sassicaia, a velvety, tannic symphony of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. Another marvel is Marchesa Antinori's (antinori.it) Tignanello, a rich, savoury blend of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.
Late-ripening Aglianico thrives in the volcanic soils of the Taurasi area of Avellino, in Campania, and the Monte Vulture area of Potenza, in Basilicata. Both these areas deliver a varietal with arresting complexity, minerality and brooding notes spanning dark berries and chocolate to black pepper and liquorice. Nicknamed the 'Barolo of the South', Aglianico is also tailored for longer-term cellaring. Stock the shelves with outstanding vintages from Feudi di San Gregorio (feudi.it), Cantine del Notaio (cantinedelnotaio.com), Elena Fucci (elenafuccivini.com) or Paternoster (paternostervini.it).
This supple, late-ripening Sicilian offers flavours that shift magically on the palate, from luscious berries to leather and smoke. For something lighter, seek blends using fragrant Frappato. For something bolder, look for it blended with syrah, merlot or cabernet sauvignon, all of which accentuate Nero d'Avola's darker, more decadent side. Tempted? Bag some bottled beauties from Feudi del Pisciotto (castellare.it), Abbazia Santa Anastasia (abbaziasantanastasia.com) and Morgante (morgantevini.it).
Basics covered, it's time to scan the shelves and cellars, to sniff, swill and savour your way to your own favourite vini italiani...a challenge worth toasting to. Cin cin!