Your Guide to the Best Italian Wine Regions

Best Italian Wine Regions

Piedmont is one of the best Italian wine regions due to the high quality of the grapes grown there and the region’s exposure to ample sunshine. Photo Credit: Wikimedia CC user Megan Mallen

 Have you ever driven through the Italian countryside? It’s an absolutely surreal experience. In 2013, I took a road trip through northern Italy to learn more about the diverse range of wines made there. It seemed like every village had its own method for making wine, and I learned that Italian wines are more diverse than I had even imagined. Occasionally during the trip, I would drive through tunnels built to cut through the hillside. When I’d emerge on the other side of the tunnel, I’d discover that my surroundings had completely changed–it was like I’d accidentally entered a different country. The experience made me appreciate just how much can change from one area of Italy to the next.

 
This firsthand experience gave me insight into Italian wine regions and the best places in those regions to find collectible wines. Italian wine is notoriously difficult to navigate in part because the differences between the regions are so pronounced. When you visit, say, Sonoma and Santa Barbara in California, you’ll likely find that the Pinot Noir in both places tastes similar. But visit virtually any subregion of Italy and you’ll see a much greater degree of variance among regions in terms of style, winemaking techniques, and local grape varieties. That’s why we’ve created a comprehensive guide to navigating the best Italian wine regions. This guide will dig into the eight most important wine regions in Italy to help you make wise investment decisions about this complicated country’s wine.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia

Best Italian Wine Regions

Journalist and avid wine enthusiast Robert Draper considers Friuli-Venezia Giulia one of the best Italian wine regions, and with good reason. The area is home to some truly mouthwatering white wines, many of which are both tart and immensely ripe in flavor at the same time. Draper first discovered Friuli-Venezia Giulia when he visited Venice a number of years ago. While dining in a restaurant, he asked the waiter to bring him a bottle of Pinot Grigio–any bottle of the waiter’s choice. The waiter returned with Venica Collio, a wine that Draper had never heard of before. The wine was so delicious that it inspired Draper’s love affair with the entire Friuli region, and he has since been back to visit the area at least 30 times over the past 20 years.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia is technically two regions in one; it consists of the separate Friuli and Venezia Giulia regions, which have been grouped together into a single, much larger region. Because of its size, Friuli-Venezia Giulia is home to a diverse range of wines. Most collectors know the region for its various white wines, although it’s also home to some interesting reds as well. Friuli is relatively cool in temperature, and, as a result, the wines tend to share some traits with German Riesling, such as sharp acidity. If you’re a fan of German wine, then you’ll likely find Friuli wines quite appealing.

Here are just a few wine styles and grape varieties made in Friuli that are worth considering:

  • Friulano
  • Chardonnay
  • Picolit
  • Malvasia Istriana
  • Ribolla Gialla

If you’re unsure where to start with Friuli wine, begin in the Colli Orientali del Friuli subregion, which makes the highest quality wines. This was the region that most impressed Robert Draper, and I’ve heard a number of wine enthusiasts express a similar adoration for Colli. Wines from Colli also tend to be the most collectible in this region. In order to start a Friuli wine collection, think about which wines you tend to prefer drinking right now. If you love whites, try a familiar wine like Pinot Grigio, then a few of Friuli’s local white wine styles, such as its dessert wines or Friulano. If you’re more of a red wine fan, try the region’s Merlot or local varieties like Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso. Some producers in Friuli-Venezia Giulia also make fascinating orange wines–this is the perfect style for red wine lovers looking for a white they’ll enjoy.

Veneto

Best Italian Wine Regions

When I first began learning about Italian wine, the Veneto region was both fascinating and intimidating all at once. To this day, I’m amazed by the diversity of styles and the sheer number of wines made here. However, Veneto’s wide range of wines can also make this region one of the most difficult to understand, especially for those learning about Italian wine for the first time. At first, I was only familiar with Veneto’s Prosecco and Pinot Grigio, but I’ve since discovered the region’s many other wines, including Soave, Amarone, and Bardolino (a light, fruity cousin of Valpolicella).

Because so many different styles of wine are made here, some wine critics call Veneto a “wine factory.” The problem with Veneto is that many of the wines here are simplistic. As a result, some serious wine collectors are hesitant to call Veneto one of the best Italian wine regions. However, it’s unwise to write this area’s wines off entirely. You can find some hidden gems in Veneto, especially those made in the heart of regions like Soave and Valpolicella, labeled as ‘Soave Classico’ or ‘Valpolicella Classico.’ These tend to be higher in quality than those made on a larger scale in the areas that have been expanded outward from the original core of their respective regions. Many wines made in Veneto are produced using the traditional winemaking method of drying the grapes, which concentrates the sugar content of the fruit and gives the wine a unique character.

If you’re just getting started with Veneto, Soave is a great wine to try first, as it can be collectible and very delicious. You’ll also want to try Amarone from Veneto’s warm southern valleys; the best Amarone producers include Romano Dal Forno and Giuseppe Quintarelli. You may also want to try the region’s Recioto di Soave, which is rare and quite distinctive. It has a refreshing flavor that can provide a nice break from heavier dessert wines.

Piedmont

Best Italian Wine Regions

Piedmont is a legendary wine region that leaves a lasting impression on anyone who visits. Critic Jancis Robinson gives these wines an especially glowing review. She says Piedmont “has won [her] heart for its sheer joie de vivre.” She describes how every village she’s visited over the years, even the smallest, most unassuming little towns, were home to incredible local cuisine, including perfect food and wine pairings that Robinson says are some of the best she has ever had. Robinson’s recommendation of Piedmont wine should come as no surprise to serious collectors as it is largely considered one of the best Italian wine regions in history (alongside Tuscany). It also has a reputation for producing some of the most age-worthy Italian wines on the market, making it a go-to region for serious wine collectors looking for wines to cellar long term.

The Nebbiolo grape is the backbone of Piedmont. It makes up some of the region’s greatest wines, including Barolo and Barbaresco. These two wines are the most collectible in Piedmont, and they can last more than 20 years in a cellar. The climate is relatively cool and foggy, giving its red wines a sharp, acidic flavor profile. Because these wines age so well, it’s worth buying a full case and opening just one or two bottles every couple of years to see how they are maturing. If you’re looking for high-quality Barolo to lay down, then consider one of these top Piedmont producers:

Many of the producers above also make Barbaresco and other classic Piedmont wines, although in most cases their Barolo is the most valuable on the secondary market.

In addition to Barolo, you’ll also want to try these Piedmont wines:

  • Barbera
  • Dolcetto
  • Gavi
  • Roero Arneis
  • Ghemme and Gattinara

While these styles aren’t as age-worthy as Piedmont’s Barolo, they make good everyday drinking wines, and you can find some incredible bottles in the $20 to $30 range. If you’re looking for wines that have some of the best value in the entire Piedmont region, then you may wish to explore wines from Ghemme and Gattinara. These high-quality northern Piedmontese wines are made from the Nebbiolo grape, just like Barolo and Barbaresco; however, Ghemme and Gattinara are typically more rustic in personality. Choose one of these styles if you prefer a rustic wine, or if you want a wine with an excellent price-to-quality ratio.

Tuscany

Best Italian Wine Regions

Like Piedmont, Tuscany is considered one of the best Italian wine regions, and it makes some of the most collectible wines in the country. When I first discovered Tuscan wines, I primarily drank the region’s basic Chianti and other Sangiovese-based wines. Most of these wines are approachable, but not especially interesting. It wasn’t until I began exploring Tuscany’s great wines, like the iconic Super Tuscans, Chianti Classico Riserva, and Brunello di Montalcino that I really began to appreciate just how refined, elegant, and fascinating Italian wine could be. I quickly learned that Sangiovese isn’t always an uncomplicated variety, and that Chianti is more than just a pleasant wine to serve with dinner. There are stunning versions of these wines being made all over Tuscany every year, and more are still waiting to be discovered.

If you’re a serious wine collector, you’ve likely thought about buying or have already purchased some Super Tuscan wines. These blends combine the best of both Italy and the New World; they are intense, bold, and deeply concentrated, just like California’s finest cult Cabernets, yet those which use Sangiovese in the blend are able to retain a unique spiciness and local character. Some of the best Super Tuscan producers include:

In general, if you’re looking for a safe investment, Super Tuscan blends may offer you the best return. However, it is worth exploring wines from this region that are made only from Sangiovese as well, as these are more classic and traditional expressions of Tuscany. For instance, Brunello di Montalcino is an age-worthy Sangiovese wine that is perfectly suited to a Tuscan climate. Here are some of the best producers of this wine:

Additionally, producers like Dell’Ornellaia make interesting examples of Merlot and other international grapes that combine New-World flavors with Italian tradition. Meanwhile, Chianti Classico Riserva is a collectible version of Chianti that tends to be a bit more refined than Superiore or plain Classico, so it’s worth buying if you want an elegant but easy-drinking option. And finally, you should also try some of Tuscany’s dessert wines like Vin Santo, a style made from dried grapes that beautifully concentrates the sugar. With so many styles to choose from, Tuscany has a lot to offer, whether you’re a beginning collector or a seasoned expert.

Trentino-Alto Adige

Best Italian Wine Regions

The first few times that wine enthusiast Kevin Day tasted Pinot Nero from Trentino-Alto Adige, he wasn’t all that impressed with the region’s offerings. The wines he tried lacked complexity, and they couldn’t compete with great Pinot Noir from Burgundy. However, when Day tried his first bottle of Lageder Krafuss, his opinion of Trentino-Alto Adige wines changed forever. He found gorgeous notes of baking spice, cranberry, and even a hint of pine; this was the complex Alto Adige Pinot Noir he had been waiting for. But why was this wine so different from the others Day had tasted over the years? It all comes down to the vineyard. The other Pinot Nero wines that Day had tasted in the past were made from multi-vineyard blends and from the valleys of Trentino-Alto Adige. Because Lageder Krafuss is from a single vineyard at a higher altitude, the wine is much more expressive.

This is a relatively common experience among wine enthusiasts who try Trentino-Alto Adige wines for the first time. Although it is one of the best Italian wine regions, the area is also home to plenty of easy-drinking wines that may not appeal to serious collectors. In order to make the most out of this region, you have to know where to find the best producers. The best wine from Trentino-Alto Adige is typically:

  • From vineyards located at high altitudes.
  • A single-vineyard wine, rather than a multi-vineyard blend.

Trentino-Alto Adige is one of the most diverse regions in Italy. It actually gets its name from the combination of two smaller, separate regions, Trentino and Alto Adige. The combined Trentino-Alto Adige region is home to a massive number of varieties such as:

International:

  • Pinot Grigio
  • Chardonnay
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Pinot Bianco
  • Pinot Nero
  • Riesling
  • Gewürztraminer

Local:

  • Kerner
  • Müller-Thurgau
  • Lagrein
  • Teroldego
  • Schiava

We suggest exploring the wines that are unique to Trentino-Alto Adige, such as Lagrein (a rare red variety that tastes quite similar to French Syrah). This wine is potentially age-worthy, so if you happen upon a high-quality bottle from a respected producer, keep it under storage for up to 15 years in order to get the most out of its complex flavors. Another wine worth trying is Schiava, a light-bodied, freshly acidic style with a delicate strawberry and floral character. Although this wine typically isn’t collectible, it’s a good option if you’re looking for an unusual, traditional Italian wine that pairs well with a variety of foods. You may also enjoy Kerner, an aromatic white wine with complex layers of flavors similar to a dry German Riesling. You can drink this style on its own in order to appreciate its distinct layers of stone fruits and wildflowers, or try it with food, as it pairs well with many dishes. Acidity plays a major role in many Trentino-Alto Adige wines; this sharp acidity is often accompanied by flinty notes as well. The region’s cool climate is similar to that of Germany, and the soil is very mineral-heavy, lending these wines a steely personality. Overall, Trentino-Alto Adige is a great place to find light, complex red wines and acidic, aromatic whites.

Umbria

Best Italian Wine Regions

Wine writers Per and Britt Karlsson say that they love a good structured wine; they don’t particularly care for the soft, velvety styles that are easy to drink in their youth. This is why the Karlssons adore Umbria’s Sagrantino di Montefalco. This rare wine style is absolutely wild in its youth, and, as one Umbrian winegrower told the Karlssons, “must be tamed” with age. If, like the Karlssons, you love wines that challenge the palate and you’re tired of drinking the same Super Tuscans, then Umbria may be the perfect Italian wine region for you.

Umbrian wine is largely underrated, especially when compared to other great regions like Tuscany and Piedmont. While Super Tuscans and age-worthy Barolo receive much of the attention on the wine market, Umbrian Sagrantino di Montefalco is still fairly unknown outside serious wine collecting circles. Made from the Sagrantino grape, this utterly unique wine has extremely high levels of tannin, which make it possible to cellar these wines for three decades or more. Despite this aging potential, prices for Sagrantino di Montefalco haven’t caught up to those of other collectible Italian wines, like Super Tuscans, so this is an excellent wine to lay down now.

However, Umbria is more than just Sagrantino. Although this is the region’s most collectible and age-worthy wine, Umbria also produces:

  • Sangiovese
  • Grechetto
  • Trebbiano

These easy-drinking wines aren’t as collectible or as age-worthy as Sagrantino, so if you’re looking for a wine for long-term cellaring, then Sagrantino di Montefalco is still your best choice. This wine is trending on the market, and may begin to grow in value just as Super Tuscans increased in value during the 1980s. Getting in on this emerging trend now could offer you a good return on your investment.

Sicily

Best Italian Wine Regions

Travel journalist Anna Lebedeva thought that she knew everything about Sicilian wine from her many trips to the sunny island over the years. She had drunk plenty of Zibibbo and Nero D’Avola, and she assumed that nearly all Sicilian wine tasted either sweet (in the case of Zibibbo) or fruit-forward (in the case of Nero D’Avola). However, the longer she stayed in Sicily, the more Lebedeva realized that she knew relatively little about the diverse range of wines made there. From earthy Nerello Mascalese to fresh, fragrant Carricante, Sicily is so much more than just easy-drinking styles that appeal to casual wine fans. There are some truly well-priced yet collectible Sicilian wines that are worth a space in your cellar.

One of the biggest misconceptions about Sicilian wine is that all of the region’s wine styles taste fruity and ripe. This myth likely stems from the idea that Sicily is warm and sunny year-round; many people assume that the warm weather produces overly ripe grapes with lots of concentrated sugar. While this is true in some areas of Sicily, it’s not true for all subregions. The truth is that Sicily has a more diverse climate than it’s given credit for, from the cool, sometimes even snowy conditions on Mount Etna to the warm, dry vineyards that lie along the western coastline. On average, inland Sicily is 15 degrees cooler than the Sicilian coastline. This means that you’ll often find concentrated, fruity wines along the coast, and acidic, flinty wines inland. The volcanic soil of Etna makes these wines taste especially mineral-rich.

With more than 20 different styles of wine made in Sicily, it’s difficult to know where to start. Consider trying at least one of the following varieties or styles:

  • Nerello Mascalese
  • Carricante
  • Cerasuolo di Vittoria
  • Nero d’Avola
  • Marsala
  • Zibibbo
  • Frappato

If it’s your first time exploring Sicilian wine, then you may wish to start with some of the easy-drinking producers located in west Sicily, such as Donnafugata and Planeta. Then, try some regional wines, such as those from DOC Sicilia or Terre Siciliane. Once you have a good sense of what the larger regions are like, you might move on to specific appellations, like Etna or Faro, and then to single vineyards within those appellations, noting any unique characteristics that you can identify along the way.

Campania

Best Italian Wine Regions

This region has traditionally been very underappreciated when it comes to wine. However, this is beginning to change; Campania is becoming more popular among wine enthusiasts who wish to try traditional Italian wines that aren’t as common as Barolo or Barbaresco. In fact, Campania has its own version of a dry, tannic, food-friendly wine that’s similar to young Barolo in personality: Aglianico. This grape has played a major role in Campania’s rise in popularity among wine lovers, and it’s quickly becoming one of the trendiest grape varieties on the market today.

As a trending wine region, Campania has plenty of fascinating options right now. In addition to Aglianico, the region is home to a few age-worthy and complex white wines as well, including Fiano and Greco. Here are some of the reasons why you might want to taste these varieties for yourself:

  • Try Fiano di Avellino if: you’re looking for an age-worthy white wine.
  • Try Greco di Tufo if: you’re looking for an interesting, easy-drinking white wine that showcases the traditional Campanian winemaking style.

You could also start with Campania’s Aglianico di Taurasi. This wine style thrives in volcanic soil and is very tannic, making it more age-worthy than other Campanian wines. If you usually prefer New-World wines, then Aglianico di Taurasi is a great gateway to the wines of Campania and Italy as a whole. Its full-bodied, concentrated structure is reminiscent of Napa Valley wines, and yet it has a distinctive dryness and unique floral expression that places it firmly in Campania.

The Best Italian Wine Region for Your Collection

You may be wondering which of these unique regions to try first. The answer depends on your own preferences and goals for your collection. Those who are just starting an Italian wine collection might want to begin with Piedmont and Tuscany, buying a combination of both collectible and easy-drinking wines from those two areas. Super Tuscans will likely appeal most to those who like New-World wines, but Amarone from Vento, Sagrantino di Montefalco from Umbria, and Aglianico from Campania are also good choices for New-World aficionados. If you prefer Old-World styles, then try mature Barolo or Barbaresco from Piedmont or Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany. Once you’ve tried a cross-section of the most popular and recognized Italian wines, try some of the more obscure traditional Italian grapes grown almost exclusively in the regions listed above, such as Friulano, Sagrantino, Fiano, Lagrein, and Teroldego. By considering what makes each region of Italy unique, and tasting these differences firsthand, your knowledge of Italian wine will deepen significantly.

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