Understanding Italian Wine Labels: What do DOC, DOCG, IGT and VdT mean?

DOCG and DOC wine labels
DOCG and DOC wine labels. Pava/Creative Commons

An Italian wine label will usually include certain information: the name of the winery, perhaps also the name of the vineyard that produced the grapes, the vintage (the year in which the wine was made), and either an abbreviation (e.g., DOC, DOCG) or a phrase (Vino da Tavola) that indicates a category.

Have you ever wondered what a DOC wine is, and how it differs from, for example, a Vino da Tavola?

The four major categories of Italian wine, and their corresponding abbreviations, are:

  • Vino da Tavola (VdT)
  • Vino a Indicazione Geografica (IGT)
  • Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC)
  • Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG)

Vino da Tavola (VdT) literally means "table wine" and it's a wine intended for everyday drinking, whose production process is restricted by very few rules and regulations, other than that the stuff not be poisonous. These days, most Italian table wines are insipid, thin, weak, and acidic, the sort of wine that used to be sold in jugs and is now sold in Tetra Paks. Tavernello is a good example of this type of wine.

In the past, however, there were also some spectacular vini da tavola, made by extremely good producers who decided to make something that didn't qualify for a superior status simply because of its composition or the way it was made.

For example, Tignanello VdT, by the well-known and respected Tuscan wine producer Antinori, was a superb red wine that contained too much Cabernet to qualify as a Chianti Classico. Sangioveto VdT, from another renowned Tuscan producer, Badia a Coltibuono, was named after a grape type, and therefore couldn't be called a Chianti Classico though it was, in fact, very classic -- and very good, too.

Though most of the stellar Vini da Tavola were Tuscan, a number of Piemontese producers began to experiment with them as well. However, whereas Tuscans blended Sangiovese with varying amounts of other grapes (usually Cabernet or Merlot), or vinified French grapes by themselves (Collezione de Marchi L'Eremo, a Syrah, or Fontodi's Pinot Noir, for example), in Piemonte they blended Nebbiolo and Barbera, under the theory that the Nebbiolo will supply the tannins, while the Barbera will supply acidity (Giorgio Rivetti's Pin, for example, is wonderful). In short, in the past, with Vino da Tavola you either got "plonk"...or something spectacular.

As I said, the Vdt made today is mostly plonk, and this is because the laws were changed to prohibit putting a vintage on VdT wines. As a result, almost all of the quality wines that were formerly VdT are now labled as IGT, the few exceptions being wines made in ways not encompassed by the IGT regulations. For example, at least one producer in the Astigiano (a wine-producing region in the province of Asti, in northern Italy) makes a dry Moscato and labels it VdT because IGT regulations dictate that Moscato should be sweet.

Vino a Indicazione Geografica (IGT) or "Geographical Indication" is a wine that is produced in a specific area.

At one time, there was nothing special about most IGT wines, though that is no longer true -- when the laws were changed to forbid putting the vintage (production year) on VdT wines, many producers relabeled their alternative, "Super Tuscan," and other wines described above as IGT. Visit this page for a list of Italian IGT wines.

Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) or "Controlled Designation of Origin" is the Italian answer to the French AOC (Appellation d'origine contrôlée). DOC wines are produced in specific, well-defined regions, according to precise rules designed to preserve the traditional winemaking practices of each individual region. The rules for making Montepulciano d'Abruzzo DOC, for example, differ markedly from those for making Salice Salentino DOC (from Puglia) or Frascati DOC (from the area around Rome).

The winery can state the vineyard that the grapes came from, but cannot name the wine after a type of grape and cannot use a name such as "Superior." Since a wine has to meet certain quality standards to qualify as DOC, the quality of Italian wines as a whole has improved since the first DOCs were established in the 1960s, though in some cases the rules drawn up by the commissions had unexpected effects -- Super Tuscans, for example, arose from the requirement (since dropped) that producers include white grapes in their Chianti Classico. There are currently more than 300 Italian DOC wines.

Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG): or "Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin." This quality category is similar to the DOC, but more stringent. Allowable yields are generally lower, and DOCG wines must pass an evaluation, analysis, and tasting by a government-licensed committee before they can be bottled. The establishment of DOCG wines has again resulted in an overall improvement in the quality of Italian wines -- it doesn't make sense for a producer whose vineyards are in a DOCG area to produce wines that aren't good enough to qualify. There are currently about 74 Italian DOCG wines, including Barolo, Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, Amarone della Valpolicella, and Prosecco Superiore.

[Edited by Danette St. Onge]