The Italian DOC Appellation System

Sicily Appellation Map

Like most countries in the Old World, Italy has an appellation system designed to give consumers certainty about the authenticity of a product. This concept is much broader than wine – it applies to cheeses, apples and many other agricultural products too. These systems are being standardised across the EU, though each system retains aspects of its character.

The Italian system of Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) was established in 1963. Like most old-world systems, it’s based on the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) model. Today there are 23 DOCs across Sicily, along with one DOCG, a higher quality designation explained below. All up Italy has 329 different DOCs and 73 DOCGs.

Unlike appellation models in the New World, which tend to impose only geographical restrictions on the use of appellations on wine labels, the Italian system imposes restrictions on grape varieties, yields, potential alcohol levels (which are an indication of fruit ripeness), winemaking techniques and ageing. The specific requirements vary from appellation to appellation.

The appellation system for wine, at its very core, is designed to protect from reproduction those wines that have come to be associated with a specific region. Winemakers on Mount Etna grow native grape varieties in historic vineyards and make their wine using traditional techniques, and thus the appellation of Etna DOC becomes associated with the quality of their wine. The Appellation system makes it illegal to use the term Etna DOC on a wine unless it’s grown according to the regulations of that DOC.

The DOC system was originally designed to champion native grape varieties, and the top two tiers of quality were reserved for native varieties only. However, it’s important to note that DOC rules can be changed. In Sicily, we see this in the inclusion of numerous international grape varieties into the list of permitted varieties for some DOCs, and the adoption of modern winemaking technology. These DOCs are still indications of quality and point of origin, but not always authenticity to historic winemaking styles and practices.

The DOC system has four recognised levels of wine quality. From highest to lowest quality, these are DOCG, DOC, IGT and VDT. With the adoption of EU naming conventions, you will sometimes see DOC written as DOP and IGT as IGP, where the P stands for Protégée.

At the highest level, The Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) system was established in order to recognise exceptional wines within existing DOC areas. These wines are guaranteed to follow stringent winemaking rules, including low yields and long ageing periods prior to release. Notably, these wines are required to pass a laboratory analysis and a tasting by a government-licensed tasting panel before being bottled, ensuring they satisfy the requirements of the appellation. These wines are also bottled with a numbered governmental stamp across the cork. Sicily has only one DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria.

The second quality level is Denominazione di Origine Controllata, or DOC. The key word here is Controllata, meaning that a wine marked DOC is produced in a specific, well-defined region in Italy, according to defined wine making rules that are designed to preserve local traditions. If you’ve ever had an Italian Pinot Grigio from the Friuli region or a glass of Prosecco, it was likely a DOC wine. Each DOC has its own set of unique rules, so remembering the specific characteristics of each is a challenge. Thankfully it’s not required to enjoy Italian wine. You can have confidence that DOC wines are good quality wines made using traditional techniques, and if the wine is labelled Bianco (white), Rosato (rose) or Rosso (red) then it’s also made using traditional varieties too.

The third level in quality is Indicazioni Geografiche Tipiche (IGT), which translates to “Typical Geographical Indication”. As the name suggests, these wines are typical of the region in which they are grown, but have less onerous production rules than DOC wines from the same region. This means more unusual grape varieties and sometimes (but definitely not always) wines that are best to drink young. It’s very important to understand that not all IGT wine is low quality – indeed many innovative and successful winemakers who could label their wines as DOC prefer to use the IGT designation because it gives them more flexibility in all aspects of production.

The lowest level of quality, Vino da Tavola (VDT), literally means “table wine”. The only restriction is that the wine is made in Italy. It is typically not exported.