How Italian wines are named

By some accounts, Italian is the most mellifluous of the world’s languages. But when it names the wines of Italy, it also may be the most misunderstood. An Italian wine may sound beautiful, but what do the words on its label mean?

“Italy is the most complex wine-growing region in the world,” says Brian Larky, founder of Dalla Terra, an importer of Italian wines. “In California, you’ve got — what? — five, eight, 10 major growing regions,” he says, “but in Italy you’ve got more grapes and more regions than anywhere else on the globe.”

A common estimate is that more than 2,000 wine grape varieties grow throughout Italy; somewhere between 300 and 400 regularly make wine at commercial levels; and this happens in a country that produces wine in more than 400 legally demarcated places.

Any of that, in combination or alone, can appear on a label of Italian wine. Mamma mia.

But sift through it all, and up pop four basic ways that name Italian wines. This is just a start; it won’t tell you how a wine tastes, for example, or give you its value. But it begins to get at what it is.

Grape name alone

We are familiar with this naming convention because it is the way we commonly name our own wines, by grape variety. “You can’t get it wrong when it says ‘Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon,’” says Larky.

Pinot grigio, one of Italy’s more popular wines in the U.S., usually comes to us so named. So do many Italian wines made of the so-called international grape varieties, such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot or chardonnay.

But, as we know, Italy makes wine way beyond the familiar. If you see a single name on a label (over and above the winery’s name or place of origin), it could well be a grape name. Yes, there are hundreds of possibilities; the fun part is learning about them.

• 2013 Gran Passione Falanghina Campania: A dominant white grape in the south; dry, lean, supercrisp and citrusy; Neapolitan lemonade. $13-$17.

• 2013 Cantina Andriano Lagrein, Trentino-Alto Adige: One of many native Italian grapes, lagrein is all about dark color, red- and black-fruit aromas and flavors, and take-chill juiciness. $20

Grape name plus place name

OK, major assist here from the letter “d.” In Italian, it’s the head of a lot of short words that basically mean “from” or “of,” especially referring to places. So, a “sangiovese di Romagna” is a sangiovese grape grown in the region of Emilia-Romagna; an “aglianico del Vulture,” an aglianico grape grow on the slopes of the old volcano Vulture in Basilicata in the far south.

You get the idea: Look for the “d” word. It often follows the name of a grape grown in a particular vineyard area of Italy. Yes, there are hundreds of possibilities; the fun part is learning about them.

• 2008 Giovanni Madonia Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore Riserva “Ombroso” Emilia-Romagna: Brooding character snapped to by crisp acidity, a great combination especially for red meat dishes. $30-$40

• 2011 Terra di Vulcano Aglianico del Vulture, Basilicata: Earthy notes accent dark fruit, with ample tannin, fresh finish; super combo for dried sausages. $12-$15

Place name alone

The most common way to name wines in what we call the Old World (basically Europe, as distinct from the New World, or winemaking countries such as the U.S. that followed European winemaking in history) is by the place where the grapes grow and their wine is made.

Place matters to the Old World, so that, for example, an all-nebbiolo wine made in and around the town of Barolo is considered to be different, sometimes significantly, from an all-nebbiolo wine made down the road in and around the town of Barbaresco. Why not name them differently as well? And so the Italians do.

We are quite familiar with many place names, as they are some of the more favored wines that we have bought from Italy for years. Yes, there are hundreds of possibilities; the fun part is learning about them.

• 2011 Prunotto Barbaresco, Piedmont: In a traditional style, so let breathe for several hours ahead of service; fine-grained tannins, autumn leaves, dark berry fruit. $45

• 2012 Inama Soave Classico “Vin Soave,” Veneto: A mix of stone fruit and apple flavors, but bright of acidity and with a cleansing and enticing mineral finish. $15

Place name plus “style” name

Fourthly — blessedly — many Italian wine names tell you the color of the wine behind the label, or whether it’s sparkling or if it has been made from super-ripe grapes. And then, so nicely, the “d” word tells you from where it comes.

“Rosso” means red; “bianco” means white; “spumante” means sparkling; “ripasso” means — well, it’s a little word with a long story and maybe someday I can tell you about it. But right now, suffice to say it means “delicious.”

• 2012 Avignonesi Rosso di Montepulciano, Tuscany: A plush version of sangiovese, moderate on the tannin, no skimping the acidity. $21

• 2010 Tenuta Sant’Antonio Valpolicella Ripasso “Monti Garbi,” Veneto: Here’s a lot of red wine softly delivered; dark red fruit character accented with spice, wood and earth; mild dusting tannins, nice length of flavor. $15-$20

If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for ones that are similar in style and price.