Northern Italian wines are always a good idea and they taste even better when you’re in Northern Italy. Now is the time to travel to Northern Italy – no more summer crowds, everything’s more affordable, and the autumn weather is wonderful. These are the Northern Italian wines you need to try when you get there.
This is the time of year when you need to be behind the wheel of a car road-tripping Northern Italy or exploring the Northern Italian region by train. The temperate weather varies wildly across the North, depending on the altitude, from gorgeous clear blue sky days that are almost spring-like to cooler days when you feel a chill in the air and have to slip on a cardigan or jacket.
No matter what the weather, there’s always somewhere to stop to enjoy some Northern Italian wines, whether it’s to linger over a bottle of white in the sunshine on a restaurant terrace on one of the Italian Lakes or to wash down some cicchetti (Venetian snacks) by a fireplace in a cosy bar in Venice on a cool evening, Northern Italian wines are always a good idea.
Northern Italian Wines You Need to Taste When You Get to Northern Italy
Northern Italian wines are by world standards, excellent. The famous robust red wine, Barolo is made here, as is the increasingly popular white variety, Pinot Grigio.
Just like France, terroir – the characteristics of the land – is important in Italy and the Italians have a wine classification system similar to the French. Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata et Garantita (DOCG) guarantee that the wines are from the specified area, with DOCG – allegedly – a guarantee of quality.
Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT), simply means a wine typical of the region, while Vina da Tavola (table wines) are the lowest category. However some of Italy’s best wines are in the ‘table wine’ category – famously the so-called ‘Super Tuscans’, because their use of grapes or winemaking techniques falls outside the official regulations.
This started in the 1960s when Tuscan winemakers flirted with planting grape varieties from Bordeaux, such as Cabernet Sauvignon. By the 1970s these wines became publicly available but had to be classified as Vina da Tavola.
Look for wines from Tignanello, Sassicaia and Ornellaia and whiles these are reds, the winery Ornellaia also produces an Ornellaia Bianco, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. Ironically, while still classified as Vina da Tavola, these wines are some of the most expensive and sought after wines in the world.
Northern Italian Wines to Drink in the Northwest of Northern Italy
In the northwest of Northern Italy, the region of Piedmont has over 50 DOC-DOCG zones (the most in Italy) and is home to Italy’s most respected wine, Barolo. Made from Nebbiolo grapes (the main grape of the region), the wine is very tannic when young and so Barolo’s are generally aged between 7–10 years, with great vintages drinkable at least until 20 years old. Of the vintages in recent decades, 2010 is considered one of the most outstanding.
At a more affordable price point is Barbaresco, a wine that’s comparable to a big Pinot Noir from Burgundy and drinks well between 5–10 years. Another great red is Barbera, with Barbera d’Alba sometimes comparable to Barolo or Barbaresco, while Barbera d’Asti is lighter and softer. These wines generally benefit from a few years cellaring so take a few home.
Also from Asti is Asti Spumante, a sparkling, sweet, low-alcohol wine made from the Moscato grape. Much-maligned in some countries, it’s very popular in Italy. Generally, the good stuff stays in Italy, while the brands that gave the wine such a bad name are exported.
In other regions of the northwest, much of Lombardy’s production goes to bulk wine, but the sparkling DOCG wines of Franciacorta are notable as are the Nebbiolo-based reds of the Valtellina region.
Valle D’Aosta’s wine growing region’s high altitude sees some interesting wines, such as the DOC wines, Donnaz and Enfer d’Arvier, both respectable reds.
In Emilia Romagna, a lighter red, Lambrusco is popular – the exported varieties are generally sweet and cloying, while the local dry versions (usually DOC), match the local cuisine beautifully.
Northern Italian Wines to Drink in the Northeast of Northern Italy
In the northeast, the region of the Veneto, home to Venice, is of the most importance and produces the most wine in Italy. Much is exported, including plenty of IGT wines, but the trio of Soave, Bardolino and Valpolicella are notable.
Soave, a generally dry white made from Garganega and Trebbiano di Soave, is one of Italy’s most popular whites and while many are average, some transcend.
Bardolino comes from a mix of grape varieties – Corvina, Rondinella Molinara and Negrara – and is a dry, sometimes bitter wine, drank young.
A typical Valpolicella is an easy and early drinking red, but varieties such as the Amarone della Valpolicella, made with air-dried grapes, is more interesting.
The sparking wine you’ll see in glasses clinked all over Italy, Prosecco, is also from the region.
Trentino-Alto Adige is known for its Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris in France), a light, delicate white that’s now grown in many wine regions of the world, particularly Australia.
The higher altitudes of the north of Northern Italy see Gewürztraminer, Müller Thurgau and white Moscato being produced – all of which can be great quality.
Friuli-Venezia Giulia has been dominated by Tocai Friulano, but the EU ruled that this name is too close to Tokaji of Hungary. The wine formerly known as Tocai Friulano is an elegant, floral white when produced by good winemakers.
Out Tips to Tasting Northern Italian Wines in Northern Italy
- If you’re planning a wine trip by train or road across Northern Italy, see our Northern Italy itineraries.
- Travelling by car is the best way to explore Northern Italy if you want to drop into wineries and you’re not planning on much time in cities; book a hire car for pick-up from an airport in Milan, Bergamo or Venice.
- Note that unlike Australia or New Zealand where winery cellar doors are nearly always open for visitors in Italy you often have to call ahead to make an appointment.
- See this guide to the Veneto cities of Treviso, Vicenza and Padova for what to see and do, and where to stay and eat, and this guide to tasting Veneto wines.
- The best tip we can give you to drinking Northern Italian wines in Northern Italy is when you’re dining always match local wines with the local dishes of the region.
- Wikipedia has a full list of all Italian DOC wines by region if you fancy planning an itinerary around which wine varieties to taste where.