Italian wine appellations: what a DOC is
Italian DOCs (Appellations of Controlled Origin): what do they mean, what are their purposes, and why are they useful to recognize and understand wines produced in different regions?
An Italian DOC – Denominazione di Origine Controllata is a collective trademark for the classification and protection of quality wines produced in defined areas of Italy. Each DOC’s policy is subject to rigid regulations approved by Government’s Law. The main purposes that every DOC should serve are:
- identification of the wine grape’s territorial origin,
- yield’s per hectare limitation,
- control over applicable winemaking practices and wine presentation (fermentation, refining, packaging),
- description of the wine’s main characteristics (aromatic profile, color, taste) according to the grapes’ quality and origin,
- wine’s protection against counterfeiting and frauds.
Furthermore, DOCs play a very important role in wine’s communication and promotion because they transfer to the consumer useful information to understand the connection between the wine he is drinking and its production area. In other words, DOCs are the first fundamental tool for identifying and understanding terroir.
DOCs have a meaning only if the link between wine and terroir is strong and evident. For that reason, each DOC should apply to only a single wine region that shows, at least, three fundamental characteristics:
- the production area must be consistent: climatic, morphological and geological conditions within the area should be uniform, and local variations should not have a decisive impact over the wines’ character. In order to detect minor peculiarities - for example - different altitudes, soil compositions, or the influence of a particular local orography, there is in fact the possibility of defining smaller subzones within the same DOC;
- the wine region must express recognizable features: wines produced within that homogeneous territory must unequivocally reflect the influence of the natural elements that are typical of the territory itself (if the grapes are grown close to the sea, wines must show a saline character; if the vineyards are located on the mountains, the influence of altitude must be evident, and so on);
- the appellation must guarantee an indisputable quality: it means that the grapes’ yield must be limited to the point of guaranteeing a superior wines’ quality, and the maximum loyalty of the wines to the area where they are produced.
However, the choices that many producers and consortia do when they adopt a DOC for their wines do not always meet these conditions. This is the case, for instance, for very large DOCs that cover areas which climatic, environmental and cultural conditions are not homogeneous and often dilute, rather than reinforce, the link between the wines and the production zone.
If we take a closer look at the DOC Sicilia, for instance, we see that this appellation allows producers to collect grapes grown all over the island and blend wines made in very different locations, without considering the specific characteristics of each production area, their altimetry, the geological origin of soils, and so on.
With its territory covering 25,711 km², Sicily is the largest island of the Mediterranean: planted with about 261,000 acres of vineyards, it is also one of the largest Italian wine producing regions (updated - Source: I numeri del vino, August 2017). Such a vast territory offers a huge variety of geographical and climatic conditions that influence the wine production in Sicily.
Vineyards are planted on volcanic soils on the Etna slopes and on smaller islands like Salina or Pantelleria, they grow on the Nebrodi and Madonie Mountains at an altitude of almost 3,000 feet, and they cover most part of Sicily’s coastal areas at sea level in Marsala or Menfi, as well as in the Ragusa province. Temperatures, rainfall, geology and composition of soils in such an enormous area are incredibly diverse. Wines produced in Eastern and Western Sicily taste so different because the same grape varieties have a different adaptation to uneven territorial conditions, and the grapes those vineyards produce do not even resemble each other.
The distance between Trapani and Noto is 162 miles, which is exactly the same distance that runs from Barolo to Valpolicella or from Valtellina to Friuli. The production conditions, the pruning and training systems, and the historical evolution of viticulture between the two coasts of Sicily are extraordinarily diverse.
A Nero d’Avola from Trapani and one from Siracusa are so different that you cannot almost tell that they are made with the same grape variety, and this is exactly what you think drinking Aglianico del Vulture and Taurasi di Avellino. In this second case, you have two different wines made with the same grape variety but coming from different wine regions: different names on the labels help you understand why the two wines taste so differently.
Large appellations create, evidently, a big problem to the consumer: reading on a wine label - for example - Nero d'Avola DOC Sicilia does not give you much information. It is impossible to know exactly where the grapes were harvested, whether close to the sea or up in the mountains, or in the torrid hot plains in the center of Sicily. It is also impossible to understand if those grapes were picked in the same wine area or if they were collected from different areas and then blended to make the wine you are drinking. It will not be possible to understand whether the characteristics of that wine derive from its loyal connection with terroir or they are just the result of a specific "winemaking style", whether they reflect the typical character of the grape variety or they derive from the adaptation of many vineyards to very different production areas. In short, reading Nero d'Avola DOC Sicilia does not deliver any information about terroir, and therefore about the wine’s origins.
Luckily, in Sicily we not only have the DOC Sicilia appellation: 23 smaller Sicilian DOCs focus on areas that are more homogeneous, both from a geographic and from a cultural point of view. Even if they are almost unknown, and not very much used by wine producers in Sicily, these appellations are the real starting point for talking about terroir in such a wide region.
In 2004, when we finally moved to the new winery, I chose to adopt the DOC Menfi for some of my wines: La Vota and Azimut were the first to have the DOC Menfi on the label, and more followed in the next years.
It was an important and reasoned choice based on my idea of terroir and on a somehow intransigent approach to winemaking: I committed to promoting my wines’ identity, and to focus on producing only cru wines of terroir, wines with a fascinating and unique character that represent the essence of the land to which they belong.
Working with such a small appellation posed several problems at the beginning, and marketing was quite difficult at least for the first ten years: Menfi is, in fact, a very small village lost on the map of the largest island in the Mediterranean, and virtually nobody knows about it. It was also difficult to explain why Menfi is different from Noto or Trapani, from Valledolmo or Caltanissetta: at that time, I was the only producer in my wine region to commit to such a small appellation, and my bigger neighbors did not intend to walk the same path. I had to swallow rose eyebrows and laughs from far bigger and far more famous producers than I was.
Nevertheless, my weird choice has been successful over the years, and it is even more successful since the IGT Sicilia was legally transformed (with only minor changes in the wine production discipline) into a DOC in 2012. This very broad DOC appellation that covers the entire territory of Sicily was born with a lot of compromises (I have already talked about that a few years ago), but only recently it has been remodeled getting from bad to worse. From next harvest 2017, the allowed yields for Nero d’Avola and Grillo DOC Sicilia have been dramatically raised up to 140 quintals per hectare, and this is something that I do not intend to support. Nor I wish to involve my wines and my brand in the inevitable deterioration of the DOC Sicilia perceived reputation.
For all these reasons, starting with the 2016 harvest I decided not to use the DOC Sicilia anymore, but to adopt the DOC Menfi for all my wines, whenever possible. If for some reasons it will not be possible (eg Ammàno who is born and dies as table wine, or if some wines eventually would not qualify for the Menfi DOC after compulsory analysis or tastings) I will be proud to write on my labels simply WINE.