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FOOD & DRINK

REVEALED: How to choose the best wine in Italian supermarkets

Italian supermarkets offer a wide range of wines, but not all are as good as you might hope. Here’s how to pick the best affordable bottles.

Customer shopping at his local Esselunga in Milan, Italy
Most Italian supermarkets offer a wide variety of wines, from low-quality products to high-quality ones. Telling them apart requires some skills. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

Italy is known for being home to excellent winemakers, producing some of the best bianchi, rossi and spumanti in the entire world.

But does that mean that the shelves of all Italian supermarkets are unfailingly chock-full of top-quality wine? Well, no.

READ ALSO: From spritz to shakerato: Six things to drink in Italy this summer

Like most supermarkets in the world, Italian businesses have to cater to a wide range of consumer needs and, above all, they need to maximise their profits. 

As such, their shelves have a pretty wide spectrum of wines, from low-quality to high, and being able to tell the former from the latter usually takes some insider knowledge.

With the help of enologist Carlo Peretti, The Local has put together some advice to help you pick the right bottle off the shelf. 

Enoteca v Supermarket

Firstly, if you’re looking to buy a top-notch bottle of wine for an important social occasion, experts say you should always try to do your shopping at your local wine shop (or enoteca).

That’s because, in the words of Peretti, enoteche “are much more selective [than large-scale retailers]” and “it’s very unlikely that they might keep low-quality wines on their shelves”.

But if you’re looking for a good, affordable bottle with your weekly supermarket shop, here’s how you can have a successful wine-shopping expedition.

What’s the right price?

The first thing that shoppers should be mindful of is the price of the bottles they come across. 

Peretti says: “I would advise people to never spend less than five euros on a bottle. Wine is a product that requires a lot of hard work and expenses (water, electricity, machinery, transport, operating costs, etc.), so it’s practically impossible to get a decent product by spending less than five euros.”

READ ALSO: Prosecco wars: Italy protests Croatia’s bid for special status for its prošek wine

To sum up, anything under that threshold is likely to be what Italians love to call ‘acqua sporca’ (dirty water), i.e. a mediocre type of wine. So, aim to spend at least five euros for reds and whites, and at least seven euros for sparkling wines. 

Buy local wine

Aside from the commendable act of supporting local winemakers, buying wine that was produced in the region you happen to live in (or be visiting) comes with a couple of remarkable upsides.  

Firstly, Peretti says, “the closer the winemaker, the cheaper the transport, so the items that end up on the supermarket shelves have a higher value for money”. 

Secondly, it is often the case that “supermarkets have solid business relationships with local winemakers and, as such, the wines they put on the shelves are generally of good quality”.

But, how can you know that the bottle standing right in front of you has been produced in your region? It will suffice to look at the back label (controetichetta), which carries info on where the wine was produced and bottled. 

Bottles of red wine at Cagliero's Winery in Cuneo, Italy

As a rule of thumb, shoppers should only consider buying bottles of red wine with a vintage falling within three years of the purchase date. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

Check out the wine’s vintage (or disgorgement date for sparkling wines)

One of supermarket wine’s biggest problems is conservation, with temperature swings and light accelerating the degradation of the product’s flavour and aromas. 

So, as a rule of thumb, Peretti recommends consumers avoid “white wines with a vintage dated over two years prior to the purchase date” and “red wines with a vintage dated three or more years before the purchase date”. 

READ ALSO: Not just Prosecco: here are the other Italian sparkling wines you need to try

This means that, if you’re looking to buy a white wine now, you should only look at bottles from either 2021 or 2020, whereas, if you’re looking to buy a red wine, you should only consider bottles from 2019 onwards. 

Once again, information on a bottle’s vintage (or anno di vendemmia) can be found on the bottle itself, usually in the controetichetta.

When it comes to sparkling wines, the rules of the game change slightly as shoppers should look for the disgorgement date (data di sboccatura), that is when bottles are closed for the last time and the classic mushroom-shaped cork stopper is put into place.

The disgorgement date is not always included in the bottle’s back label, but, if it is, “make sure that the sboccatura happened within a maximum of 18 months from when the wine is being purchased”.

Pay attention to the wine classifications 

There are three main wine classifications in Italy: IGT, DOC and DOCG. By law, they all need to appear on the bottle’s label. 

Without delving too deep into the specifics of each category, here’s what each label means. 

IGT is the broadest possible category. At least 85 percent of the grapes used in IGT wines should come from the IGT region stated on the label. Other than that, winemakers don’t have to conform to strict production standards. 

DOC is the second-best quality label. All winemakers have to abide by strict production standards and subject their products to a number of rigorous quality tests. All grapes should come from the designated DOC geographical area.

DOCG is the highest quality level. Harvesting must be made manually and all grapes must come from restricted geographical areas known for the excellence of their vineyards.

“When buying wine, look for DOCG, DOC or IGT, in this order,” says Peretti. “Anything falling outside of these classifications, feel free to avoid.”

Bottles of Ferrari displayed at the Vinitaly fair.

Very rarely does a good bottle of sparkling wine cost less than seven euros. Ferrari, pictured above, is one of the best Italian ‘spumanti’. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

Try to buy wine that’s been produced and bottled by the same company

If you find ‘Imbottigliato all’origine da’ or ‘Prodotto e imbottigliato da’ on a bottle’s back label, that means that the entire production process (harvesting, winemaking and bottling) was controlled by one single company. 

This can be a quality marker as it means that at no point in the process has the wine in question been handed over to third parties. However, Peretti says “while it can be a quality marker, it is not as crucial a factor as some may think”.

READ ALSO: How Italy’s farms are turning to exotic fruit as temperatures rise

He says: “Granted, bottling a specific product away from the location where it was actually produced might subject that product to a certain degree of ‘stress’, which might affect its final quality.”

“However,” he adds, “if the wine is transported in accordance with the latest industry guidelines and in the most appropriate possible manner, the product should not be compromised”.

Steer clear of discounts and ‘incredible’ deals

As appealing as they might look, offers are generally marketing techniques aimed at ridding the shelves of old, unsold wine. 

So, Peretti warns, before pouncing on such deals, “shoppers should look at the vintage of the bottles included in the deal” and generally resort to their common sense. 

He adds: “An eight-euro bottle of Brunello di Montalcino with a 50-percent discount? It seems fishy. I don’t really think a good Brunello can be sold at eight euros, let alone four.”

Corks for Asti Spumante bottles, Italy

Shoppers should beware of bottles carrying synthetic cork stoppers. This (above) is what natural corks should look like. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

How to spot a bad bottle 

Believe it or not, even Italian supermarket shelves can be home to some first-rate slop. So how can you quickly spot (and steer clear of) bad bottles? Here are some quick tips from our wine expert.

  • Avoid cardboard boxes at all costs, unless you need wine for cooking purposes.
  • Screw caps are okay as long as they’re used on bottles of white wine.
  • Avoid bottles with synthetic cork stoppers as they’re generally used for cheap, low-quality wine.
  • Beware of bottles with cheap plastic stickers for labels as they might contain low-quality wine. Look for bottles with paper labels and feel them with your hands. The coarser they are, the better.
  • Beware of light bottles, especially for sparkling wines, which need relatively thick, heavy bottles for pressurisation purposes.
  • Beware of clear, see-through bottles when it comes to white wines. They look nice and allow shoppers to see the colour of the product but do a poor job of protecting the wine from natural or artificial light. This can lead to defects in flavour and aromas.

Read more guides to Italian cuisine in The Local’s food and drink section.

Member comments

  1. Some producers in Monferrato and Langhe have switched to the Select Green 500 recyclable synthetic cork from Nomacorc. Granted these are not wines one will find at the supermarket, but the Barbera Superiores DCOG and Nizzas that we have tested were quite good. There is also a producer in Castel Boglione who swears by screw caps and his Nizzas are very well respected, but again available only at enoteche, in ristorante, or at their cantina.

  2. Hum … having purchased many wines costing less than € 5 … and that are DOC and local … I have to disagree, I’m afraid!
    As I live in Sicily now, I only drink Sicilian (when I can) … and many of your comments sound like a wee bit of wine snobbery to me…

  3. Good article in general as usual from The Local.

    I take a bit of issue with the fixation on classifications. If you go to a small vineyard or enoteca, you can find some first class wines in the IGT class. That’s because the vinter can experiment with different combinations of grapes in different percentages. They are far more constrained with the DOC and DOCG classes.

    For the grocery store, classification is more important. Try getting to know your local producers, that’s where you’ll find the real gems.

  4. I would also disagree with the statement that one should avoid wines under €5. I often buy Remole (Frescobaldi) and Piccole Elegiae (Poliziano) at the supermarket (Esselunga), and have found them to be perfectly drinkable.
    Also Esselunga often have discounts (two-for-one or 50% off) for many of their regular wines, so one can buy an €8-10 bottle for €4-5 and I have never been disappointed.

  5. I will have to beat this dead horse. I find the cheap blends of wines at the supermarket to be superb table wines. It’s practically all I buy. I see no reason for a wine with a good meal to pay more than 3E.

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MONEY

EXPLAINED: Why people in Italy might have to carry more cash from now on

Under Italy’s new budget law, retailers will no longer be fined for refusing card payments on amounts lower than €30 – a controversial move that is expected to have a knock-on effect for shoppers.

EXPLAINED: Why people in Italy might have to carry more cash from now on

Italy’s new budget bill, whose full text was made available to the media on Wednesday, is set to add yet another controversial chapter to the country’s long and troubled history of card payment laws.

According to a clause included in the 2023 budget law, fines for retailers refusing card payments on amounts lower than €30 will now be suspended until at least June 2023.

As set out by the bill, the six-month suspension will allow the newly created Ministry of Enterprises and Made in Italy to “establish new exemption criteria” and “guarantee the proportionality of the given penalties”. 

READ ALSO: Key points: What Italy’s new budget law means for you 

And, though it isn’t yet clear what new exemptions the government is currently considering nor what exactly is meant by “proportionality”, what’s certain is that residents will now have to repopulate their pockets with some good old banknotes because businesses – from taxi drivers to cafes and bars might not accept card payments for small amounts.

Fines for businesses caught refusing card payments had been introduced by Draghi’s administration back in June 2022, with retailers liable to pay “a €30 administrative fee plus four percent of the value of the transaction previously denied”, regardless of the amount owed by the customer. 

Euro banknotes in a wallet

Under Italy’s new budget law, retailers will no longer be forced to accept card payments for transactions under €30. Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP

But, the measure had quickly sparked outrage among retailers, who lamented having to pay hefty bank commissions on every electronic transaction – some business owners even went as far as openly defying the law and organised themselves into a No-Pos Committee (Comitato No Pos). 

Given the latest developments, it seems like their efforts might just have paid off. 

But, while many business owners will surely be happy with the suspension, others across the country have already raised doubt about the potential ripple effects of the government’s move.

Aside from shoppers having to begrudgingly carry more cash than they’re currently used to, many political commentators are warning that the suspension might be a “gift to tax dodgers” in a country where, according to the latest available estimates, tax evasion costs state coffers nearly €90 billion a year.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What’s changing under Italy’s post-pandemic recovery plan? 

It’s also worth noting that the introduction of fines for businesses refusing card payments was one of the financial objectives set out within Italy’s Recovery Plan (PNRR), which expressly refers to the fight against tax evasion as one of the country’s most urgent priorities. 

It is then likely that the new cabinet will at some point have to answer for the latest U-turn on Recovery Plan policies in front of the EU Commission.

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