I’m frequently asked this question at In Vino, my little Italian wine and food cave: What does the DOC and DOCG name on the neck of a wine bottle or appended to the name of a wine on our wine list mean? Is the wine better if it has it? Not necessarily better, but guaranteed. Let’s break it down.
A controlled appellation is the wine world’s way of designating wine quality by using geographical delimitation based on winemaking zones with particular names, traditions and future potential. The idea of a controlled appellation is modeled after the original idea, France’s appellation d’origine contrôlée (“appellation of controlled origin”), established in the 1930s.
In the US, we call them AVAs or American Viticultural Areas and give them names like Napa Valley AVA and Sonoma Coast AVA. In Italy, their system of controlled appellations is a direct translation of the French AOC, denominazione di origine controllata (“denomination of controlled origin”). There are over 400 AOC designations in France. Italy has 300.
In the 1960s, Italy attempted to replicate the structure and design of the French AOC. They even took it a step further. Not only did they enact the DOC but they also added another acronym to define even higher quality wine by putting a “G” at the end of DOC standing for garantita or “guaranteed.” This was saved for the most elite wine on the boot, with more restrictions to maintain quality. DOCG wasn’t actually used until 1980 when it was given to the five most revered wine regions in Italy: Barolo, Barbaresco, Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
Instead of legitimizing the wine regions of the country, the DOC system was enacted at a time when Italy’s winemaking practices were generally at its lowest point (Italy itself was the poorest country in Europe’s post-WWII Common Market), thus many areas were awarded DOCs based on political relationships rather than method and practice, with wording such as, “in conformity with existing practices” (as noted by the Oxford Wine Companion). In other words, the system known as Law No. 930 was, on the surface, a legit resemblance of the French AOC but, in reality, a flawed idea that would need a good many reforms to set things right (we will talk IGT in another post).
The good news is that today, even though there are over 300 DOCs, Italy has improved its winemaking practices nationwide, making it fun to try wines from these areas on wine lists across our fifty states. So, when confronted with an Italian wine list with DOCs and DOCGs scattered about, know that wines with these acronyms adhere, from vintage to vintage, to the same rules. And, although climate fluctuates, the practices do not, therefore maintaining a quality we have seen improve dramatically over the years.