There are whole books on individual wine regions of Italy, but let's start with the basics. The major grapes in Italy are: for reds, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese; for whites, Pinot Grigio and Trebbiano. Most Italian wines, especially reds, are labeled by region, not by grape. You'll be best off if you know a little bit about both.
Sangiovese is the main grape in the region of Chianti (in Tuscany), lending itself to juicy, bright reds with perfect-for-food acidity. While regular Chianti is a great go-to for a bargain, keep an eye out for the following, which tend to have slightly more body than regular Chianti:
- Chianti Classico (aged for a year before being sold)
- Chianti Riserva (aged for 2 years)
Sangiovese is also a big player in Montalcino, slightly further south in Tuscany, where the heat and soil contribute to richer, deeper wines with riper fruit flavor than you'd find in Chianti. The two major wines of Montalcino are:
- Rosso di Montalcino (the bargain)
- Brunello di Montalcino (the budget-blower)
Nebbiolo, often compared to Pinot Noir, has bracing acidity and tannin, and a lighter, more delicate fruit flavor, ranging from leather to florals. It's grown largely in Piedmont, in the northwest.
Corvina is a rarely referred-to but worth-mentioning grape used mostly in wines from Valpolicella, in northern central Italy. It's dried partially to make Amarone di Valpolicella, which is rich, dark, slightly sweet and raisiny — the perfect counterpart to meaty braises and holiday dinners.
Pinot Grigio can be bright, fresh and a perfectly pleasant aperitif or party wine. Northern Italian Pinot Grigios benefit from the cool climate and mountain breezes — the regions of Alto Adige and Friuli bring out refreshing acidity and fuller flavor. Pinot Bianco is related to Pinot Grigio, but it tends to be richer, with less fruit flavor.
Trebbiano appears most often in blends — you'll rarely see it on its own. It's grown all over Italy and is the backbone for many Italian white blends, especially those from Umbria (for example, from the region of Orvieto), and Frascati (near Rome).
There's been a resurgence lately of three ancient grapes from Campania (in the southwest, where Naples is); they're not readily available yet, but they're a great match for lighter Southern Italian food — and you get to feel like you're drinking history. They're called Falanghina, Fiano and Greco, and they're lemony, smoky-tasting and an excellent value for the money.