In the last ten years, Italian producers – both large and small – have been tramping the fields and hills of their zones seeking out native vines, and in this way rediscovering lost pieces of their viticultural heritage. Using modern technology, winemakers are now able to fully express the potential of these grapes. The results of their dedicated research are arriving in wine shops around the world, and offer wine lovers a luscious range of flavours and fragrances unavailable from any other country.
When you taste a wine from an Italian variety, I want you to close your eyes, inhale deeply and really think about its fragrance before you take your first mouthful. What are the connections it brings to mind? Perhaps mature Garganega reminds you of ripe pears, or maybe the scent of Alpine flowers emerges from a glass of Nebbiolo-based Carema. Then take a generous amount of wine in your mouth and swish it around, letting it reach every taste bud. Allow yourself to discover the flavours of these original wines: that tangy burst of blueberries in Nero d’Avola, the touch of elder flower which defines a well-made Verdicchio, and the enticing sweetly bitter flavour of the pulp near the cherry stone of young Sangiovese.
What follows is a brief survey of 16 of Italy’s most popular indigenous grape varieties.
AGLIANICO – Settlers from Greece most likely brought Aglianico to Italy during the 6th century BC. The variety is now cultivated mainly in Campania, Puglia, Basilicata and Molise. Wine styles range from rosés to fruity, youthful reds and on to richer structured, velvety and long-lived wines. Generally speaking, wines made from this variety are likely to be full-bodied, with soft tannins and high acidity. On the palate, there is a seductive blend of black cherry and blackberry fruit, with hints of violets and wild strawberries. I also often find red liquorice tones and bitter chocolate and black pepper notes. Perhaps the most famous wines made from this variety are Taurasi (whose vineyards are in the Campanian province of Avellino) and Aglianico del Vulture (from the area around the eponymous volcano in Basilicata). Top Producers of Aglianico-based wines include Feudi di San Gregorio, Mastroberardino, D’Angelo, Paternoster, Villa Matilde, Cantine Grotta del Sole, Di Majo Norante, Ocone, Basilium, Paternoster and De Conciliis.
BARBERA – Barbera is found throughout Italy. In its native Piedmont, it is usually vinified as a single-variety wine, while in other regions it is more often part of a blend. With its medium to high acidity, deep colour and medium to low tannins, it is extremely malleable, and can produce simple, fruity wines, with soft scents of ripe plums, which are carried through on the palate or barriqued versions will be lush and velvety, with warm spicy fruit which gracefully unfolds on the nose and palate. Top Producers include: Bruno Rocca, Braida, Elio Altare, Aldo Vajra, Varaldo, Dezzani, La Stoppa, Cascina La Ghersa, Michele Chiarlo, Vietti, and Di Majo Norante
CORVINA – This is the grape variety that forms the backbone of the Veneto region’s best known reds: Bardolino, Valpolicella and Amarone. These wines vary in style from charming zesty rosès, through medium-bodied reds to the rich, powerful Amarones, made from semi-dried grapes. Corvina-based wines all have a fresh, delicate bitter-cherry note in their perfumes. Top Producers of Corvina-based wines include: Cavalchina, Corte Gardoni, Le Fraghe, Bertaini, Corte Sant’Alda, Stefano Accordini, Bussola, Speri, Allegrini, Romano Dal Forno, Tenuta Sant’Antonio, Masi, Villa Monteleone, Pasqua, Cantina Valpolicella di Negrar and Zenato.
MONTEPULCIANO – Alright, let’s get this out of the way at once: Montepulciano – the grape – has nothing to do with Montepulciano – the Tuscan town. Montepulciano – the grape – is thought to have originated in Abruzzo and by the 19th century spread to Puglia, Marche and Lazio. Wines made from this variety are very deeply coloured, and have scents of cherries, nutmeg/cinnamon and lightly roasted almonds. On the palate, they have soft tannins and are satisfyingly full. Some tasters find hints of plums, blackberries, raspberries, marasca cherries and wild strawberries. The best known wine from this variety is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, although it also plays a significant role in the Marche’s two top reds, Rosso Piceno and Rosso Conero. Top producers include Edoardo Valentini, Gianni Masciarelli, Dino Illuminati, Umani Ronchi, Fazi Battaglia, Terre Cortesi Moncaro, Tenuta De Angelis and Boccadigabbia,
GAGLIOPPO – Gaglioppo is found in limited quantities in the Marche, Campania, Umbria and Sicily. But it is in Calabria that it thrives. It is the most widely planted variety in that region and it is a component in every one of Calabria’s red DOC wines. Gaglioppo most likely arrived on the Ionian coast of Calabria with the first Greek settlers. Its best known DOC is Cirò Rosso, whose production area is centred around the attractive town of Ciró Marina, located on the coast near Punta Alice, a southern promontory on the Gulf of Taranto. This zone’s location between the sea and the Sila Mountains creates extreme differences in day and night-time temperatures, which allows the grapes to ripen more slowly, thus achieving fuller development of aromas and flavours. In Greek times, wines from this area were so greatly appreciated that they were awarded to the winners of Olympic Games. Cirò Rosso is always refreshing on the nose, with an amalgam of scents that include tar, red liquorice and rose hips tea. These sensations are carried through on to the palate. The wine is lightly tannic, with good body and medium to high alcohol. Well-made Cirò Rosato is the colour of blood-orange juice. Its flavours are broad but elegant and on the palate it has minerally notes and hints of frozen strawberries. Top Producers include: Librandi, Fattoria San Francesco and Caparra & Siciliani.
NEBBIOLO – Nebbiolo is Piedmont’s premium red grape variety and is the primary component in four of that region’s DOCG wines (Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara and Ghemme). It is also an important variety in the other northern Italian regions of Valle d’Aosta and Lombardy Don’t expect a ruby or plummy red in these wines: Nebbiolos tend to have garnet to orange overtones. Barolos and Barbarescos should have an exhilarating rush of freshness on the nose, followed immediately by warming broader elements, which can include cherries, plums, strawberries and raspberries. There are also darker tones of chocolate, dried herbs, hazelnuts, liquorice and cinnamon or vanilla. With age, hints of roses, dried violets, tar, freshly ground almonds and hazelnuts emerge on the nose, and the texture on the palate becomes silkier. Nebbiolo-based wines from Alpine zones tend to be suppler with fresh, elegant perfumes, which include violets, alpine flowers, blueberries, brambles, mint, and a touch of tar or black pepper on the palate. Among the many fine producers are: Varaldo, Gaja, Bruno Rocca, Michele Chiarlo, Aldo Conterno, Roberto Voerzio, Domenico Clerico, La Spinetta, Ceretto, Cantina del Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema and Nino Negri.
NERO D’AVOLA – There is a seductive wildness about certain indigenous varieties that renders them infinitely more exciting than their classic counterparts. Their flavours are definite and consistent yet always in transition: suggestions and echoes of flavour overlap and shift on the palate with enticing elegance. Nero d’Avola is one of these varieties. Its fragrance is always refreshing, with blueberry hints melding into brighter tones of wild strawberries and blackberries. Its tannins are soft and wines made from it are therefore supple. Like all fine grape varieties, it has the ability to fulfil the wishes of its winemaker. If he or she wants a satisfying youthful style, then that is what Nero d’ Avola will provide. If he or she dreams of making a graceful wine with ageing potential, Nero d’ Avola will not disappoint. Giacomo Tachis, Italy’s favourite winemaker and a passionate devotee of all things Sicilian, has described Nero d’ Avola at various times as the Baron, the Prince, the King and the Emperor of Sicilian Viticulture. It may be used on its own or in blends. Top Producers: Feudo Principi di Butera, Settesoli, Duca di Salaparuta, Spadafora, Morgante, Carlo Pellegrino, Cusumano and Pasqua-Fazio.
PRIMITIVO – The success of Primitivo in foreign markets has gone a long way in establishing the quality image of Southern Puglia, where the variety thrives. Studies have determined that Primitivo and Zinfandel share the same DNA. As one Puglian producer puts it, “They are like twins separated at birth – one growing up in Manhattan, the other in the Bronx.” Primitivos tend to have a luscious raspberry/fuchsia sheen when young. On the palate, one finds plum jam and blackberry and raspberry notes, along with hints of violets and undertones of hay, tobacco and oriental spices. Top producers include: Rivera, Masseria Pepe, Leone de Castris, Pervini, Felline, Casa Girelli and Academia dei Racemi
SANGIOVESE – Sangiovese, which is believed to have been cultivated since Etruscan times in the area around Florence, is now found throughout Italy and is responsible for some of the country’s finest and most memorable wines. Like Pinot Noir, it is subject to a great deal of clonal variation and as a result its colour and structure vary dramatically. Basically, the different clones fall into two main groups: Sangiovese Grosso and Sangiovese Piccolo. Grosso is lower yielding and has smaller, thicker-skinned berries and, therefore, tends to have darker colour and better ageing potential. In general, Sangiovese’s perfumes should be rich and full. Tasters find hints of leather, tobacco, truffles, figs, mulberries, raspberries, vanilla and cinnamon on the nose. Young Sangiovese has a ripe cherry fruit flavour, with a cherry stone bitterness on the finish. The best known Sangiovese-based wines are Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Morellino di Scansano, but a small number of producers are also making their mark with it in Romagna. There are many excellent producers working with Sangiovese, among them are: Fattoria Zerbina, Drei Donà Tenuta La Palazza,Caatello di Fonterutoli, Isole e Olena, Antinori, Poliziano, Torraccia di Presura, Fattoria dei Barbi,Tenuta Caparzo,Tenuta Col d’Orcia, Ercolani and Bindella.
ALBANA – The Romans most likely brought Albana to Romagna. There are those who believe that the variety takes its name from the Albani hills, south of Rome. For others, the name is derived from the Latin word for white: albana. This variety, a veritable sugar factory, is relatively high in acidity and has unusually high quantities of tannins in the seeds and skins. Wines made from this variety are particularly suitable for wood ageing. Dry Albana has subtle hints of peaches, roses, almond and sage in the fragrance. Semi-dried Albana grapes produce excellently balanced wines. The vest of which are justly compared to first-class Sauternes. In 1987, Albana di Romagna earned the distinction of being the first white wine to be awarded DOCG status. Top Producers: Fattoria Zerbina, Tre Monti, Umberto Cesari, Leone Conti, Celli, Giovanna Madonia, Fattoria Paaradiso, Stefano Ferrucci, Umberto Cesari and Tenuta Uccellina
FRIULANO – Formerly known as Tocai Friulano is grown in the regions of Veneto and Lombardy, but it is in Friuli that the variety is allowed to take centre stage as a 100% varietal wine. Tocai wine is pale yellow gold, and a slight saline note rests amidst subtle scents of wild flowers. Some tasters also find hints of geranium leaf or hay. The wine has a crisp structure and a creamy texture and flavour (similar to crème pâtissière). Some find ghosts of apricots on the palate. Outside of Italy, this variety is most commonly known as Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse.Top Producers include Livio Felluga, Russiz Superiore, Le Vige di Zamó, Collavini, Adriano Gigante, Dal Fari, Petrussa, Ronco del Gnemiz, Ronco delle Betulle, Bastianich, Acquilia del Torre, Marco Felluga, Edi Keber, Scarbolo and La Boatina
GARGANEGA – Garganega is believed to be of Greek origin. While found in isolated pockets throughout Italy, it produces its most memorable results in the Veneto provinces of Vicenza, Padua and Verona. When grown in optimum sites, when yields are kept low and when the grapes are allowed to fully ripen, this variety is capable of producing whites with delicate flavours of pear, pineapple and apricot which become fuller and more luscious as the wines matures. It is the major (sometimes sole) component in Soave. Top Producers: Gini, Pieropan, Inama, Anselmi, Ca’ Rugate, La Cappuccina, Umberto Portinari, Prà, Coffele, Borgoni, Fattoria & Graney, Portinari, Bertani, Terre dei Monti, Vicentini, Zenato, Balestri Valda, Suavia and Zonin.
MOSCATO – The venerable and varied Moscato family includes both white and red varieties, all of which share an attractive, grapey fragrance. The name seems to be derived from muscum or muschio (musk). Moscato Bianco is a major component in DOC wines from Valle d’Aosta to Sicily, and is the primary variety in still, semi-sparkling, fully sparkling, fortified and passito wines. Zibibbo (also known as Moscato di Alessandria) is the variety used to produce the luscious honey-tinged Moscato di Pantelleria. It is the grape variety for two DOCG wines: Moscato d’Asti and Asti Spumante. Top Producers of Moscato wines include Villa Giada, Silvano e Elena Boroli, Braida, Chiarle, Paolo Saracco, Cascina Fonda, Rivera, Marco De Bartoli, Salvatori Murana, and Donna Fugata.
PINOT GRIGIO – Pinot Grigio has become the magic name in Italian restaurants around the world, and its subdued aromas and flavours allow it to move easily from the bar to the table. It is little wonder that it is now the biggest selling Italian white wine in many export markets. Pinot Grigio is a genetic mutation of Pinot Nero, which most likely arrived in Friuli at the end of the 19th century and from there spread throughout the country. Top Producers: Collavini, Vinnaioli Jermann, Walter Filiputti, Tenuta Beltrame, Russiz Superiore, Livio Felluga, Mario Schiopetto, Livon, Villa Russiz, Casa Girelli, Pierpaolo Pecorari and Santa Margherita.
PROSECCO – This variety may have originated around the town of Trieste, which lies on the border between north-eastern Italy and Slovenia. From there it spread to the Veneto. It thrives in the Alpine foothills north of Treviso. Its DOC production zone in this area includes fifteen communes, of which Conegliano and Valdobbiadene are the best known. Prosecco is usually sparkling, and may be brut, dry or extra dry – this last is the most common style. Vineyards in the tiny area of Cartizze (near the town of Valdobbiadene) constitute the premium sub-zone. Prosecco wines are pale greenish straw, with green apple and lightly floral perfumes. The fact they are not bone-dry makes them a very appealing aperitif. Top Producers include Bisol, Bortolotti, Carpenè Malvolti, Ruggeri, Le Colture, Villa Sandi and Sorelle Bronca
VERDICCHIO (known in the Veneto as Trebbiano di Soave or Trebbiano di Lugana) – In Marche the variety is called Verdicchio, a name derived from the greenish (verde) highlights found in the wine. It can attain 13% alcohol with ease, and, when yields are controlled and harvesting is carried out with care, it has good structure, high extract and a luscious strain of apricot-like fruit, which fills out the minerally/salty note that is the hallmark of the variety. It is available in a variety of styles: from dry sparklers, to fresh and zesty quaffing wines, to weightier (at times oaked) versions and even dessert wines. Its two main zones are Jesi and Matelica. Top Producers: Bucci, Garofoli, Stefano Mancinelli, Umani Ronchi, Marotti Campi, La Monesca, and Bellisario