It can’t have escaped most wine-lovers’ notice that over the past years and decades there has never been a greater selection of wines available from all over the world. Yet, paradoxically, more and more wines are being produced in ever more similar styles, from only a handful of international grape varieties. Soft juicy reds with flavours of oak made from Cab Sauvignon and Merlot, and clean, dry and off-dry whites from Chardonnay and Sauvignon have increasingly come to dominate the shelves of wine shops and supermarkets, at least certainly here in Great Britain. While on the one hand the overall standard of winemaking may have improved, on the other, I can’t help but feel that the potentially infinite flavours of wine have been diluted as wine producers are compelled to create ‘products’ to suit international markets and expectations.
Italy, however, as one of the oldest vine growing countries in the world, steadfastly (on the whole) bucks this trend. An outrageous wealth of mainly indigenous grape varieties proliferates the length and breadth of the Italian peninsula. You may never have heard of many of them for Italian wines may or may not be labelled varietally (that is after the principal grape variety): but what is unmistakable is the immense variety of unique flavours and styles of wine that is found in Italy and nowhere else on earth.
So for those of you who would like to get more familiar with what’s inside a bottle of Italian wine, here’s an easy A-Z of Italian grape varieties. This basic primer is by no means comprehensive (after all, there are literally thousands of indigenous grape varieties here), but it includes grapes that produce wines with character and (a very important Italian concept, this) tipicità – that is to say, wines with attitude and personality that reflect in every way the land from which they come.
The name reveals the Greek origins of this ancient red grape variety mainly grown in southern Italy (Basilicata, Campania, Puglia). It can result in outstanding wines of world class, the best of which display complexity, elegance and longevity.
Cultivated in the Roero hills of Piedmont, north of Alba, this little known but classy grape is capable of producing elegant and perfumed white wines that are increasingly sought after.
An outstanding workhorse grape, Barbera yields red wines in a variety of styles, from light, frizzante guzzlers for everyday drinking from the Monferrato hills and Asti to deeper, and more serious reds from Alba, capable of ageing and improving in the bottle. Good examples also come from the Oltrepò Pavese, south of Milan.
This clone of Sangiovese, identified and isolated over 100 years ago and grown in the wine hills of Montalcino, is the source of one of Italy’s greatest red wines. Historically wines produced from Brunello needed to be aged for lengthy periods in barrel and bottle but today more supple and easily approachable modern styles are increasingly being made.
Spanish links with Sardinia are revealed by this grape closely related to Spain’s Garnacha. Traditionally thick, dense highly alcoholic red wines and sweet, fortified dessert wines were produced from Cannonau and can still be found on the island. Modern winemaking techniques allied with modern tastes result today mainly in lighter and more approachable styles that can display real quality.
This fairly nondescript white grape variety is grown widely in southern Piedmont to result in crisp everyday dry whites. In one enclave around the wine zone of Gavi, however, wines produced from Cortese can be outstanding, elegant with depth of flavour and complexity. Best may be labelled ‘Gavi di Gavi’.
Grown widely in Piedmont to result in deliciously fruity, gulpable red wines that range from youthful and light, to be consumed in the year of production, to more intense and concentrated examples from Alba.
This ancient grape variety was prized by the Romans for the production of the famous Falernum of antiquity. Today it has been revitalised in Campania to produce a modern Falerno that is one of southern Italy’s most distinctive and characterful whites.
This distinctive white grape, grown primarily in Umbria, has traditionally been a component of Orvieto, valued above all for the structure and body which it brings to the uvaggio (blend of grapes). In recent years, varietal examples of real stature are being produced so look out for the name on bottles.
Another distinctive favourite, this relatively rare grape from Piedmont produces lightly coloured but intensely flavoured wines from vineyards mainly around Monferrato Casale.
An unfairly derided grape variety widely grown in Emilia-Romagna. While industrially produced wines can be dismissed as little more than alcoholic soda pop, quality wines are produced from superior sub-varieties. Look out for Lambrusco di Sorbara, Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, and Lambrusco Salamino di S. Croce.
This grape variety is cultivated in the vineyards of Trentino to produce attractive, deeply coloured, attractively fruity red wines.
One of very few grapes that can result in wines that taste – intensely – of grapes themselves. Deliciously fragrant, the wines that result can be either off-dry or sweet, often frizzante or fully sparkling (as in Asti Spumante). Moscato and its sub-varieties are cultivated throughout the country.
One of the greatest red grapes of Italy, and the source of outstanding red wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco. Nebbiolo is capable of producing intensely flavoured and scented wines with immense capacity to age and improve in the bottle. Fine examples are also produced in northern Piedmont (Gattinara, Fara) as well in the mountain vineyards of Lombardy’s Valtellina (Inferno, Sassella, Grumello).
Cultivated in the deep south of Puglia, Negroamaro is a massive red grape variety that is the principal component of a range of superb red wines as well as full-bodied rosato. Look for wines from the wine communes of Salice Salentino, Copertino, Squinzano, Brindisi.
From Friuli, Picolit is a rarity due to floral blight, which makes this vine increasingly difficult to cultivate. But the small quantity that results is legendary, a dessert wine of exquisite delicacy and scent. Primitivo Said by many to be the precursor of California’s trendy Zinfandel, Primitivo is cultivated in the heel of the Italian boot (Puglia) to produce massive sometimes overly alcoholic yet densely fruity wines that can be wonderfully gluggable. Lighter modern styles are increasingly being made.
One of the great red grapes of Italy, Sangiovese is the source of outstanding wines produced throughout Tuscany and Umbria. It is the main component of Chianti, Carmignano, Torgiano, and other fine wines and is often vinified in purezza for the production of super-Tuscan vini da tavola. Sangiovese has a number of sub-varieties: Brunello di Montalcino, Morellino di Scansano, Prugnolo Gentile for Vino Nobile di Montepulciano,
This outstanding white grape variety expresses itself most distinctively in the Collio wine zone of Friuli. It is capable of producing white wines of power, scent and body of real distinction and class.
This distinctive white grape from the Marche is one of Italy’s finest, capable of producing richly textured wines with ripe tropical fruit and a characteristic bitter aftertaste. Best wines come from the Castelli di Jesi as well as the lesser-known area of Matelica.
The name indicates the ‘vernacular’ origins of this distinctive white grape, cultivated mainly in the wine zone of San Gimignano. Styles can range from full-bodied, robustly flavoured traditionally vinified wines to more delicate and elegant modern styles.
This sub-variety of Moscato grows on the volcanic island of Pantelleria, off the coast of north Africa to result in one of the great, undervalued dessert wines of the world: concentrated, exceedingly sweet, yet with delicate floral and citrus overtones.