10 Italian Varieties You Need to Know
Latin author Pliny the Elder once remarked that Italy has more kinds of wine grapes than there are grains of sand on a beach. He should know because he actually tried to count them in his Naturalis Historia, a 37-volume compendium of the ancient world that he was still writing when he died in Pompeii, in AD 79.
Fast-forward to June 3, 2005. In Naples, a city located 20 miles northwest of the archeological ruins of Pompeii, Pliny’s name comes up often in conversation. This is the opening day of Vitigno Italia, Italy’s first annual trade show dedicated exclusively to vini da vitigno autoctono, or wines made with indigenous Italian varieties. “Our first records of Garganega start with Pliny,” says a Soave producer from the Veneto.
“Pliny was the first to praise Sagrantino,” claims a producer from Umbria’s Montefalco.
“This was Pliny’s favorite wine,” says a Fiano producer from Campania. Same territory. Same wines. Only 2,000 years later.
Italy’s indigenous grape varieties are the country’s best chances for success in a wine world dominated by Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and three or four other “international” varieties. Indigenous varieties go light years beyond the over-touted concept of terroir—or the environmental factors outside a grape cluster that shape the taste of a wine—because they narrow the potential for diverse and distinguished wines down to a matter of DNA.
“It’s not a coincidence that the wines of the Langhe resemble Piemonte in their austerity and impenetrability, or that Sangiovese encompasses the self-assuredness and aristocracy of Tuscany, or that Sicilian grapes taste of strength and independent spirit,” says Sandro Boscaini of Masi Agricola (Wine Enthusiast’s European Winery of the Year). Boscaini is one of Italy’s most vocal advocates of indigenous varieties. He has planted 48 little-known grape varieties and clones in an experimental vineyard, and has even received government funding to study them. In the past few years, dozens of similar research initiatives have been spearheaded in vineyards spanning the length of the Italian peninsula.
At last count, Italy was home to some 3,000 indigenous varieties, more than any other country in the world. Of these, 350 are currently cultivated and used in commercial winemaking. Regional authorities from all over Italy have petitioned to recognize 700 more varieties, which are expected to come online within the next five years. Since DNA mapping technology has been made available to the scientists who study the origin of grapes, uncatalogued indigenous varieties from small farms or rural backyards, planted on their original roots, are being discovered all the time.
Sadly, the phylloxera louse that ravaged vineyards in the late 1800s permanently erased a large chunk of Italy’s genetic patrimony and is believed to have killed off thousands of varieties. How many types of grapes existed in Pliny’s time is anyone’s guess.
For the answers to all other questions regarding indigenous grapes, Italians turn to Professore Attilio Scienza with the University of Milano. Like a modern-day Pliny, “Professor Science” has logged countless hours traveling to vineyards to search for unidentified vines. He has become the number-one authority on unidentified grape varieties. “Italy is the Amazon jungle of viticulture,” says the white-haired professor. “It’s a hotbed of biodiversity and molecular material and we have only just scratched the surface.”
According to Professore Scienza, Italy (which was known as enotria tellus, or “land of trained vines,” to the Greeks) gained such a rich genetic patrimony because of its auspicious location at the crossroads of the Mediterranean. The country essentially became a giant nursery and wine import/export hub with material used by the Etruscans or brought in by the Phoenicians and Greeks. (Indeed, the term “indigenous” is misleading as many grapes were carried over from Greece or elsewhere millennia ago. The proof is often in the semantics: Greco, Greco di Tufo, Grechetto, Grecanico and Garganega are clearly Greek imports.) Thanks to the Italian peninsula’s harbors (Naples, Pompeii and the mighty port towns of Magna Grecia) the constant flux of grape material sparked a healthy trade business. The fact that ancients propagated by seed, and not by grape cuttings or “cloning,” meant that countless crossovers and hybrid species came into being. Varieties with good color, high yields or other attributes for their commercialization were propagated, but many others were discarded.
Today, Italy has inherited an untapped wealth of grapes that we know very little about. From Teroldego and Lagrein in the north to Greco di Tufo and Nero d’Avola in the south, Italy’s indigenous varieties have not benefited from the centuries of clonal selection and cleansing the way, say, Merlot or other dependable, easier-to-farm grapes have. That means, says Professore Scienza, that with more clonal work, Nero d’Avola, for example, can also be fine-tuned the way that international varieties have been.
That brings up a tricky issue Italian indigenous producers must soon face. Should they modify their rustic, individualistic wines and vinification techniques to match the tastes of the world market? “Absolutely no,” says Professore Scienza. “Italy has grapes no one else has and it has grapes that do not taste or behave the same once removed from their native territory. You can grow Cabernet or Syrah successfully in many points throughout the world but the same cannot be said of Sangiovese or Insolia. The future of the Italian wine industry in a competitive global market that always looks for new, unexplored tastes lies with these grapes.”
Italian producers seem to agree. One study claims a whopping 94 percent of Italian vineyard acreage is planted to indigenous varieties today. In the past year, two new trade shows have been established to meet the demands of indigenous grape producers and to help them find a niche in foreign markets. In addition to the annual Vitigno Italia fair in Naples that saw 300 producers present at its first edition, Italy’s Slow Food organized a similar event near Ravenna called Figli di un Bacco Minore.
You’ve probably had Nebbiolo (in Barbera and Barbaresco) and have likely experienced Tuscany’s ubiquitous Sangiovese, but what about Italy’s undiscovered treasures? Many of Italy’s most bankable indigenous grapes have not found their ways to the U.S. market, yet it’s only a matter of time until they arrive here. Aleatico, from the island of Elba, is made into a passito dessert wine with heavy chocolate tones; another variety to watch out for is Pignolo, whose clusters resemble small pine cones and whose wines are dense and dark (one to look out for is Jermann’s Pignacolusse, from Friuli Venezia-Giulia).
Here are 10 must-try Italian indigenous grape varieties that are available at your favorite wine shop. They are presented (beginning below) in geographic order, starting at the foot of Italy’s boot and moving northward.
Because of its recent worldwide commercial success, this is Italy’s flagship indigenous grape and Sicily’s most important red wine. It is among the most mysterious grapes. Also named Calabrese (although it has no links to the region Calabria) it is believed to have originated from the area of Avola near Siracusa. Producers often suggest it is related to Syrah, but genetic studies confirm this is not the case. Nero d’Avola is sometimes compared to Syrah, however, because of its cracked peppercorn and blackberry aromas, and good aging potential.
Credited with launching Sicilian enology, Nero d’Avola tastes of roasted almond biscuits and marzipan from Agrigento, or dried treats from Bronte, the Sicilian capital of pistachio nuts located on the flank of Mt. Etna. Mineral-rich soils lend graphite subtleties and elegance. Thanks to its deep color and firm acidity (the latter despite the Sicily’s torrid summer heat), Nero d’Avola is often blended with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah.
Some producers worry about its sudden popularity: “Everyone wants it but there is little education on how to make it,” says Giuseppe Benanti who heads Benanti on the steep slopes of Mt. Etna. The Benanti name has always been associated with Sicilian indigenous varieties; their Nero d’Avola comes from a vineyard near Pachino.
Look for wines by: Abbazia Santa Anastasia, Ceuso, Duca di Salapruta, Gulfi, Morgante and Tenuta Rapitala.
Sometimes spelled “Inzolia,” and also known as Ansonica (a derivative for the Greek “type of grape”), this variety originated in Sicily and is said to have moved north via Sardinia to Tuscany, where is it also currently in production. Along with Grillo (both varieties are used to varying extents in Marsala) it is among Sicily’s most promising white grapes. Associated with the area of Alcamo, it has fruity, sometimes nutty aromas, and good acidity. Because of its hard berries, the ancients also used it as a table grape. On the downside, it does have a tendency to oxidize and can give off vegetal or nail polish remover-like smells.
Thanks to fertile soils and nonstop sunshine, Sicilian fruits and flowers are exaggerated in their size and taste. Insolia embodies this theme of abundance with citrus, honey, nutty notes, freshly cut grass and herbs. Good acidity and refreshing mineral tones make it an easy-to-drink, immediate wine. It is also aged in oak to achieve sophisticated roundness and structure.
“Up until a few years ago, Sicilian winemaking was about high yields and lower quality. But the success of our indigenous grapes has changed the way we make wine and has made us competitors with Chile, California and Australia,” says producer Diego Cusumano. He makes two Insolias: one is refined in stainless steel and the second, Cubìa, is barrel fermented.
Look for wines by: Cusumano, Fazio, Feudo Principi di Butera, Foraci and Valle dell’Acate.
One of Italy’s most important varieties, Aglianico recalls the grandeur of antiquity. Its structure and tannins are as rock solid as the columns of the Temples at Paestum and its saturated color reflects the frescos of Pompeii. It tastes of dried figs, resin, red fruit and toast. Aglianico is often dubbed “the Nebbiolo of the south” because of its extraordinary aging potential.
This powerhouse grape ranks up there with Nebbiolo and Sangiovese as Italy’s best red varieties. Most agree its name comes from the Latin word Hellenicum, meaning “Greek,” and its origins definitely start in that country. Others think the name comes from a Greek word for “vivid” or “brilliant.” Today, some of the country’s best Aglianico is grown in the DOCs of Taurasi, which is in Campania, and Aglianico del Vulture, in Basilicata.
Aglianico loves volcanic soils rich in tufo stone that can absorb water and keep roots moist during hot summers. “Our vines are…fed by the soils,” says Cantine del Notaio’s Gerardo Giuratrabocchetti, who makes an Aglianico del Vulture. The variety is rich in tannins, structure and malic acid (making malolactic fermentation essential), and has complex, perfumed aromas and a capacity for long aging.
Aglianico’s esteem as a quality grape is fairly recent. Once upon a time, it was planted on flat land, and the results were miserable. In the 1940s, Antonio Mastroberardino moved the variety to the hills, where it could benefit from varying day and nighttime temperatures. Some say he saved the grape from extinction. “Establishing a firm link between a quality varietal and our territory is a point of major pride for us,” says Antonio’s son Piero Mastroberardino.
Look for wines by: Antonio Caggiano, Cantina di Venosa, Di Majo Norante, Paternoster, Tenuta Le Querce and Villa Matilde.
Fiano is yet another star on the rise in Southern Italy. “It’s one of a few white grapes native to Italy with an extraordinary capacity for aging like a Chardonnay,” says Professore Scienza.
Fiano is a graceful expression of the Mediterranean, reminiscent of the thick rinds of lemons cultivated along the Amalfi Coast, Campania apple orchards and broad-leaf basil. Prominent brackish notes recall a soft sea breeze blowing gently inland from the island of Capri. It’s a creamy, structured variety (comparable to Chardonnay) that, unlike most Italian whites, you can cellar for a few years.
Fiano, like Aglianico, also faced extinction and was rediscovered by the Mastroberardino family. The variety has small berries and small bunches and benefits from low yields. Mostly associated with the region of Campania, it is also present in Molise, Puglia and Sicily. When vinified with love, it boasts gorgeous apple, pear and pineapple notes. “We want to interpret what mother nature gave to us,” says Paolo Mastroberardino, who runs a separate estate in Campania with prime vineyard land called Terredora.
Look for wines by: Feudi di San Gregorio, Mastroberardino, Settesoli (MandraRossa) and Terredora.
Chefs in Puglia adore strong ingredients, raw olive oil and abundant chili pepper (not unlike Mexican cuisine). Primitivo is their close ally. Rich in spicy clove, cinnamon and ginger, and concentrated with ripe fruit
flavors, this is a powerhouse grape that can stand up to the most demanding foods. Often high in alcohol, extracts and flavor, it is a first cousin of
California’s robust Zinfandel. Nevertheless, it remains the quintessential southern Italian red.
Primitivo ripens as early as late August and its name is thought to
come from the Italian word for “precocious.” Like its Californian cousin, Primitivo has a tendency to set a second crop that is usually harvested two or three weeks later. It has thin skins, which cause water to
evaporate from the berries, leaving a higher sugar concentration.
But those skins also make the varietal vulnerable to botrytis bunch rot.
In the recent past, Primitivo was cultivated to make bulk wine sold to northern Italian regions. Now it stands tall as a quality grape, especially in Manduria and the Salento in the middle and lower parts of the Puglia peninsula.
Look for wines by: A-Mano, Botromagno, Conti Zecca, Feudo Monaci, La Corte and Tormaresca.
Here is another indigenous variety that scientists know very little about. One fact is clear: The Montepulciano grape has nothing to do with the Nobile wines made in and around the Tuscan town of Montepulciano. Montepulciano and Sangiovese share no genetic links.
“The great thing about Montepulciano is that it can make both young, aromatic wines at a good price point and important, structured wines with a 15, 20-year aging potential,” says producer Gianni Masciarelli.
This variety makes its home on the central, eastern side of Italy (mostly Abruzzo but extending through the Marches and down to Puglia) and is often planted with the tendone, or “big tent” training systems that shields the fruit from the sun. Montepulciano is a brawny grape, with skins rich in polyphenols, tough tannins and moderate acidity. In some ways, it is almost too much of a good thing. The wine’s color and consistency can be so dense you could imagine dipping in a brush and painting with it. Its aromatics cover a large spectrum: nutmeg, black pepper, tar, licorice, leather, tobacco and blackberry. High acidity and tannins also pack a powerful punch. Everything about the grape suggests the dramatic rocky terrain of Abruzzo, where it is widely planted. Its personality remains intact with age.
Look for wines by: Garofoli, Il Feuduccio di S. Maria d’Orni, Dino Illuminati, Masciarelli, Bruno Nicodemi and Edoardo Valentini.
The ultimate holiday wine from which spice cake, cinnamon snaps, gingerbread, cloves and nutmeg will dance in your head. Intensely ruby red, Sagrantino is one of the most beautifully colored varieties in the world. High tannins and extracts make it a somber wine that reflects the profound spirituality and purity of its native Umbria.
In the realm of indigenous varieties, Sagrantino is a unique phenomenon. Its existence is limited to pinpoint areas in landlocked Umbria. Thanks to clever marketing maneuvers, it is one of Italy’s hottest indigenous varieties, often commanding $40 or more per bottle. The two towns associated with the grape, Montefalco and Bevagna, are picture-perfect Umbrian villages.
Although Sagrantino appears to have been mentioned by Pliny, the grape did not gain broader recognition until the Middle Ages. As its name suggests, Sagrantino is linked to the church and Franciscan monks, either as a sacramental drink or otherwise “sacred” beverage. Today, Sagrantino is either vinified as a passito semi-sweet wine, or as a dry table wine. Its berries are thick skinned and its bunches are small, resulting in big color and difficult-to-tame tannins.
“Our results with Sagrantino are based on incredible research, clone selection, barrique aging and international farming methods,” says Marco Caprai, the producer credited with putting Sagrantino di Montefalco on the map. Caprai makes a modern-styled Sagrantino di Montefalco, one that is aged in barrique, but most others in the area take a more purist approach to the tannic grape, and age it in large oak casks.
Look for wines by: Antonelli, Arnaldo Caprai, Colpetrone, Goretti, Paolo Bea and Rocca di Fabbri.
Cannonau is what Grenache is called in Sardinia. It was probably brought by the Spanish during their long occupation of Sardinia starting in the 14th century. Cannonau is the most widely planted red grape on the Mediterranean island. It found ideal growing conditions in Sardinia and quickly spread throughout the island and the Nuoro and Sassari provinces in particular. When most people think of Sardinia, images of azure seawater and white beaches come to mind. In truth, the island’s traditions and gastronomy were born far way from the coast because roaming pirates forced most citizens inland centuries ago. Cannonau is a distilled taste of inland Sardinia where scrub bushes called mirtillo produce pungent red berries similar to cranberries. Wild sage, oregano and balsam-like menthol notes also appear in the wine. When aged in oak, it boasts dried fruit, tealeaf and leather.
Look for wines by: Argiolas, Giuseppe Gabbas, Santadi, Sella & Mosca and Tenute Dettori.
This white grape is the backbone of Soave wines made in the Veneto. It is another member of the great Greek family and thought to be a first cousin of Sicily’s Grecanico. Peach, apricot and nectarine are the main tastes of Garganega followed by citrus, melon and apple. It is crisp and round in the mouth, which suggests a perfect pairing with Chinese or Thai food. But it is also a fun wine that captures the cheerful nature of the Veneto.
“Rusticity is Garganega’s fundamental quality,” says Andrea Pieropan. The estate he runs with his father, Leonildo, is considered the best in Soave. “One of the factors that works in our favor is the fact that Soave is among Italy’s least-touched wine regions. Of the 1,000 hectares in the Soave Classico area, 90 percent are planted to Garganega.”
The variety turns a golden hue when mature and does not like too much exposure to sunlight. Producers like Pieropan use a pergola growing system to shade the fruit from the sun. It is rich in tartaric acids, not heavy in sugars, and has thick skins that make it resistant to disease and rot.
Look for wines by: Anselmi, Gini, Inama, Masi, Pieropan and Suavia.
Although Lagrein and Teroldego are two separate red varieties, genetic similarities make it fair to list them together. Teroldego, which thrives in a small area at the base of the Dolomite mountains in the Trentino region, has genetic links to Syrah, Marzemino and Pinot Noir. Lagrein has similar DNA, and is cultivated in both Trentino and the northern region of Alto Adige. Both grapes have incredible depth of color and extract without overpowering tannins. They also have a natural bitterness that is usually corrected with barrel aging.
“Lagrein is very vigorous, like Syrah,” says Christof Tiefenbrunner, who produces a 100 percent Lagrein called Castel Turmhof. But he warns that the variety “also shows signs of stress with a bilateral cordon system so we prefer to use the traditional pergola growing system.”
Teroldego, on the other hand, has difficulty maturing at the very tips of the clusters. Therefore, growers snip off the bottom points by hand to avoid a bitter taste. Both grapes have the structure and color of Syrah with hints of Pinot Noir’s cool-climate elegance. Lagrein and Teroldego are tenacious varieties that thrive in extreme temperatures and difficult mountain growing conditions. They taste primarily of cherry, raspberry tart, blueberry and strawberry but have enduring softness and roundness. They make perfect après ski wines.
Look for wines by: Bottega Vinaia, Cantina Convento Muri-Gries, Cantina Terlano, Foradori, Mayr (either Thomas or Josephus) and Mezzacorona.