Like a child, who, having mastered algebra, believes himself competent in mathematics until the teacher utters the word “calculus,” we are sometimes tempted into believing we know Italian wine grapes.
We’ve been sourcing wine from there for years now. We’ve tasted Barolos, Brunellos, Amarones, Valpolicella ripassos, Chiantis, nero d’avolas, cannonaus, Barbera d’Astis’ and d’Albas, Proseccos...
And then someone remarks that the sixth most widely grown grape in Italy is catarratto... which we’ve never even heard of before.
We realize, then, that we have but skimmed the surface.
Thus, as we sat down to write this, we figured we’d use the opportunity to answer a simple question once and for all: what are the grape varieties of Italy?
Fair warning, we still don’t have a clue.
More on that in a moment.
But first, resident expert Julien covers a crucial aspect of judging wine: its ‘body’… the compound that makes a Napa cab feel so much bigger than a thin pinot… why body isn’t the same as texture… a surprisingly helpful milk analogy... and more…
Tangled Up in Italy (Continued)
The Diversity of the Grape Varieties of Italy
In terms of grape growing, if one were to imagine California and France as orderly gardens, hedges clipped just so with ruler-straight rows of tulips, all blooming in unison, then Italy would be that neighbor who just gives his backyard over to the elements.
To use another analogy, if we were to compare Italy’s viniculture to a style of automobile driving, then it would be... well... Italian.
You can boil down French winemaking to about 60 grape varieties.
In Italy, the number is 500.
And that’s still just a fraction of the varieties growing there. The total, they say, is closer to 2,000, many growing in small, abandoned plots long since forgotten – the vine so-and-so’s great grandfather always tended to, and his grandfather before him.
No other nation harbors so many different grapes.
The reasons for this incredible diversity in viniculture remain nebulous. There’s the Italian topography – mountain, valley, hill country, desert, seaside, and all that fall in between – which lends itself to thousands of different microclimates. There’s the evidence of grape growing dating back 6,000 years. Time plus lots of little places for a vine to hide away and mutate, or cross breed, perhaps equals thousands of obscure grapes the names of which you’ve never seen on a bottle in all your life.
Pecorino? This white grape shares its name with cheese because both come from the same root: pecorina, the Italian word for sheep. Pecorino, the grape, was once purportedly a staple of the bovine diet in Abruzzo and Marche.
Or perhaps torbato? It’s native to Sardinia and finicky to grow due to its thin skins and the requirement that it be harvested late in the season (increasing risk of damage from the elements). Still, when all goes right, torbato can produce a lovely dry white with lots of floral notes and mineral zing.
One reason Italian grapes have not caught on with growers outside Italy (as have Bordeaux and Burgundy grapes like merlot, cab sauv, and pinot noir) is that they have a reputation for being difficult to grow when taken out of the Italian climate. Common wisdom, which may be wrong, has it that they need a narrow diurnal amplitude, a climate in which day and nighttime temperatures stay relatively close together. In California, with its wider nighttime swings, they shut down.
(One counterpoint to the latter argument would be the Muscardini 2019 from our most recent West Coast Collection, which was made with half sangiovese grown in the Sonoma Valley.)
What is certain is that for a long time, even the Italians didn’t want to bother with Italian grapes.
A Brief History of Italian Grapes
As in France, and most of Europe, phylloxera annihilated Italy’s vineyards. A deep economic depression that hit not much later compounded the blow, snuffing out the industry for decades to come.
As the dust settled from World War 2, the Italians began to plant anew. However, it was a different kind of industry that emerged. Eager to compete for the palates of the world, they planted cabernet sauvignon and merlot, rather than sangiovese or nebbiolo. They also introduced mechanized viniculture, abandoning smaller plots to create the large tracts necessary for economies of scale. Industrial winemaking had arrived.
By the time the 1970s wine awakening hit California, France, and Argentina, the Italian brand had significantly degraded. Famous grapes like nebbiolo and sangiovese were virtually unknown outside of the country.
The generation of winemakers coming of age then looked around, wondering why they should be trying to force newcomers like cab and merlot on their ancient soil, rather than growing grapes that had been there thousands of years.
Today, grapes like sangiovese, nebbiolo, and montepulciano have regained their dominance, and with the introduction of the denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) system, and the focus on individual plot rather than vast tract, the quality of Italian wine has vastly improved.
The shift away from French varieties, towards native grapes, shows no sign of slowing down, nor making it any easier to keep track of what’s what.
Recantina? Up until recently, plantings of this Venetian grape had fallen to just 10 vines. In the last seven or so years, interest has revived, with several wineries producing a big fruity red, often aged in French oak, that seems to peak two to three years from bottling.
We could go on and on naming rare varietals.
Some Important Italian Grape Varieties
For now, here are the Italian grapes you’re most likely to find (whether from the Partnership or in your local wine shop).
Sangiovese – grown in Tuscany and famous for Chianti and Brunello.
Barbera – grown in Piemonte, known for being rich and smooth. Try the d’Asti and del Monferrato Superiore. D’Alba can be good too but can also feel more muffled than the d’Asti.
Nebbiolo – the “wine of doubts and fog,” once said Terry Theise, and the grape in Piemonte’s most prestigious wines (Barbaresco and Barolo). These wines can be downright harsh in their early years and need time to mature into the dazzling wines they are known to be.
Primitivo – this is zinfandel, just not the sickly white zin you get in big cheap bottles. Grown in Puglia, under the southern Italian sun, zin explodes into wild, boozy reds.
Montepulciano – this is a grape. There’s also a wine called Nobile di Montepulciano, which is actually made from sangiovese (grown in a town called Montepulciano). Look instead for Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, which is the montepulciano grape grown in the region of Abruzzo and delivers dark, dense, peppery reds.
Glera – you’ve never heard of this grape, but our guess is that you’ve had it several times. Glera is the grape in Prosecco. It’s not quite a native as it originated in the Slovenian village of Prosek. For most of its history, the grape was called prosecco. When the sparkling wine got special protected status (like Champagne), the grape name changed to accommodate glera wines that do not qualify as Prosecco.
But wait! What was the deal with that catarratto? Planted around Sicily’s Etna volcano, it makes a medium bodied, dry white with hints of lemon (you also might come across this grape blended with pinot grigio).
Until next time,
The Wine Explorer