Traditionally, other than pinot grigio, moscato and prosecco, the world of Italian wine is largely misunderstood and honestly, intimidating. Yes, those that follow scores will undoubtedly understand Brunello di Montalcino, Amarone and Barolo, but what about the unsung hero grapes like aglianico, verdicchio, negro amaro or nerello mascalese?
When I was studying Italian grapes, there was 690 registered grape varieties in Italy, with about another 470 identified but not yet registered, which totals over 1000 grape varieties in one country alone. To this point that number on both counts has likely risen. There is probably over 700 registered grapes by now, and perhaps a few more identified, which still leaves us at that staggering number. No wonder Italy is confusing.
I often get asked by many, “I want to start trying Italian wine, where do I start?” This is a perfect topic to start the year off, and many new people to this group reading our posts/tweets will have a whole list of wines they’d like to try, made with Italian native grapes!
When I go to the Vinitaly Trade Show in Verona every year, I make it my mission to try as many native grapes as possible, or to revisit some of the more rare ones that I can ONLY taste in Italy! Grapes like ortrugo, moscato rosa, pelaverga, durella and lagrein are not often seen in market, but are incredibly fun and educational to try when in Italy!
To start your foray into Italian wine, let’s start with something fun!
Brachetto – native to Piemonte, the grape grows mostly around the town of Acqui (Monferatto too) area and will have Brachetto d’Acqui on the label. This wine was never meant to be sparkling (the still, dry versions are spectacular) but the frizzante style has made it incredibly appealing and sellable. The frizzante style has also helped put Brachetto on the map, so to speak. One of the few aromatic red grapes, it’s like drinking red berry fruit cocktail, with rose aroma and fizz! Delightful! Perfect for those that want something besides moscato and as a dessert wine, it pairs beautifully with chocolate covered strawberries! If you can get your hands on a bottle of brachetto, I guarantee you will love it!
La Gironda is proud of their area of Monferatto/Nizza, where some of the best wines of the world are made! They are a completely sustainable vineyard with no herbicides/pesticides, hand harvesting, and reduced consumption of environmental resources! That’s the whole package folks, and ALL the wines from their portfolio are simply amazing. If you have a chance to find them in your market, I highly recommend trying ALL of them!
White wine (other than those mentioned above) from Italy is often a tough sell. I must confess that before I started really studying wine, all Italian white wine tasted like bitter almonds, but this was because I didn’t understand the grape(s) and didn’t know what I was looking for! This is a myth. There are some white wines that offer a great deal of complexity in the glass with different flavour profiles. The other myth is that white wine doesn’t age. Period. I know this is a myth because I’ve had a LOT of Italian white wines with significant age on them and they were beautiful, complex and stunning. One such grape is Verdicchio.
Verdicchio – from the Marche region on the Adriatic coast, labels will have Verdicchio di Castelli di Jesi or Verdicchio di Matelica. There is a difference in the flavour, with Jesi being closer to the sea and grown on hillsides, with fuller, rounder wines, whereas Matelica is mountainous and cool, so the wines tend to be more mineral and austere with higher acidity. Both of these have lees ageing though, which is what sets Verdicchio apart. Lees is the dead yeast cells, and after the yeast has finished changing the sugars to alcohol, it falls to the bottom of the barrel as lees. The lees stays in the wine and is stirred in to add texture and mouth feel to the final product. Verdicchio is one of the few wines that has the ability to age. No small feat for white wine. I have tasted Verdicchio back to 1998 and the acid structure is still incredibly high, but the typical flavours of pears, yellow apples (and yes, almond) have changed to a rich butterscotch and sponge toffee aroma and flavour. And like any white wine with age, dark in colour.
Lorenzo Marotti Campi of Marotti Campi wines, showcases several Verdicchio in the portfolio, but when I have chardonnay drinkers approach me for something different, Lorenzo’s Salmariano Verdicchio is always the first wine I think of! With 20% aged in oak barrels and the other 80% done typically in stainless steel with lees contact, it’s got the best of both worlds in freshness and mouth feel. The stainless ageing keeps it fresh and lively, yet the small amount in oak gives it the warm, glycerol, full body, rich mouth feel that often comes from drinking full bodied white wines – a perfect transition for the chardonnay drinker to try something Italian!
Carricante – This, my friends, is another ageable Italian white grape! Carricante you say? Where the heck is this from? If you’ve heard of Mt Etna and have had either white or red from the region, you have most assuredly had Carricante! Labeled Etna Bianco, there can be an additional 30% of a grape called cataratto, but the best of Etna Bianco are 100% carricante and a must try Italian wine! Normally I would talk about the red grape of Mt Etna (because it happens to be my favourite), but a recent trip to Sicily and the Mt Etna area, gave me a view through the microscope of this fabulous region. Wines from Sicily are hot, hot, hot right now, but none more so than the grapes of Mt. Etna. Carricante can grow up to 1000m, yet still ripen in these cool, mountainous temperatures. All that to say…don’t worry so much about finding Carricante to drink, rather the wine labeled Etna Bianco. Expect to find racy lemony flavours, along with green apple, chamomile and hints of aniseed, and that ever present minerality. As these wines age, they tend to develop that “Riesling-like” quality of petrol or diesel fuel.
Pietradolce is a winery on the northern slopes of Mt Etna, which as one might think, is cooler than other parts of the mountain. It’s also one of the more prestigious areas, so wines coming from the northern slopes seem to have a certain caché about them. Their 100% Etna Bianco wine is eye catching because it is the bottle with “scribbles on the label”, which represents the explosive energy of the volcano itself! (The red has red scribbles and the rosé, pink scribbles, making these bottles easily recognizable). Using a combination of rich local traditions and modern winemaking techniques, Pietradolce is making a name for itself in an area that is becoming a force to be reckoned with (just like the volcano, haha!)
Cannonau– aka Grenache, aka Garnacha. The ongoing battle between the Spaniards and Italians on the origins of this grape is still going strong! Everyone, it seems, (in Italy and Spain anyway) is looking for some sort of historical documentation to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this grape existed first in their country. The Sardinians will strongly tell you that the genetic make-up of this grape will tell you it’s Italian! However, no one wants to know about all that technical stuff! This post is about what to try when starting the adventure into Italian wine! I picked this grape, because no matter where it’s made, it offers some pretty juicy red fruits that are packed full of flavor, and this wine is no exception. This is the entry level wine from this producer (which is ALWAYS a good place to start), but it is still made from estate grapes; fermented AND aged in stainless steel, which I always feel is a place for folks to start too, not to get bogged down by additional flavours and textures added by an oak barrel. The wine has super juicy red fruit flavours along with notes of cinnamon spice, white pepper and a soft, velvety mouth feel. In my market, it runs about $17CAD, which is amazing value for a wine this good!
These are just examples of producers who make wines from the above grapes, but if you’re the least bit curious, I challenge you to go find some of these wines made from Italian native grapes and take the plunge to drinking Italian wine! Some you might like, others you might not like at all. That’s ok! I always encourage folks to “get out of their wine box” and try something new! Plus, there are a lot more ideas, and other native grapes from my fellow #ItalianFWT bloggers; check out their blogs below!
- Camilla at Culinary Adventures with Camilla shares “Sips and Eats Around the Boot: A Primer to Italian Wines and Pairings”
- Lynn at Savor the Harvest shares “Introducing the Diversity of Italian Wine”
- Wendy at A Day in the Life on the Farm shares “Ringing in the New Year with Loved Ones and Prosecco“
- Pinny at Chinese Food and Wine Pairings shares “Sharing Lugana DOC – Winter Whites With Friends“
- Gwen at Wine Predator shares “4 To Try in 2020: Italy’s Franciacorta, Fruili, Chianti, Mt. Etna“
- Cindy at Grape Experiences shares “Why the Wines and Food of Custoza DOC are Some of Veneto’s Many Pleasures”
- Susannah at Avvinare shares “Three Noble Red Grapes that Help to Navigate the Italian Peninsula”
- Linda at My Full Wine Glass shares “What exactly IS this Italian grape?”
- Jen at Vino Travels shares “The Beginnings to Understanding Italian Wine”
- Kevin at Snarky Wine shares “Cutting Your Teeth on Italian Wines”
- Katarina at Grapevine Adventures shares “3 Grapes to Get a Beginner’s Taste of Italian Wine”
- Nicole at Somm’s Table shares “Italian Wine 101 Cheat Sheet”
- Jeff at Food Wine Click! shares “Italian Wine 101 – Start Your Journey Here”
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