- They grow in extremely different pedoclimatic zones (a microclimate within soil that integrates the combined effects of temperature, water content and aeration).
- Almost 28 percent of the world’s grape varieties are native to Italy.
- More than 85 percent of Italy’s land surface is devoted to viticulture with long established varieties (although no varieties are dominant).
Would there be wine without Italy?
It is interesting to note that given the dynamic politics of the country (until the second half of the 19th century), and the importance of local markets (as late as the 1970s), that the diversity of growing conditions has led Italy to preserving an extremely rich heritage of grape varieties existing since the beginning of time.
Wines are Varied and Complex
Sangiovese, the Italian red-grape most widely grown nationally, barely covers 12 percent of the national vine growing area, while its white grape counterpart, Trebbiano Toscano, accounts for less than 7 percent, making the Italian wine growing scenario amazingly diversified. Ampelologist Anna Schneider estimated that there are roughly 2000 cultivated native grapes varieties in Italy (as of 2006). Other experts suggest that roughly 1000 of Italy’s cultivated grape varieties have been genetically identified and 600 are being used to make wines in commercially significant numbers.
National Registry of Grape Varieties
If a grape variety is not listed in the National Registry, no plant material from the variety can be made available for propagation in commercial nurseries. Currently there are 461 official grape varieties, but private individuals and institutions are working to include others. Of the top twenty planted grapes in Italy, 16 are native and four internationals (Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Cabernet Sauvignon) with Merlot and Chardonnay in the top ten.
Grape varieties: Divided into three categories
- Native (or indigenous)
- International (or foreign)
Grapes are considered native if they were “born” in a specific place and have remained almost exclusively associated with that location. It is possible that many so called “Italian native grapes” are actually of Greek or Middle Eastern origin, imported by returning Roman legionnaires, seafaring Phoenician traders and Greek colonists. Ian D’Agata determined that, “Strictly speaking, not all of Italy’s grapes are therefore truly native and local might be a better term to describe those native varieties whose origin is not unequivocally Italian…”
Native grapes (unlike Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay) are not hardy and are easily influenced by:
- Antiquated winemaking methods (i.e., picking all grapes at the same time, regardless of optimal maturity)
- Absence of cellar hygiene (contributing to wine spoilage)
- Climate change
- Irregular maturation of grapes
Outcome (in some cases):
- Taste of the original Italian wine is different than the current wine
- Grapes produce scrawny bunches allowing for small volume production
- Musts of some varieties are completely oxidized and devoid of acidity presenting dull, flat wines
- Grapes mature at different times with the green unripe berries next to fully ripe ones. The unripe berries could be removed; however, it is a costly, time-consuming process that is done by hand or a very expensive optical sorting machine. If the sorting is not performed the resulting wine is likely to have a green vegetal aroma and flavor.
- Modern winemaking techniques can be dangerous to Italy’s native grapes and the role of yeasts can be underestimated. Different yeast strains used in alcoholic fermentation can lead to different enological results even when the same grape variety, grown in similar soils, are used.
Native Grape Varieties (Curated)
1. Aglianico del Taburno DOCG (La Fortezza Soc. Agr. Srl). Established as a DOC in 1986; becoming a DOCG in 2011. Native to Campania, Basilicata (southern regions) the grape produces full-bodied reds and roses. Along with Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, Aglianico is one of the three great Italian varieties. Frequently the wine from this variety is called the Barolo of the South due to its ability to produce highly refined, complex wines. The wine produced from Aglianico is deep garnet to the eye with chocolate and plum aromas and tends to be full-bodied with firm tanning, high acidity and good aging potential. As it ages, the fruit becomes more pronounced and the tannins more balanced.
2. La Fortezza. 100 percent Aglianico del Taburno DOCG. Ruby red to the eye, the nose finds the aroma of wild black berries. It is soft on the palate with pleasant notes of black cherry jam. The grapes are hand-harvested at the end of October and spend 8 months in steel, an additional 10 months in barrique and then in barrels. This wine needs to be decanted well in advance of sipping. Serve with pasta, meat (especially roasts, stews and sauces) and/or aged cheese.
3. Lambrusco Modena DOC (Cantina Ventiventi Societa Agricola Il Borghetto). The grapes must be grown in the province of Modena and include the following varieties (85-100 percent): Grasparossa Lambrusco, Lambrusco Salami, Lambrusco di Sorbara, Lambrusco Marani, Lambrusco Maestri, Lambrusco Montericco, Oliva Lambrusco (used alone or with the permitted addition of Ancellotta for color) grapes, Malbo Gentile and/or Fontana grapes (up to 15 percent). The grapes produce a sparkling red wine with a ruby color, delicate aroma and sweetness on the palate enhanced with floral notes.
The climate is warm with hot summers and cold winters. The soil in the plain of Emilia Romagna is rich in mineral salts and the vineyards on the hillside are dominated by clay with sandstone, producing wines that are light and enjoyed while young.
The wines can develop in the bottle and often fermented using traditional methods. Pressing may not exceed 80 liters which is slightly higher than Champagne. The fermentation occurs at fairly low temperatures (23-25 degrees) to retain fresh fruit aromas and extract a small number of tannins.
• Cantina Ventiventi Rose Lambrusco Di Modenado. 100 percent Sorbara grapes.
The Razzaboni family owns this vineyard in the Modenese municipality of Medolla. The vineyard uses Metodo Classico, creating wines that are fresh and distinctive. Certified organic in 2019, the mechanical harvest is scheduled for the coldest hours of the day. The grapes are then cooled and soft pressed. Fermentation is conducted under controlled temperatures in stainless steel and prolonged cold refinement in steel. Addition of must and secondary fermentation in the bottle is done under controlled temperatures.
Soft pink to the eye, with red fruits rewarding the nose. Soft and savory on the palate balanced by minerality. Faint and persistent perlage enhances the freshness. Pair with seafood.
4. Trebbiano d’Abruzzo DOC (same as French Ugni Blanc)
Abruzzo is a wine region located on central-east Italy along the coastline of Adriatic Sea. According to the official DOC laws, a Trebbiano d’Abruzzo wine must be made from at least 85 – 100 percent of Trebbiano Toscano or Trebbiano Abruzzese or a combination of the two groups.
The Trebbiano d’Abruzzo grape was documented in 1856 by Raffaele Sersante who noted the popularity and prevalence of the grape variety in the vineyards. It is a high-yielding white wine grape that originated in the South-Eastern Mediterranean. It is best grown in argillo-calcareous soil. Currently the plantings account for over half of the white wines in the country.
The wines are golden in color, typically dry and fruit–forward with a soft bouquet of yellow fruit, apples, lemon zest and white flowers to the nose. The palate finds balanced, inspiring acidity, subtle, elegant yellow plums. Some producers use barrel fermentation and/or barrel maturation to add complexity, depth and body. It is the only DOC in Abruzzo specializing exclusively in white wine. Drink young and cold. Pair with seafood pasta, risotto, vegetable soup, oven-baked or grilled fish.
• Azienda Vinicola Talmonti. 100 percent Trebbiano
Started by Di Tonno family in Abruzzi the 32-hectare vineyard is composed of limestone clay, calcareous soil that is structured and drained, 300 meters above sea level. A careful selection of the grapes is made in early September. The grape stalks are removed and followed by a short cold maceration of the crushed grapes in stainless steel followed by soft pressing and decanting of the must. Alcoholic fermentation with select yeast lasts 10 days; bottling occurs a few months after harvest.
A pale straw color with light green hues delights the eye, presenting a rich bouquet enhanced by floral aromas of violets with hints of apple, cherry and peach to the nose. A short time is spent in the barrel produces a wine with tannins that are dense but unobtrusive and the finale is crisp, clean and fresh. Serve as an aperitif and/or with chicken, seafood, pork or ham.
5. Aglianico Riserva (La Guardiense – Sannio 2014)
Aglianico is black grape grown in the southern regions of Italy (Basilicata and Campania). It is thought to have originated in Greece and cultivated by Phocians from an unidentified ancestral vine; however, modern DNA analysis does not support this view as it shows little relation to other Greek grape varieties. The variety first appeared in print as the feminine plural Aglianiche (1520). Oenologist Denis Duboudieu determined that “Aglianico is probably the grape with the longest consumer history of all.” It was used to make Falemian wine during Roman times, the most renowned wine produced in ancient Rome and regarded favorably by Pliny the Elder.
Agianico is a red wine with structure, lively acidity and ability to age. Floral aromas, and sometimes impenetrable tannins intrude while trying to enjoy the savory minerality. It is versatile, and wines from this variety can be enjoyed young and age well. Frequently compared to Nebbiolo, the great grape of Barolo and Barbaresco. Associated with Campania region in southern Italy from the Tyrrhenian Sea including Naples, Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast, Salerno and Paestrum. Thrives in Basilicata.
(La Guardiense – Sannio 2014). 100 percent Aglianico
The eye is delighted with deep and dark red hue while the nose detects cherry blends with vanilla (from the barrels), blended with spicy notes. The palate is entertained with tannins that create a soft and silky taste experience.
The grapes are harvested the second half of October. Maceration on the skins for 18 days with a few daily pumping over, 20 percent bleed. Perfect apres-ski; pair with pasta/meat sauce, vegetable soup, pork loin, lamb roast, and cured meats.
6. Sfozato (forcing of the grape) DOCG
Sfozato produces a powerful red wine based on the Nebbiolo grape variety in Valtellina, a district in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. It achieves higher alcohol levels and greater concentration by drying the grapes (passito). The best grapes are selected and any rotten or damaged berries must be removed as the drying process concentrates the imperfections.
Entire bunches are laid on straw mats in well-ventilated cellars where they remain for 3-4 months, with each berry losing approximately 40 percent of its weight due mostly to water evaporation which concentrates the grapes’ natural sugars. The juice turns into a sweet syrup and the classic Sforzato produces a full-bodied wine, high in alcohol and rich in flavor delivering complex aromas of sweet spice (i.e., licorice, cloves and cinnamon), stewed plums, prunes and raisins as well as hints of tar and roses.
• Azienda Agricola Alberto Marsetti
The vineyard was established in 1986 by Alberto Marsetti and he believes that Nebbiolo has a richness of taste with the right climate conditions. The 10-hectare vineyard is located in Sondrio where the soil is sandy as a result of the disintegration of the overlying rocks.
Sfursat della Valtellina DOCG is the oldest of the Valtellina wines. Ortensio Lando (1540) cited it and other documents note Sforzato as early as 1300. The wine was intended for family use and administered as a restorative medicine for diseases. Today the variety is known as a noble wine of Valtellina. Aged in barriques, the wine develops an intense aroma of morello-cherry in alcohol with soft tannins and good acidity. Pair with dark chocolate.
The Future of Native Grapes
Rare grapes are known by many terms including obscure, esoteric, weird, indigenous, autochthonous or forgotten. The average wine consumer may wonder why somms or wine geeks get so excited about “discovering” an ancient grape. It is important to note that taking a sip of wine made from an obscure grape is definitely a “high” as it provides a point of difference and a change of taste for the wine drinker. Diversity is increasingly in demand in the wine world and the potential of hundreds (or thousands) of grape varieties is not only important as a mission, preserving diversity in the plant world, but also provides a line of defense in the face of global warming.
Wine regions across Europe have started nurseries to preserve rare indigenous varieties. In the south of France, Domaine de Vassal, a state-owned nursery (1878) maintains approximately 7800 varieties, the largest collection in the world. In Savoie, France, the Alpine Ampelography Centre searches for rare varieties. It has its own nursery, does micro-vinification’s and holds an annual conference. Wine Mosaic, started by Lean-Luc Etievent and Arnaud Daphy, encourages protection of the original grape varieties of the Mediterranean.
Many “keepers of the vines” believe that climate change will require different grapes to be grown in the future, ones that ripen less quickly, get burned by the sun less easily or give better acidity or tannic structure than mainstream varieties. Old varieties are being dropped due to poor production results and mainstream varieties are at risk from climate change. The wine world is trying to be prepared for change and reviving old varieties for new solutions.
© Dr. Elinor Garely. This copyright article, including photos, may not be reproduced without written permission from the author.