The Best Italian Grapes

By / Wine + Drinks / June 10th, 2011 / Like

If you love wine, you’re bound to love discovering new things. With so much diversity from all over the world, and a new crop every year. No two vintages ever exactly the same, plus the results of constant innovation. But we never get quite enough. “I can’t get no satisfaction” is our motto.

A few decades ago, we discovered the wines from the New World. Affordable Chile, quality California, and Australia each saw their market share increase dramatically. But those wines were made using the same grapes as the traditional French wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah (called Shiraz down under), Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Later on came Pinot Noir, Riesling and a few others. These cépages are now rightly labelled “international.” Although the style is different in the New World — less acid, sweeter and more fruity — we have witnessed a standardization of smell and taste. “Modern” wines, no matter where they come from, appeal to the most common denominator of consumers’ preferences. But the serious wine aficionados want something truly original. So again we find ourselves looking for something different.

A new trend is presently taking on momentum. Neglected or abandoned grapes are making a comeback. Although many interesting ones disappeared when they were uprooted to make room for the international varieties, there are still pockets in many vineyards that were kept around, if only for tradition’s sake. As of today, there are an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 unique grape varieties being grown around the globe, bearing over 20,000 different names. Not all would make a complete wine by themselves, but most can add a beneficial dimension when blended with other complementary grapes, resulting in a very satisfying wine. There is a lot of room for experimentation and discovery. Already some nice surprises have surfaced. If the trend lasts, maybe we’ll get some “satisfaction,” at least for a while!

So where should we start? The most prolific country is Italy, especially the south part, where a handful of producers have been actively promoting local varieties for some time. Of the many thousands of grapes that still exist today, more than 2,000 are of Italian origin.

This exploration is not about Italian grapes whose fame is surpassed by the blends they produce: Nebbiolo (which is behind Barola and Barbaresco), Sangiovese (Chianti), or Corvina (Valpolicella), just to name a few. Nor is it about Primitivo, the brother of Zinfandel — itself a descendent of Plavac Mali from Croatia.

Now, back to the subject at hand: neglected Italian varietals now on the rise. Of these, Aglianico is a must try. The name betrays its Greek origin (it is a variation of ellenico), but it is not clear what its original name was, assuming it still exists across the Adriatic. Generous and chewy, these wines have weight and can be age-worthy, often exhibiting notes of plum, chocolate and smoke. Folks that grow and believe in it have nicknamed it the “Nebbiolo of the South,” a fact revealed during a tasting held by the firm Rivera, whose large range is filled with wines made from indigenous grapes.

***1/2 Tormaresca Bocca di Lupo 2006, Castel del Monte, Puglia ($33)
100% Aglianico. Deep, rich nose of berries and smoke with a touch of anise that adds freshness. Thick on the palate, mildly rough tannic structure, firm finish and a minimum of 5 to 7 years’ aging potential. Quite impressive.

From the same region of Puglia, Uva di Troia (also called Nero di Troia) is still neglected by many growers because of its low yield, but for those who prioritize quality over quantity, it can bring power and aging potential to a blend.

***1/2 Rivera Il Falcone Riserva 2005, Castel del Monte, Puglia ($22)
The Nero di Troia is assembled with 30% Montepulciano (another Italian native grape, better known for its expression in the Abruzzi region, under the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC). Very dark colour, intense, ripe and rich nose of red and black berries, almost jammy, plus complex oak notes. Full and juicy, sappy, the fine tannins lead to a dry finish. Will take up to 10 years of cellaring. A great wine and a great buy.

Again from Apulia, Negroamaro is the distinctive red grape from the Salento area, which makes up the heel of the Italian “boot.” Literally meaning black-bitter, the wine is indeed very dark and its flavour can show a bitter side. It is usually blended with Malvasia Nera, a black form of the large Malvasia family of grapes, found in many parts of the country. The blend results in a wine that is more velvety and quite interesting.

** Tormaresca Masseria Maime 2005, IGT Salento ($30)
This is a 100% Negroamaro, a purple, almost black wine featuring fruit stones, black cherry and spices with a farmyard, animal-like scent. Still quite firm and tannic at 4 years old, it should wait a few more years in the cellar.

Nero d’Avola is the new flagship red grape of Sicily. Definitely indigenous (it means “black from Avola,” which is a small village on the south-east coast), it makes sumptuous wines that have plenty of fruit and structure. They often stand out at tastings.

***1/2 Tasca d’Almerita Lamùri d’Almerita 2007, IGT Sicily ($21)
Medium ruby. This pure Nero d’Avola has a nose of red fruits and tea notes, with noticeable finesse. Very soft, almost silky, but the underlying structure is felt in the firm finish. Lighter if you compare it to the other red southern wines mentioned above, but delicious in its own way.

Sicily is not without noteworthy white varieties as well. Insolia (or Inzolia, or Ansonica in Tuscany where it is also grown), is often blended with Catarratto, another native grape quite common in blends of the island. Grillo is also worth a sip. Traditionally, these grapes were key ingredients of the blend to make Marsala, but maybe because the demand for Marsala is in decline these cépages are increasingly vinified as dry white wines.

**1/2 Rondo Antico Grillo Parlante 2008, IGT Sicily ($16)
Grillo also means “cricket,” as the label reminds us. And the wine makes you think of a hot, dry summer day with its fine herbal notes (thyme, rosemary) and citrus, over a mineral hot stone background. Balanced, its middle palate has good volume, leading to a small peak of acidity in the medium length finish.

Moving north, Grechetto from Umbria is a white variety that deserves some attention. It may be hard to find as a monocépage, but it plays an important role in any good Orvieto or Torgiano. On the red side from the same region, the word is Sagrantino for age-worthy, fruit-packed wines that are not as austere as they used to be, another proof that modern viticultural practices can reveal a grape’s true potential. In particular, Sagrantinos from the Montefalco DOCG are great, at a slightly higher cost.

Trebbiano may be dismissed by demanding drinkers, but it is certainly not abandoned by growers. Found in many regions of Italy, it represents about a third of the country’s white wine production, often in blends. It can also be found in a dozen other countries in Europe and South America. But it lacks character, and even though exceptions do exist (those coming from the Lugana DOC being generally better), it is seldom memorable when on its own.

Garganega is not as well known as the wine it makes: Soave, named after the area that bears the same name in Verona. There are three categories or DOCs of Soave with correspondingly increasing quality: (regular) Soave, Soave Classico and Soave Superiore, which is a DOCG. A good Soave should be delicate, yet structured, with good weight and aromas of citrus and almonds.

Prosecco is not just the name of a sparkling wine, it’s also the grape that is behind it for at least 85 per cent of the blend, but often it is 100 per cent. This is changing though, as the grape was renamed Glera in 2009 to avoid confusion and to protect the new DOCGs (Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco, Colli Asolani Prosecco and Asolo Prosecco), which represent the heart of the Prosecco-growing area in Veneto. Made using the “Martinotti” method, which is the familiar pressure tank process, the wines can be of truly excellent quality if you choose the right producer. Most of them are of the Brut or extra dry variety. Interestingly, Italians claim that the pressure tank process was invented by compatriot Federico Martinotti in the late 19th century, a few years before the French Eugène Charmat created an industrial process to make sparkling wine in large quantities at low cost. That story was related during a recent seminar on Prosecco held in Montréal by Giuseppe Martelli, president of the Italian National Wine Committee.

*** Bortolomiol Prosecco di Valdobbiadene DOCG 2009 ($20)
Bright yellow colour, green reflections. Light fruity nose lifted by a fresh bread crust note. The vivid acidity is tamed by a touch of sweetness, resulting in a feeling of roundness. Overall light, fresh and clean taste.

Teroldego is grown primarily in the northeastern Trentino area and comes in two styles. High yielding vines give a pleasant, somewhat earthy red that is best drunk young. With more attention and a reduced yield, it can become very interesting, with layers of complexity and depth.

*** Foradori Teroldego 2007, Teroldego Rotaliano DOC, Trentino ($28)
Deep purple. Intense nose of red and black fruits, an earthy note and moderate oak. Nice and velvety with good acidity, chewy fruit, full body and mild tannins. Dry finish. Ready to drink or keep up to 3 years, it will be perfect with pasta in tomato sauce or veal parmigiana.

Further east in the Friuli region grows Refosco, a late-ripening red grape that may come as a surprise in this rather cool area close to Austria. Although its tannins can be harsh and the acidity high, the fruit is delicious enough to compensate.

**1/2 Dorigo Refosco 2006, Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC ($22)
Deep purple colour, attractive nose of cherry and other red fruits, a hint of vegetal greenness. Acidity is mild, a sign of maturity of the grapes, but the tannins have grip behind the dense core of fruit extract. This is better with food; red meat comes to mind, especially if it’s cooked rare.

Arneis is a white grape originating from the Piemonte. Traditionally blended with Nebbiolo to soften it up, Arneis has become a wine on its own, thanks to better viticultural practices that overcame the difficulties of successfully growing it in substantial quantities. Its wine is perfumed and sometimes exotic, featuring notes of peach and almonds.

***1/2 Bruno Giacosa Arneis 2007, Roero DOC ($29)
Golden yellow with a nose of peach/apricot, honey and clover, slightly nutty and mineral, a hint of smoke. Fleshy and somewhat fatty, it coats the palate, and the finish is clean and lively. Ready to drink.


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