In Italy many different grape varieties are grown. International varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have been grown into a world wide success with Supertuscans (such as Sassicaia). But the real Italian treasure is the wide range of indigenous grapes.
A conservative estimate counts between 375 and 500 different varieties. This makes Italy the country with the most indigenous grapes in the world. Some are very famous and associated to specific wine zones, like Nebbiolo for Barolo and Barbaresco, some are more widespread like Sangiovese.
A few have been exported to the “New World” with discreet success. For example Bonarda is the second most planted grape in Argentina.
Many of the Italian grapes though are grown and vinified only in very small zones and in very little quantity so they are not really known to the export markets.
Well known Italian grapes
Sangiovese is closely associated with the Chianti wine. And yet it is the most widespread grape in Italy with over 50’000 hectares planted (2018). It is a black grape with high acidity and tannins giving aromas and flavours of red fruit and dried herbs. It can be used to make a range of wines, from fresh, fruity and inexpensive to complex, full bodied premium-priced wines.
Its home is in Tuscany where it is used to make the world wide renowned Chianti, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino and many others.
It is also planted in Romagna where sandy soils give wines with less structure, fruitier and more floral although there are examples being made with the power and complexity of Chianti Classico.
Another cornerstone of Italian black grapes is Nebbiolo. It has low levels of anthocyanins, so the wines are usually pale in colour, with high acidity and tannins. The bouquet is floral with red fruit and can evolve complex tertiary aromas like leather, undergrowth and tar.
Nebbiolo is widely planted in Piedmont and Lombardy. The most famous wines made from this grape are of course Barolo and Barbaresco. Planted on the best south/south-east facing hillsides to reach optimum ripeness, it is a grape that can very much express the subtle differences of the terroir in which it is grown. This is why both Barolo and Barbaresco have been divided in crus and the labels will often indicate the name of the vineyard from which the grapes come from.
These wines are probably the most important, elegant and age worthy in Italy. Therefore, their prices show that they are now established as extremely high quality wines on the export markets.
Like Nebbiolo, Barbera is a black grape that produces wines with high acidity but medium tannins. It is also grown in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy..
The best known appellation for this Italian grape variety is probably Barbera d’Asti.
Montepulciano is a grape variety planted mainly in Central Italy, in the Abruzzo region. The most famous wines are produced under the appellation Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.
Montepulciano produces wines of intense color with medium acidity and strong tannins. The bouquet develops aromas of black fruits such as black cherry and plum..
Going into Veneto we find one more grape associated with a largely exported wine: Glera used to make Prosecco.
This white grape actually comes from the village of Prosecco in Friuli Venezia Giulia, hence the name of the wine. But it found its home on the hills of Valdobbiadene.
Prosecco is a sparkling wine made with the tank method. It is floral and fruity with notes of peach, apple and melon. It is made in a range of styles with the Extra-Dry having a bit more residual sugar: from the easygoing fruity wine perfect for an aperitif to the Extra-Brut which is more complex and full body and can be paired with different dishes.
An additional grape from Veneto which is vinified into a very famous wine abroad is Corvina, grown in the Valpolicella region in Verona.
It is a vigorous variety capable of making high yields of grapes, which was very important in the past. If the yields are restricted through careful vineyard management it can make wines of high concentration. When blended with Corvinone, Rondinella and Molinara it makes Valpolicella, Amarone della Valpolicella and Recioto della Valpolicella. Valpolicella is a fresh young wine with a red fruit character made to be an easy pairing wine. On the contrary, Amarone and Recioto, made with the appassimento method (the grapes are harvested and laid out to dry to concentrate sugars and aromas) are more potent and full bodied with a cooked fruit character.
Corvina is also used to make rosé wines from the shores of the Garda Lake in the Bardolino Chiaretto zone.
Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio, is an essential Italian grape variety. It is mainly found in the Veneto region, in the North-East of Italy.
The wines produced from Pinot Grigio are generally fresh and light. The volume of production is relatively large, which makes them very accessible both in terms of price and quantity.
Less known Italian grapes
As mentioned above, there are many other Italian grapes whose production is quite confidential. Whether it is because of the small quantity produced, the small production area or simply the lack of knowledge of these grapes, these wines are little known outside of Italy.
An example would be Erbaluce. It is a white grape grown in Piedmont made into a few different styles such as dry still wine or sparkling wine. It is a speciality of the town of Caluso, northeast of Turin where it is made into a sweet wine from dried grapes. This wine has to age at least four years in barrels. It is a rare wine with a deep golden colour, aromas of saffron, almonds, honey and figs with high acidity which balances out the sweetness.
In Friuli Venezia Giulia we find Picolit. Picolit was once widely planted in all the region. It was made into high quality sweet wines which rivaled the Hungarian Tokaj. It was almost wiped out by phylloxera and it was saved by the family owning the Rocca Bernarda. Nowadays, it is used to make high quality late harvest sweet wines in the Colli Orientali del Friuli Picolit DOCG.
This variety is prone to very poor fruit set, meaning that many berries do not develop due to failed pollination. Sometimes in a bunch there are between 15 and 20 berries. Therefor, this means that the vine produces extremely low yields, meaning that wines are usually expensive. The best examples are delicately sweet with aromas of flowers, acacia honey and ripe stone fruit.
This Italian grape variety is mainly produced in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy under the name Gavi DOCG. Cortese is a white grape variety that produces light wines with good acidity and aromas of citrus, green apple and pear.
Garganega is a white grape variety produced in the Veneto region under the appellations Soave DOC and Soave Classico DOC.
As Cortese, this Italian variety produces dry, fresh white wines with good acidity. It has the same aromas of citrus, green apple and pear with some notes of white fruits such as peach.
Under the appellation Recioto di Soave DOCG, Garganega produces sweet wines using the appasimiento method
Verdicchio and Garganega are two similar Italian grape varieties. In addition to fruit and citrus aromas, Verdicchio has notes of aromatic herbs such as fennel.
This variety is grown in the Marche region of central Italy.
Fiano is a white Italian grape variety found in Campania, Southern Italy. The wines produced from Fiano reveal aromas of yellow fruits such as peach, exotic fruits (melon, mango …) and honey as they age.
This wine can be aged in inert containers, on lees or in oak barrels. Aromas of toast, vanilla or smoke can then develop.
There are numerous other examples of lesser known grapes. For example we can mention Cagnulari from Sardinia, Garofanata from Marche, Burson and Centisimino from Romagna.
Some of these grapes are being forgotten and risk going extinct. But luckily a forum was born named Autochtona for the valorization and the recovery of indigenous grapes.
With the huge amount of native grapes present in Italy, a lifetime wouldn’t be enough to learn and taste them all! The culture of wine is everywhere in Italy. Every small town or village has its own speciality and styles vary widely in just a distance of a few kilometers.