The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Italian White Wine Grapes A-Z: Albana to Cortese!

Posted on | June 8, 2015 | Written by IWM Staff | No Comments

Each Monday for the next few weeks, we’ll be detailing the white wine grapes of Italy. From the well-known to the obscure, this alphabetical list offers insight into the grapes that make your favorite Italian white wines. This week, we look at grapes beginning with A, B and C, or Albana to Cortese!

A bunch of Albana grapes

A bunch of Albana grapes

Albana (ahl-BAH-nah)

This varietal dates back to fifth-century Emilia-Romagna, though given the oft-damning controversy surrounding Albana, one might wonder how it has lasted this long. When the appellation Albana de Romagna received DOC status in 1987, many wine producers saw this move as strictly political, for there’s really nothing special about this Albana-based dry wine. Quaffable, faintly aromatic and simple, Albana de Romagna rarely is anything to talk about, even if in the interceding decades some producers have managed to give the wine some depth. No, what makes the Albana memorable is its passito version. Drying the Albana makes its quince, pineapple, and apricot flavors stand out and creates a wine wherein its sweetness is utterly balanced by its acidity. Albana is sometimes called Greco, although erroneously, for this varietal bears no genetic relationship to either Greco Bianca or Greco B.

Albarola (ahl-bah-ROHL-lah)

Albarola grows almost exclusively in the tiny, crescent-shaped Liguria region in northwest Italy, though the varietal almost certainly originated in neighboring Toscana. Often a component in blended wines in the Cinque Terre zone, Albarola occasionally shows up as a single-varietal wine that’s pale yellow, slightly astringent, and with an herbaceous tang. It also makes an appearance in a rare passito desert wine with Bosco and Vermentino.

Arneis (ahr-NAYS)

Its name translates from Piemontese to mean, variably, “little rascal,” “difficult and demanding person,” or “child who doesn’t listen to his parents.” Maybe this varietal’s truculence was the reason that it took the DOC until 2005 to recognize this indigenous Piemonte grape in its Roero Arneis appellation. More likely, it’s all the other great wines in Piemonte overshadowed those made from Arneis, which is also sometimes called Nebbiolo Blanco. Generally vinified into a dry white wine, Arneis makes a delightful, refreshing straw yellow wine with a bouquet of apple and apricot. Producers who make more concerted efforts can produce a rich, viscous wine redolent of apples, pears and licorice.

Bianco d’Alessano (BYAHN-koh dahl-ISS-sahn-oh)

This extremely rare varietal grows in Puglia. There’s not a lot of information on it.

Blanc de Morgex (bwlahnk deh MAWHR-ghoh)

Grown high in the Alps of the Valle d’Aosta, Blanc de Morgex is the Valle d’Aosta’s only indigenous white grape. Blanc de Morgex’s high acidity makes it an ideal component in combination wines, although it is also vinified on its own.

Bombino bianco bunch

Bombino bianco bunch

Bombino Bianco (bom-BEE-noh BYAHN-koh)

Named either for its fecundity (like a bomb, or bomba) or for the pyramidal shape of its grape bunches that resemble a child with up-flung arms (bambino), Bombino grows in both white (Bianco) and black (Nero) versions, but the white is much more prevalent. Grown throughout most of central Italy, Bombino Blanco is another one of those grapes that has different names depending on where in Italy it is. Due to its easy-growing nature, in Emilia-Romagna it’s called Pagadebit, or “debt-payer,” and Stracciacambiali, or “tear up the invoices”; however, in Abruzzo the grape varietal also goes under the name Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, despite its having no genetic relation to Trebbiano. Generally a component of a blend, Bombino Bianco often produces an unremarkable wine. When, however, winemakers carefully prune the vine to limit grape production as some vintners in Abruzzi are doing, a high-quality, golden hued, creamy yet citrusy wine can result.

Bosco (BOHS-koh)

If there is a quintessential illustration of just how confusing Italian wine can be, Bosco might just be it. First, there is the varietal Bosco that grows exclusively in Liguria, predominantly in its Cinque Terre region. Then there are several wine producers named Bosco, none of whom make wine in Liguria. Then there is the Italian wine and food term “frutti di bosco,” which refers to flavors reminiscent of the “fruits of the forest,” or wild berries and currants. As if that’s not enough, there is also a style of wine called Bosco that is not made from Bosco (the white version is made from Sauvignon Blanc, the red from Fortana), nor is it made by Bosco, nor does it possess frutti di bosco.

That said, Bosco is a varietal that forms the basis of almost every white wine produced in Liguria. When vinified, it ranges in hues from straw to gold, possesses an herbaceous floral quality, and shows a savory undertone that is redolent of the sea.

Carricante (cahr-REE-kahnt-tay)

This indigenous varietal has been cultivated on the eastern slopes of Mt. Etna in Sicilia since time immemorial. Also going by the names Catanese Bianco and Nocera Bianca, this grape thrives on Etna’s volcanic soil. When vinified, Carricante can yield a medium-bodied wine that possess aromas of peony, fennel and lemon and a strong mineral finish.

Cattaratto grapes

Catarratto grapes

Catarratto (kah-tah-RAHT-toh)

Catarratto has the dubious distinction of being, after Sangiovese, the second most-planted grape in Italy. Grown solely in Sicilia, only a portion of the crop of Catarratto ends up in wine glasses–the rest becomes industrial alcohol. Catarratto further suffers from its reputation for being a plentiful, if negligible, filler grape in white wine and for being a basis for Vermouth. However, Catarratto comes in two forms: Catarratto Comune, the type predominantly used in so-called jug wines and in the industrial alcohol, and Catarratto Lucido, a fine, high-quality, lower-production grape that can be vinified into tiptop wines. When tended with care, this latter clone yields a nicely balanced, freshly acidic, straw color wine with a palate of honeysuckle, apricots and lemon and slightly savory finish. Catarratto used to be a major component of Marsala, but now Grillo has assumed that role.

Chardonnay (shar-doh-NAY)

Chardonnay is one of the world’s most-cultivated white grapes, and while it may have France to thank for its history and California for its celebrity, Chardonnay has a firm root in Italy. Quite easy to cultivate, Chardonnay has two desirable characteristics: it is a grape that happily reflects the terroir in which it’s grown, and Chardonnay also gleefully responds to a variety of vinification techniques. These traits, combined with Chardonnay’s happy acclimation to most microclimates and its broad range of flavors, make it the extremely popular varietal it is–both with the producers of wine and the drinkers of it.

Italy’s fourth-most cultivated white wine grape, Chardonnay grows widely throughout northern and central Italy, though it also grows as far south as Sicilia. In Trentino-Alto Adige, where for a very long time it was confused with Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay has been known as “Gelber Weissburgunder,” or golden white Burgundy–Pinot Blanc is called simply “Weissburgunder.” Italian Chardonnays may be aged in oak or not, blended or vinified singly. Perhaps the best expression of Chardonnay comes from Piemonte, where renowned winemaker Angelo Gaja makes his hedonistic, chewy version with notes of guava, tangerine, honey, marzipan, and oak spice. In a word, though, Chardonnay is a crapshoot. You can take home a jackpot or you can go utterly broke. In general, the Chardonnay grape makes wines with a wide variety of characteristics that range from buttery to citrusy, from smoky to steely, from appley to melony. This range of flavors is as much due to Chardonnay’s chameleon-like ability to adapt to its environment is it is due to its easy response to vinification techniques.


A singular bunch of Cortese

Cortese (kohr-TAE-zae, kohr-TEH-zee)

Indigenous to Piemonte, Cortese flourishes in Piemonte’s southeastern Monferrato Hills, but it also grows in Lombardia and the Veneto. As the sole varietal in Cortese di Gavi, the second white wine to earn a DOCG (the first was Albana di Romagna), Piemontese Cortese has in recent years achieved high popularity that has, unfortunately, preyed upon this delicate grape. In its worst expressions, Cortese makes a wine that is banal, indistinguishable and insipid. In its best expressions, however, this varietal makes supple wines with an acidic flair and subtle flavors of apple, citrus, and honeysuckle, underlain by a satisfying minerality. Cortese is also sometimes vinified into a sparkling version of Gavi.


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