Last summer, we took a look at Italian white grape varietals (here’s the last installment of the white grape series with links to each part), so it feels right to take a wander through red grapes this winter. This winter, we’re detailing the red wine grapes of Italy. From the well-known to the obscure, this alphabetical list offers insight into the grapes that make your favorite Italian red wines. Today the first installment, Abbuoto to Brachetto!
This very old and quite rare grape grows primarily in Lazio in the Frascati zone. Abbuoto is the primary component of Cecuba, a modern-day interpretation of an ancient wine of the Latium people. This dark-blue, thick-skinned grape makes an intensely ruby red wine with a slight casting of violet and possessing a palate of plums and “frutti di bosco” (or wild blueberries, blackberries and raspberries). Although once verging on extinction, the Abbuoto has recently begun to make a comeback at the careful hands of devoted viticulturers.
Aglianico (ah-LYAH-nee-kah, ah-LYAH-nee-koh)
This black grape is often called the “Nebbiolo of the South” due to its amazing range of expressions, and while for a long time ampelographers thought this grape was Greek in origin, recent genetic research suggests that it’s indigenous to Italy. Grown primarily in Campania and Basilicata, Aglianico also is cultivated in Molise and Puglia, though to a far lesser degree. The grape’s best-known vinification is in Taurasi, the grape’s only DOCG designation, and in Aglianico del Vulture, its only DOC; however, it makes its most poetic appearance as a component of Lacryma Christi, or “Christ’s tears,” a wine of great mythical status originating from the gulf of Naples. Aglianico appears in a wide variety of wines throughout Campania, including rosés, whites, sparkling and, in the passito style, desert wines. Aglianico is usually ruby to brick red, full-bodied, and characterized by sometimes imposing tannins. It has a palate of black cherry, plums, berries and a hint of violet, chocolate or black pepper. Aglianico wines can be drunk in their youth, but due to their often formidable acidity, these wines do best when vinified for ageability.
This dark black, compact grape was rediscovered in 1950 by Fattoria Paradiso’s Mario Pezzi; he named it Barbarossa in honor of Emperor Frederico Barbarossa who lived in the nearby castle of Bertinoro. Although Barbarossa is also cultivated in Provence and in Corsica (where it’s called Barbaroux), in Italy it is grown exclusively in Emilia-Romagna–there is another rarely grown varietal called Barbarossa in Liguria, but it seems to bear no relation to the Barbarossa in Emilia-Romagna. Wines made from Barbarossa may be confusingly owing to their often eponymous name because wines grown in Barbarossa may or may not be made with Barbarossa. However, those wines that are made from Barbarossa tend to be garnet red, full-bodied, quite dry and somewhat austere. These balanced wines often age well, and their scent is reminiscent of roses and violets, while their palate contains notes of worn leather, earthy black fruits and vanilla.
A grape of astounding flexibility and breadth, Barbera is one of the two most planted red wine varietals in Italy (the other is Sangiovese). Barbera grows throughout Italy, but it’s best-known in Piemonte, where it figures prominently in eleven of the areas DOC designations. The best-known of these Barbera designations from Piemonte–Barbera d’Alba, Barbera d’Asti and Barbera Del Monferrato–are all uniformly high-quality expressions of the Barbera, and they are rivaled only by Piemonte’s Barolo in popularity. In fact, Barbera earned the nickname of “the people’s wine” because of both its high popularity and its historically lower cost relative to that of Barolo. Low in tannins, but very high in acidity, Barbera’s ruby-colored wines are surprisingly refreshing and complement a wide variety of foods from pizza to steak. While Piemonte’s versions of Barbera tend to be more ageable and more serious, the vintages from other locations tend to be lighter; there’s even a sparkling version in Emilia-Romagna. Wines made from Barbera are characterized by a fresh nose and a palate of lush fruit.
Bonarda is a very sly customer indeed. Most often associated with Argentinean winemaking, Bonarda is the second-most grown grape in Argentina (only Malbec is cultivated more), and it has long been considered an Italian import, though oenologists were uncertain exactly which grape it could be. There are three possibilities, and none of them are clear-cut: the Bonarda Piemontese grape, which is almost never grown and shows no genetic relationship to the other two possible types of Bonarda; the Bonarda Novarese, which is really the Uva Rara; and the grape called Bonarda, which is really more properly called the Croatina. Genetic testing has determined that the Argentine Bonarda is neither a Bonarda nor Italian; rather, it’s the Corbeau, or Charbonneau, from the Savoie region of France. However, in Italian winemaking, the Bonarda is grown in Lombardia and is also known as the Croatina, a grape that makes a soft, charming wine.
Cultivated in Piemonte, Brachetto makes delightful, refreshing, and chill-worthy wines that range between semi-secco and sweet. Created in small batches and exported minimally, the DOC designated light, elegant, frizzante Brachetto d’Acqui may be the best after-dinner wine you’ve never heard of. Only slightly sweet, minimally fizzy, and flourishing great bunches of berries, Brachetto d’Acqui is a perfect wine to accompany fruit and chocolate, two things Piemonte does best. Brachetto also appears in a passito style, where the grapes are allowed to dry by hanging or on lying mats; it also sometimes serves as a component of rosé.