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. Here is the first installment, Abbuoto to Brachetto, and the second, Cabernet Franc to Croatina, in case you missed them!
Its name translates to the “little sweet one,” but Dolcetto is a deceptive little bugger. Those who expect a sweet red wine from Dolcetto will likely be disappointed. Although its name suggests sweetness, it’s the grape–not the wine–that is sweet. In fact, a common characteristic of Dolcetto is its satisfying slight bitterness, a result of fermentation of the fruit’s high level of sugar. Another reason for its name is the berry’s low acidity; less acid means less competition with the sugar, thereby emphasizing its sweet flavor. A Piemonte native, Dolcetto makes for spicy light to medium-bodied wine that is primarily grown in the Langhe region. Produced under seven different DOC classifications, d’Alba, d’Asti, and di Dogliani are the best known.
Grown only in Sicilia, Frappato provides lively berry notes, cherry-red color and bouncy acidity to other Sicilian varietals, most often Nero d’Avola. It’s unclear whether this grape is indigenous to the area or whether it arrived, as did many of Sicilia’s other grapes, from Spain.
Grown predominantly in Piemonte, the indigenous Freisa has a chameleon-like ability to change. It also has the questionable ability to polarize wine drinkers, who seem to either love or hate the grape, but experience either emotion with passion. Freisa’s blue-black grapes make a cherry-red wine with a nose and a palate of raspberry. Both quite tannic and highly acidic, Freisa is vinified into wines that range from dry to sweet, and flat to fizzy or sparkling. Once grown everywhere from the Veneto to Piemonte, this grape varietal has decreased substantially, but due to its acrobatic flexibility, Freisa is currently making a comeback.
Fumin (foo-MEEN, FOO-mehn)
This varietal is indigenous to Valle d’Aosta in northwestern Italy. Similar in heft to Syrah, Fumin most often provided dark ruby color and a zesty kick to easy-drinking blends, but now it is being used to create its own wines, which demand ageing. Fumin is an extremely finicky grape to grow with a high degree of sensitivity to its microclimate, thereby explaining its dearth of appearances in other winemaking regions.
The most important grape in Calabria, Gaglioppo is a component of all of the area’s DOC wines. While this varietal also grows in Campania, Le Marche and Umbria, it is most visible in the simple, robust red wines of Calabria. Gaglioppo is a hardy varietal that flourishes in the hot, dry south of Italy–recent genetic testing suggests that it is related to Sicilia’s Frappato. Ruby in color, refreshing to the nose, somewhat tannic, and replete with scents of tar and rose hip tea, Gaglioppo does well with some aging in the bottle.
Gamay, a predominantly French grape varietal, is best known for being the grape used in Beaujolais, but it also grows to great effect in the tiny Valle d’Aosta in the north of Italy. This very vigorous grape grows easily and abundantly, and while it tends to be extremely acidic, its acidity is tamed by the acidic soil of the Valle d’Aosta.
This varietal indigenous to Piemonte seems to have a personality conflict. High in tannins yet light-bodied, Grignolino gets its name from the term for “many pips,” for this grape usually holds around three seeds per fruit. When pressed carefully, the tannins can be held at bay to create a light-bodied red with a nose of alpine flowers and herbs, a perfect accompaniment for chicken or fish. Like Dolcetto, Grignolino is a precocious vine, and its wines are best drunk young, and like the wines vinified from Dolcetto, those from Grignolino can be consumed while other Piemontese are still aging.