The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Italian Red Wine Grapes: Lagrein to Moscato Rosa!

Posted on | February 4, 2016 | Written by IWM Staff | No Comments

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, the second, Cabernet Franc to Croatina, and the third, Dolcetto to Grignolino, in case you missed them!

Ripening Lagrein

Ripening Lagrein

Lagrein (lah-GRYNE)

Cultivated in the Trentino-Alto Adige region, Lagrein makes both well-structured reds and delightful rosés. A rare grape that has flourished in relative obscurity, Lagrein has of late begun to come out of the shadows. Although this varietal can make quite astringent wines, when grown carefully, it can be the foundation for a deep ruby wine with a chocolaty palate and notes of dark plums, cherries and hay.

Lambrusco (lam-BREWS-coh)

After enduring a terrible reputation since the 1970’s, Emilia-Romagna’s Lambrusco has recently been undergoing a rediscovery. This grape comes in three related varieties, Lambrusco di Sorbara, Lambrusco Salamino, and Lambrusco Grasparossa. The lightest is di Sorbara, which makes wine of a strawberry and palate; Salamino is darker and violet in nose; Grasparossa sits in the middle with a cherry-like color and a broader, more undefined palate. All three wines make frizzante (or effervescent) wines that pair wonderfully with summer food. The best of Emilia-Romagna’s Lambruscos are hard to come by because so few of them are exported, but they are worth the trouble.

Malvasia Nera (mahl-VAH-zyah NEH-rah) and Malvasia Bianca (mahl-VAH-zyah bee-AHN-kah)

Malvasia Nera flourishes throughout Italy and, indeed, throughout the entire Mediterranean. More than a single varietal, Malvasia is a family of grapes that includes Malvasia Bianca, Malvasia Nero, Malvasia del Chianti, two clones of Malvasia Dianco di Candia B., and four other clones localized to specific regions (Malvasia del Lazio, Malvasia Istriana, Malvasia de Sardegna, and Malvasia di Lipari). A grape with this many identities is open to multiple interpretations. The winemakers of the north and west of Italy predominantly uses the Malvasia Nero clones, while those of south of Italy employ the various Malvasia Bianca version. Malvasia is instrumental in making Chianti in Toscana, Frascati in Emilia-Romagna, and many wines in other regions that range from red to white, dry to sweet, and flat to sparkling. Most oenologists agree that the grape entered Italy from Byzantium, but where it entered is up to dispute; some argue the Veneto, while others make a case for Sardegna. In any case, the grape, red or white, is known for making a deeply aromatic, often highly alcoholic and intensely colored wine.

A bunch of Mammolo grapes

A bunch of Mammolo grapes

Mammolo (MAHM-moh-loh)

The rare Mammolo, or Mammolino, gets its name from mammale, the Italian word for violets. This varietal is grown almost exclusively in Toscana, where it lends its light-bodied violet-scented character to Chianti and, very occasionally, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Although very limited in its viticulture, there are ten clones of Mammolo growing in Toscana.

Marzemino (mahr-tseh-MEE-noh)

The varietal with the reputation of being Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s favorite–his opera Don Giovanni provides a reference to the “excellent Marzemino”–grows primarily in the Veneto, though it also is cultivated in Lombardia, Trentino, Friuli and Emilia-Romagna. The fact that this grape grows almost exclusively in northern regions may account for its relative obscurity, for Marzemino needs a long summer to ripen and is vulnerable to mold. These characteristics make the North largely, if ironically, inhospitable. This grape makes a perfumy wine with a soft feel and a tangy palate of blackberries, nuts and vanilla. Used to make dry, sweet, and passito wines, Marzemino is often served at the end of a meal.

Merlot grapes, soon to be wine

Merlot grapes, soon to be wine

Merlot (MAIR-loh)

The fifth most cultivated grape in Italy, Merlot originally comes from France, where it is the grape best known for making Pomerol wines. This thin-skinned, intensely blue-black grape makes a wine with light tannins, low acidity, and dark fruit flavors that are often inflected with hints of mint, vanilla, and other herbs and spices. Although much maligned for vintages that take advantage of this grape’s easy drinkability, serious Merlots are made in Friuli, the Veneto and especially Toscana, where in addition to monovarietal appellations, Merlot also sometimes joins Sangiovese, its soft, round character balancing out Sangiovese’s often rambunctious nature.

Molinara (mo-lee-NAH-rah)

This acidic grape is known for its bright red fruit such as currants and tart cherries, floral perfume and medium body. Molinara is hardly seen outside of the Veneto, where it often joins Corvina and Rondinella to add its acidic sassiness in making Valpolicella and Bardolino.

Monica (MOH-ni-kah)

Grown exclusively in Sardegna, Monica came to the island from Spain in the eleventh century. This grape makes a medium to full-bodied wine of dark ruby color, notes of plums, cherries, and black pepper. Monica is the primary grape in two DOC appellations, Monica di Sardegna and Monica di Cagliari; the former is a round, full, rustic drinking wine, while the latter has a higher alcohol level and, marginally sweeter, is produced as an after-dinner wine.

Montepulciano grapes

Montepulciano grapes

Montepulciano (mon-tai-pull-chee-AH-noh)

Despite the name, this grape has nothing to do with the town of the same name in Toscana, nor does it have any relationship with the wine Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which comes from Toscana. Rather, Montepulciano, the grape, is cultivated throughout Central Italy, from Le Marche to Apulia and most specifically in Abruzzo. Montepulciano is a varietal that makes a tremendously pleasing wine characterized by low acidity, manageable tannins, and a combination of the roundness of Merlot with the pepper and black fruit of Syrah. Known best for its DOC appellation Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, this grape varietal is said to have originated in Abruzzo, but it also appears in several other DOC wines throughout central Italy.

Moscato Rosa (mos-KAH-toh ROH-zha)

One member of the large and ancient family of Moscato grapes, this Moscato clone grows primarily in Trentino-Alto Adige, where it also goes by the name Rosenmuskateller, though it is also cultivated in Friuli and Piemonte. Generally vinified in passito or fortified vintages, Moscato Rosa is customarily used to make desert wines. Bright red with a cherry surface, Moscato Rosa has a nose of roses, a palate of stone fruits like peaches, and often an aftertaste of toasted almonds.


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