The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Italian Red Wine Grapes: Nebbiolo to Primitivo

Posted on | February 11, 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, the third, Dolcetto to Grignolino, and the fourth, Lagrein to Moscato Rosa, in case you missed them!

Nebbiolo, ready for its close up

Nebbiolo, ready for its close up

Nebbiolo (nehb-be-OH-loh)

Nebbiolo is Piemonte’s best-known grape and the basis for its best-known wine, Barolo. Indigenous to the hills surrounding Alba situated southeast of Turin, Nebbiolo’s name is a derivative of the Italian word for fog, nebbia, and whether that fog refers to the white tinge that covers the varietal’s black grapes as they ripen or the mist surrounding the Langhe hills in October or November when they’re harvested, no one is entirely sure. One thing is certain: not only is Nebbiolo a very old grape, but it is also one that has been recognized for centuries for its greatness. In the Middle Ages, to rip out a Nebbiolo vine was a crime punishable by lopping off a hand; repeat offenders were hung.

Called alternately Spanno, Chiavennasca, Picotener (as well as other names), Nebbiolo has the reputation of being an exceptionally finicky grape. It grows best in hilly lands with sandy marl, requires a very long summer to ripen, and tends to be exceptionally particular as to its terroir and its microclimate. Though Nebbiolo is cultivated in other areas of Italy, such as Lombardia and Valle d’Aosta, it does best close to home in Piemonte’s Langhe hills, and it’s best known for being the grape behind both Barolo and Barbaresco. Even more to the issue, Nebbiolo makes a wine that bears tremendously high tannins that requires a knowing winemaker’s vinification to coax the best from it. When one does, however, the wine drinker is rewarded with a supple wine that holds a bewitching nose of tar and roses; a complex palate of candied and tart cherries, prunes, and violets that’s complemented by a darker undertone of leather, earth and truffles; and a balanced structure that calls for lavish aging.

Hard-to-find Negrara, courtesy of Terroir Amarone

Hard-to-find Negrara, courtesy of Terroir Amarone

Negrara (neh-GRAH-rah)

Negrara is one of those 2,000+ grape varietals that are cultivated in Italy whose vinifications rarely get exported out of Italy. Grown in Trentino-Alto Adige and the Veneto, this dark grape often appears in Bardolino. On its own, Negrara makes a perfumed, dark red wine that is soft and round, yet characterized by light, appealing tannins.

Negroamaro (neh-grow-ah-MAH-roh)

Grown exclusively in Puglia, Negroamaro may be indigenous to the area–or it may have been imported by the Greeks. Often part of the DOC appellation Salice Salentino, the wine of this black grape is more increasingly being released as a mono-varietal. The name literally means “black and bitter,” but this thick-skinned, deeply colored grape makes a rustic, drinkable wine known for being a deep, dark ruby in color, pleasantly tannic, possessing of a fresh nose of apples and pears, and replete with a soft mouth-filling palate of fruit.

Ripening Nerello Mascalese, courtesy of Wine Virtuosity

Ripening Nerello Mascalese, courtesy of Wine Virtuosity

Nerello Mascalese (neh-REHL-lo mahs-kah-LEH-zeh)

Indigenous to Sicilia, oenologists believe Nerello Mascalese originated on the slopes of Mt. Etna. Second only to Nero d’Avola in Sicilian cultivation, Nerello Mascalese is a subset of a group of grapes called Mascalese (another of the subset is Nerello Cappuccio). Although Nerello Mascalese has most often been used as a blending grape with Nerello Mantellato and Nerello Cappuccio, the grape has recently come into its own in making a ruby-red wine with a nose of violets, a raspberry-and-leather palate, and a slight minerality due to its volcanic terroir.

Grappolo di Nero d'Avola

Grappolo di Nero d’Avola

Nero d’Avola (NEH-roh DAH-vah-lah)

Also known as Calabrese, this high-sugar, solidly acidic grape is Sicilia’s most cultivated varietal. Indigenous to Sicilia, Nero d’Avola rarely grows outside of the island, but there it is loved enough to be called the Prince, the King, and the Emperor of Sicilian wines. While Nero d’Avola has long been adding its trademark acidity to blends, it has in recent years increasingly been vinified on its own. The dark red wines of Nero d’Avola provide a heady whiff of blueberry, and on the palate they are often compared to Syrah because of its palate of wild plum, chocolate, spices and tar.

Petit Rouge (peh-TEE rhooj)

Exclusive to Italy’s tiny, Alpine Valle d’Aosta, this small red grape provides a flowery nose to four of the area’s DOC appellations. Petit Rouge, also known as “Oriou,” may be indigenous to the high-elevation Valle d’Aosta, or it might be a native to Burgundy. Vinified both in blends and on its own, the velvety-feeling Petit Rouge is characterized by a cherry to purple hue and an intense fruitiness balanced by pepperiness.

Picutener (pee-KOO-tehn-ay)

Picutener is the name by which Nebbiolo goes when grown in Italy’s smallest wine-growing region, Valle d’Aosta.

Piedirosso--look close for the little red feet

Piedirosso–look close for the little red feet

Piedirosso (pyeh-dee-ROHS-so)

Named for the color it turns when ripe in the fall, Piedirosso, or “red feet,” grows almost exclusively in Campania, especially on the foothills of Mt. Vesuvius. Primarily used in blends to make Lacryma Christi, Taurasi and Rosato, Piedirosso has historically been added to fellow indigenous grape Aglianico because where the latter is highly acidic, Piedirosso is soft and lighter-bodied. The refreshing Piedirosso has an herbaceous nose and notes and a ruby color.

Pignolo (pee-NYOH-loh)

This ancient grape dates back to fourteenth-century Friuli, but by the early 1980s, it had been reduced to just a handful of vines growing against the walls of the Abbey of Rosazzo. Rescued from the brink of extinction, Pignolo is now the basis for two DOC wines in Friuli’s Colli Orientale zone. The Pignolo grows in tight bunches that often hamper ripening and its difficulty in cultivation has inspired its name; Pignolo either gets its name from pigna, or pine cone, because of the shape of the grapes’ bunches, or from the Italian word for “meticulous,” from the viticultural care necessitated by its difficult shape. In either case, Pignolo is a spectacularly fussy grape that requires tremendous attention on the part of the winemaker to bring to fruition. When he or she succeeds, however, Pignolo makes a rich red wine tinged with cranberry with an explosive nose of fruit, earth and pepper and a spice-laden palate of dark fruits.

Pinot Nero (pee-noh NAIR-oh)

A clone of Burgundy’s famed Pinot Noir, Pinot Nero is Italy’s version. Grown predominately in Lombardia and to a lesser extent the Veneto, Pinot Nero produces red, rosé and sparkling wines, this last most particularly in the Oltrepò Pavese region of Lombardia. Not much of Italy’s Pinot Nero vinifications get exported out of the area, but reports suggest that as tricky as the grape is to cultivate, winemakers are showing a concerted effort in vinifying the grape to create ageable and important expressions.


A single bunch of Primitivo

A single bunch of Primitivo

Primitivo (preem-mih-TEE-voh)

Grown primarily in the hot, dry and windy climes of Puglia and Campania, Primitivo is a grape that has slowly been gaining a strong reputation. In recent wine news, much has been made about the connection between Primitivo and Zinfandel; current genetic testing has suggested that both the Italian Primitivo and the Californian Zinfandel are the same grape–in fact, they are the Croatian Crljenak Kaštelanski. It seems likely that Primitivo came across the Adriatic to Italy at some early point in the eighteenth century. Historically, winemakers have seen Primitivo’s use as just a component of blending wines; however, vintners are now taking more care in harvesting, processing and vinifying the grapes. The resulting wines are balanced, structured, and suitable for ageing. Characterized by a profound fruit palate underlain by spice and hay, Primitivo has a dark ruby color.


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