The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Italian Red Wine Grapes: Refosco to Uva Rara

Posted on | February 18, 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, the fourth, Lagrein to Moscato Rosa, and the fifth, Nebbiolo to Primitivo, in case you missed them!

A bunch of pretty Refosco (these in Slavonia)

A bunch of pretty Refosco (these in Slavonia)

Refosco (reh-FOHS-koh)

The ancient Refosco may be indigenous to Friuli or it may be descended from a Slovenian grape. In either case, it has been cultivated in Italy long enough to have appeared in the writings of Pliny the Elder and to have spawned several clones and at least one major newer varietal, Marzemino. Its full name is Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso, or “Refosco with the red stem,” and in addition to its shortened name, it also goes by Terrano in the Veneto and Caniga in Emilia-Romagna (Refosco is also cultivated in Sardegna and Puglia). Highly acidic, though relatively low in tannin, this varietal takes its sweet time ripening; however, it is fortuitously impervious to rot. Wines made from Refosco are a rich garnet in color and possess both a nose and a palate of dark fruits, which is underlain by nuts and herbs.

Rondinella (ron-dee-NEHL-lah)

Like a horribly shy pre-teen, Rondinella never makes an appearance on its own. Grown in the Veneto as a blending grape, this hardy, high-yielding varietal is a fragrant, sweet grape that when vinified makes a wine low in acid and sugar. Rondinella is often blended to make the Veneto’s Valpolicella and Bardolino (the primary grape for both wines is the Corvina), and when dried on straw mats, its Amarone.


Densely growing Sagrantino

Densely growing Sagrantino

Sagrantino (sah-grahn-TEE-noh)

Umbria’s Sagrantino has the distinction of being the world’s most tannic grape. Most likely brought to Umbria during the twelfth century, Sagrantino was until fairly recently solely vinified Sagrantino in the passito method to make a desert wine. In the past few decades, however, winemakers have realized that they can also use the grape to make a superlatively balanced, ruby-colored, long-aging wine, Sagrantino di Montefalco, which became a DOCG wine in 1992. Sagrantino’s intense tannins are balanced with a full-bodied, silky mouth and a bouquet of blackberries, tar and earth.

Sangiovese before sorting

Sangiovese before sorting

Sangiovese (san-joe-VAE-sae)

Sangiovese is Italy’s most cultivated grape, and it’s best known for Chianti Classico, as well as mono-varietal Super Tuscans like Montevertine Le Pergole Torte and Fontodi Flaccianello. Like a spy, this grape goes by many names: Montalcino, Brunello or Sangiovese Grosso, Montepulciano, Prugnolo Gentile, Chianti Classico, Sangioveto, Scansano, and Morelliono, to name a few. Due to its many clones, Sangiovese is a phenomenally amenable grape, and it grows everywhere in Italy but Sicilia, though its finest expression is in Toscana. Sangiovese requires a very long season to ripen with warm, sunny days that extend into mid-to-late October, so hills with southern exposure do it well; it also prefers soil with generous limestone.

The name Sangiovese has traditionally been interpreted as “blood of Jove” (sangue de Giove), but this appears to be untrue, and other interpretations have been raised. Similarly, while people have long considered the varietal to be indigenous to Italy, recent ampelographers have suggested that it is itself a clone of an older Tuscan grape Ciliegiolo and a little-known southern Italian grape called Calabrese Montenuovo that probably came from Campania. Whatever it’s called and whatever its origins, Sangiovese is the basis for many stellar wines from Brunello di Montalcino to many of the so-called Super Tuscans. Ruby red in color, Sangiovese makes vibrant, often powerful wines that can have notes of ranging from ripe cherries and figs, to earth and truffles, to vanilla and cinnamon.

Growing Sangiovese Grosso vines

Growing Sangiovese Grosso vines

Sangiovese Grosso (san-joe-VAE-sae GROH-soh)

In the mid-1800’s, Clemente Santi realized that one strain of grape growing on his estate seemed to withstand both rot and phylloxera. He focused his attention on the grape he called Brunello, or the “little brown one”; it would later become known as clone BBS11 or Sangiovese Grosso. His son, Feruccio Biondi-Santi, was the first person to bottle and release a single-varietal wine fermented from this grape. It was called Brunello, and a handful of bottles remain from his 1881 inaugural bottling. When compared to its parent vine, Sangiovese Grosso has thicker skins, lower yields, and smaller berries, and because of these characteristics makes a darker, more ageable wine. Grown only in the hills surrounding Montalcino in Toscana, Sangiovese Grosso is also the grape featured in the earlier drinking Rosso di Montalcino.


Do not image search "Schiava" without "grape" at a work comuter

Do not image search “Schiava” without “grape” at a work comuter

Schiava (skee-AH-vah, SKYAH-vah)

Also called Trollinger, Schiava is one varietal that illustrates how little regard grapes have for national borders. Although the grape is cultivated in Trentino and in one province of the Veneto, Schiava is grown primarily in Trentino-Alto Adige, where it is part of eight DOC(G) appellations. Schiava also grows in neighboring Germany, where it’s known as Vernatsch. Given the cultural permeability of this region, names for this grape, and indeed its wines, appear on labels in either Italian or German, and often both. There are several clones of Schiava, the most notable being Schiava Grosso, which is easier to grow but less delicious, and Schiava Grigio, which is finickier but tastier. Both varietals make wines that are deceptively light. Though this varietal’s wine are light ruby in color, fresh on the nose with a bouquet of strawberry, they also are surprisingly round and contain a savory, bacony quality reminiscent of the wines made from the most-grown grape in the region, Lagrein.

Schioppettino (skyawp-peht-TEE-noh) phylloxera

Although this Friuli indigenous varietal nearly died out in the outbreak in the nineteenth century, Schioppettino is staging a comeback. Also known as Ribolla Nera, Schioppettino’s name translates to “crackling” or “little shot,” and it comes from antiquated appellations that were effervescent. Dating from the thirteenth century, this varietal has been cultivated primarily in the Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC zone, and it gained DOC status in 1992 in four dry red wines. Often prohibitively tannic, Schioppettino can produce an intense ruby hued, full-bodied wine that has a complex bouquet of roses and a palate of wild blackberries laced with pepper.

Tazzelenghe (tah-tseh-LEHN-geh)

This varietal gets its name from its trademark high acidity and marked tannins. Translated, Tazzelenghe means “tongue shredder,” and while this grape produces wines that in their infancy show formidable tannins, these wines also age quite well. Indigenous to Friuli, Tazzelenghe has most often been vinified as a blending grape with other varietals, usually Barbera, Merlot and Cabernet. However, in recent years, winemakers have been experimenting with this grape to make a single-variety wine. Full-bodied, suitable for long aging, and possessing bouncy acidic and sturdy tannins, wine from Tazzelenghe shows a combination of wild berries and bitter cherries on the palate.

Teroldego's breathtaking scenery, image from the New York Times

Teroldego’s breathtaking scenery, image from the New York Times

Teroldego (the-ROHL-deh-go)

Teroldego gets its name either from the German for “gold of the Tirol,” the eighteenth-century German-Austrian nickname for wines from Trentino-Alto Adige, or from its traditional cultivation method of being hung on “tirelle,” or wire harnesses. This black grape is grown almost exclusively in the Rotaliano plain in Trentino-Alto Adige, though in recent years Toscana has evinced a good showing of Teroldego. With sprightly acidity and relatively low tannins, wines made from Teroldego have a palate heavy in black fruits. In good production years, these wines have exceptional ageability.

Uva di Troia (OO-vah dee TROH-yah)

In addition to Primitivo and Negroamaro, Uva di Troia completes the triumvirate that comprises Puglia’s three main reds. There are two main clones of Uva di Troia grown in Puglia; the more interesting is called Carnosina and possesses small grapes that grow in small bunches. Though currently little-known, the deeply colored and profoundly aromatic Uva di Troia has the potential for wider renown, and Puglian winemakers have been experimenting with vinification techniques to coax out this grape’s potential for a full-bodied, violet and licorice laden wine.

A vineyard filled with Uva Rara

A vineyard filled with Uva Rara

Uva Rara (OO-vah RAH-rah)

Cultivated almost exclusively in the Oltrepò Pavese region of Lombardia in northern Italy, Uva Rara is a synonym for the Bonarda Novarese. Used only as a blending grape, this varietal adds softness and aromatics to wines made from Spanna, the area’s name for Nebbiolo. Neither Uva Rara nor its synonym Bonarda Novarese should be confused with Croatina, which is also called Bonarda, and which is also cultivated in Lombardia.


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