The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Italian Red Wine Grapes: Nebbiolo to Primitivo

The fifth in our series looking at the grapes that comprise Italy’s best loved red wines!

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.

Inside IWM, January 19-21, 2015: Brief, Intense and Delicious

A look back at the week that was

A lovely illustration of Canaiola

A lovely illustration of Canaiola

It was a quick week, but we packed a lot into it. Sean Collins, in his first post for Inside IWM, wrote about a delicious under $25 Northern Italian red that oscillates between sweet fruit and savory minerals, and he made Donnas 2011 Valle d’Aosta Rosso sound like real ride. And we continued our series on Italian red grape varietals with all the “C” grapes worth knowing. Read Cabernet Franc to Croatina, and ask how many of these grapes you know and love?

Garrett Kowalsky went back to basics with his first Italian wine love–Bruno Giacosa. Garrett’s two selections of Giacosa Roero Arneis and Barbaresco might’ve escaped your notice before, so enjoy them now! Crystal shared her secret to good entertaining: having a good white wine for her guests to drink while she’s cooking. Her picks from Chateau de la Maltroye fit that criterion perfectly. And Michael Adler loves family-owned-and-operated vineyards. Don’t miss his two under-the-radar Burgundy selections.

Cheers to short weeks and relaxing weekends!

Expert Picks: Casa Vinicola Giacosa and Bruno Giacosa!

Two expert selections from Garrett Kowalsky

Garrett_8.6.14_72dpiToday we go back to basics. Indeed, we visit the producer who started my love affair with Italian wine—Bruno Giacosa. For more than three decades the world has marveled at the magical wines that this estate produces. Collectors are no doubt familiar with Giacosa’s “Red Label” Barolo and Barbaresco Riservas, and the vino being produced here is celestial from top to bottom. However, Giacosa’s beauty doesn’t begin and end with the expensive and incredible Red Label bottlings. There’s a lot more Giacosa to love. I’ve chosen two of my favorite bottles and while these wines bring a little less clout, they still bring a whole lot of awesome.

Casa Vinicola Bruno Giacosa 2014 Roero Arneis $29.99

When people think of Italian white wines, their minds often drift to Pinot Grigio, Trebbiano, Friulano and Vermentino. I am here to tell you there is another grape to consider, one we almost lost to extinction: Arneis. Piemonte’s Arneis and was almost completely wiped out before a small group of producers (Giacosa included) realized that it needed saving. This Arneis bottling from Giacosa is rich and straw colored, but it still provides a mouthwatering acidity that allows it to pair with almost anything you could imagine during an antipasti or fish course. Drink until 2019.

Bruno Giacosa 2012 Barbaresco Asili $149.99

Asili is one of Barbaresco’s most prestigious vineyards, and perhaps nobody does it justice like Giacosa. The soil, grape, vine, and terroir marry to give elegance and delicacy in Giacosa’s Barbaresco Asili. Giacosa has come to be known for crafting wines of ethereal elegance that seem to live forever. 2012 was a year that had its challenges, but the estate triumphed by making the hard decisions when it came to fruit selection. The result is another stunner that is sure to be enjoyed now and a generation from now. Drink 2017 to 2030.

Everyday, Any Day Bruno Giacosa

Giacosa every day (and special days)!

A label from Azienda Agricola Falletto di Bruno Giacosa

A label from Azienda Agricola Falletto di Bruno Giacosa

Most of our clients already know and love Bruno Giacosa, but most don’t know that he’s responsible for two lines of wines: the estate’s négociant arm Casa Vinicola Giacosa as well as those from Bruno Giacosa’s own estate, labeled with legendary vineyard Falletto. Born in Neive in 1929, Bruno crafts some of the most prestigious Barolo and Barbaresco wines in Piemonte and holds the rank of one of the world’s most respected wine producers. One major point to know about Bruno Giacosa is that he never studied enology; he dropped out of school after the war at the age of 13 to work with his father Mario and grandfather Carlo, who had been making wine since the 1890’s.

Bruno spent his youth learning from both his father and grandfather in the vineyards, and the most important talent they passed down to him was how to select great fruit. This was very important as the Giacosas didn’t own any vineyards; instead, they purchased grapes from select network of growers. By being familiar with each of the cru vineyards in the region, Bruno was able to “cherry-pick” the finest grapes. With time, Giacosa noticed he had less and less fruit to choose from, and in 1982, he decided to purchase the Falletto vineyard in Barolo, and in 1996, he added the Rabajá and Asili vineyards in Barbaresco.

Starting in 1996, Giacosa has divided the estate into two winery names—Azienda Agricola Falletto di Bruno Giacosa and Casa Vinicola Bruno Giacosa. Azienda Agricola Falletto di Bruno Giacosa is located on top of the Falletto Vinyard approximately 400 meters above sea level and makes wines only from estate vineyards or from vineyards he owns. These are Barolo Falletto, Barolo Rocche del Falletto, Barbaresco Asili and Barbaresco Rabajà. Casa Vinicola Bruno Giacosa, on the other hand, is located in the town of Neive near Barbaresco and makes wines using grapes purchased from selected growers including Barbaresco Santo Stefano, Barbaresco Gallina and Barolo Villero.

A label from Casa Vinicola Bruno Giacosa

A label from Casa Vinicola Bruno Giacosa

The best way to distinguish the difference between the two is by the crest on the front of the label. Wines from the Azienda Agricola Falletto have the word FALLETTO in gold letters as well as a crest with a gold F on it. In addition the labels also feature a drawing of the vineyard and winery. The vineyard name on single-vineyard wines is always listed below the type of wine and above the vintage. The single-vineyard wines are also numbered. As opposed to the estate-bottled wines, labels from Casa Vinicola Giacosa say Casa Vinicula and have a crest with a crown on it and feature a drawing of the old castle of Neive on it.

Bruno Giacosa wines are a treat. Super elegant, marvelously perfumed, and full-bodied on the palate, Bruno Giacosa’s Barolo and Barbaresco wines require time and patience, but they will reward you with a spectacular experience. I had some leftover Barolo Falletto that I drank over the course of three days. This wine was like the every-ready bunny because it kept going and going. With each sip I experienced a new aroma or flavor: earth, fruit, minirality, cassis, tobacco, and crushed stone all mingled with elegant red fruit in the background. The only bad thing about it was when I tried to pour more and the bottle was empty.

Fortunately, I have the new Giacosa everyday bottles to console myself. The Casa Vinicola Bruno Giacosa Nebbiolo is particularly delicious!

Why Nebbiolo is Autumn’s Wine

A case for Nebbiolo and a bonus risotto recipe!

A bunch of ripe Nebbiolo

A bunch of ripe Nebbiolo

Fall has the most magical look in Aspen. The groves of shimmering green trees turn to yellow and set the mountains ablaze with color. And this color change means that it’s time to drink red wine. Fall reds are tricky; I feel the need to keep summer alive, but I also have the desire to embrace winter. For me, autumn usually means Nebbiolo wines. I consider the Nebbiolo grape the most interesting of Italian red grapes and I associate it with the autumnal season—for one thing, the grape gets it name from the dense October fog that settles over the vineyards!

Picking Nebbiolo

Picking Nebbiolo

I’ve long loved the Nebbiolo grape, not only for its earthy nose, but also for its robust characteristics. Before I had any formal wine education, I had the privilege to travel to Piemonte multiple times. I’ve seen the rolling hills and the nebulous fog. I’ve drunk the different Barolo and Barbaresco vintages and I smelled the centuries-old cellars. Without any knowledge about the grape or the wine, I was able to appreciate Nebbiolo with an innocent palate. My most recent trip was with my sister; we were driving a badass sports car from Umbria to Milan and decided a detour into Piemonte was in order. We drove into the hills of Alba in the afternoon with no place to stay and no understanding of the language. We parked and began walking the cobbled streets. As we passed a restaurant before it opened, the chef called out to us, and after a confused conversation, we had an amazing place to stay and a fantastic meal. Later that night in a small restaurant with wooden benches and walls cluttered with years of wine bottles, the chef brought us a Barolo Risotto that literally changed the course of my life.

Winemaker Maria Teresa Mascarello and Sergio Esposito

Winemaker Maria Teresa Mascarello and Sergio Esposito

The beauty of Nebbiolo is that it is so terroir-driven and so expressive that it changes drastically depending on where it is grown and what winemaking techniques the producer uses. However flexible, Nebbiolo has a very distinctive quality so that it can easily be distinguished from any other grape on the planet. Whether it’s a Barolo, Barbaresco, Langhe Rosso or a Nebbiolo blend, wine made with Nebbiolo is distinctive because of its nose of tar and flowers, its slight medicinal note, its light color, and its deep fruit and tobacco finish. Additionally, Nebbiolo has an uncanny ability to age. A young Nebbiolo wine is drinkable, of course, but the nuances that it will develop over time are incomparable. Nebbiolo’s tannin and acidity are the backbone of its aging ability and a reason why this wine is such a fall affair.

The pairing of Nebbiolo to fall is a perfect one because the dark fruit flavors and earthy tones remind me of decaying leaves and the smell of the chill in the air. The thick skins of the Nebbiolo grape create a tannic structure that pairs well with the heavier fall foods such as ragu, braised meats, pastas and, of course, risotto. Risotto was one of the first Italian dished I learned how to make and it still influences my Mediterranean culinary style. To toast to the new fall season, open a bottle of Nebbiolo and drink it while experimenting with my Barolo Risotto Recipe.

Julia’s Barolo Risotto


3 tbs good quality olive oil

1 clove garlic

¼ cup dry vermouth

1 cup Arborio rice

4 cups veggie stock

2 cups Barolo wine

1 tbs butter

Salt and pepper


Heat the stock in a separate pan or kettle so that it’s simmering when you’re ready for it.

Put the olive oil in a thick-bottomed risotto pan, on medium-low heat. Mince the garlic and add to the oil. One soft, add the rice and stir to coat each grain with the oil. This protects the rice grain and allows for the starch to generate slowly.

Once the rice has been coated deglaze with the vermouth. Some people use wine at this point, but I like the herbaceous quality that the vermouth creates. Let the vermouth reduce with a simmer at medium-high heat. Season with salt, but not too much.

Pour a cup of simmering stock onto the rice; stirring slowly and constantly, let the stock become absorbed by the rice. Before the bottom of the pan goes dry add another cup of stock. Continue to stir constantly. The consistent agitation of the rice allows the starch to come out and create the creamy texture so desired in risotto. One the second cup of stock has been absorbed, add a cup of wine. Continue to add cups of stock and wine until the rice is al dente, but always end on the wine. Turn off the heat and season with the salt and pepper to taste. Add the tablespoon of butter to mount the rice. Serve immediately.

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