The first 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. Today the first installment, Abbuoto to Brachetto!
This very old and quite rare grape grows primarily in Lazio in the Frascati zone. Abbuoto is the primary component of Cecuba, a modern-day interpretation of an ancient wine of the Latium people. This dark-blue, thick-skinned grape makes an intensely ruby red wine with a slight casting of violet and possessing a palate of plums and “frutti di bosco” (or wild blueberries, blackberries and raspberries). Although once verging on extinction, the Abbuoto has recently begun to make a comeback at the careful hands of devoted viticulturers.
Aglianico (ah-LYAH-nee-kah, ah-LYAH-nee-koh)
This black grape is often called the “Nebbiolo of the South” due to its amazing range of expressions, and while for a long time ampelographers thought this grape was Greek in origin, recent genetic research suggests that it’s indigenous to Italy. Grown primarily in Campania and Basilicata, Aglianico also is cultivated in Molise and Puglia, though to a far lesser degree. The grape’s best-known vinification is in Taurasi, the grape’s only DOCG designation, and in Aglianico del Vulture, its only DOC; however, it makes its most poetic appearance as a component of Lacryma Christi, or “Christ’s tears,” a wine of great mythical status originating from the gulf of Naples. Aglianico appears in a wide variety of wines throughout Campania, including rosés, whites, sparkling and, in the passito style, desert wines. Aglianico is usually ruby to brick red, full-bodied, and characterized by sometimes imposing tannins. It has a palate of black cherry, plums, berries and a hint of violet, chocolate or black pepper. Aglianico wines can be drunk in their youth, but due to their often formidable acidity, these wines do best when vinified for ageability.
This dark black, compact grape was rediscovered in 1950 by Fattoria Paradiso’s Mario Pezzi; he named it Barbarossa in honor of Emperor Frederico Barbarossa who lived in the nearby castle of Bertinoro. Although Barbarossa is also cultivated in Provence and in Corsica (where it’s called Barbaroux), in Italy it is grown exclusively in Emilia-Romagna–there is another rarely grown varietal called Barbarossa in Liguria, but it seems to bear no relation to the Barbarossa in Emilia-Romagna. Wines made from Barbarossa may be confusingly owing to their often eponymous name because wines grown in Barbarossa may or may not be made with Barbarossa. However, those wines that are made from Barbarossa tend to be garnet red, full-bodied, quite dry and somewhat austere. These balanced wines often age well, and their scent is reminiscent of roses and violets, while their palate contains notes of worn leather, earthy black fruits and vanilla.
A grape of astounding flexibility and breadth, Barbera is one of the two most planted red wine varietals in Italy (the other is Sangiovese). Barbera grows throughout Italy, but it’s best-known in Piemonte, where it figures prominently in eleven of the areas DOC designations. The best-known of these Barbera designations from Piemonte–Barbera d’Alba, Barbera d’Asti and Barbera Del Monferrato–are all uniformly high-quality expressions of the Barbera, and they are rivaled only by Piemonte’s Barolo in popularity. In fact, Barbera earned the nickname of “the people’s wine” because of both its high popularity and its historically lower cost relative to that of Barolo. Low in tannins, but very high in acidity, Barbera’s ruby-colored wines are surprisingly refreshing and complement a wide variety of foods from pizza to steak. While Piemonte’s versions of Barbera tend to be more ageable and more serious, the vintages from other locations tend to be lighter; there’s even a sparkling version in Emilia-Romagna. Wines made from Barbera are characterized by a fresh nose and a palate of lush fruit.
Bonarda is a very sly customer indeed. Most often associated with Argentinean winemaking, Bonarda is the second-most grown grape in Argentina (only Malbec is cultivated more), and it has long been considered an Italian import, though oenologists were uncertain exactly which grape it could be. There are three possibilities, and none of them are clear-cut: the Bonarda Piemontese grape, which is almost never grown and shows no genetic relationship to the other two possible types of Bonarda; the Bonarda Novarese, which is really the Uva Rara; and the grape called Bonarda, which is really more properly called the Croatina. Genetic testing has determined that the Argentine Bonarda is neither a Bonarda nor Italian; rather, it’s the Corbeau, or Charbonneau, from the Savoie region of France. However, in Italian winemaking, the Bonarda is grown in Lombardia and is also known as the Croatina, a grape that makes a soft, charming wine.
Cultivated in Piemonte, Brachetto makes delightful, refreshing, and chill-worthy wines that range between semi-secco and sweet. Created in small batches and exported minimally, the DOC designated light, elegant, frizzante Brachetto d’Acqui may be the best after-dinner wine you’ve never heard of. Only slightly sweet, minimally fizzy, and flourishing great bunches of berries, Brachetto d’Acqui is a perfect wine to accompany fruit and chocolate, two things Piemonte does best. Brachetto also appears in a passito style, where the grapes are allowed to dry by hanging or on lying mats; it also sometimes serves as a component of rosé.
The subtle differences make for a world apart
Trentino and Alto Adige—situated around the cities of Trent and Bolzano, respectively—are the only Italian provinces that operate autonomously. When considered in broad terms, the two provinces appear to possess an identical grape culture; they’re both mostly dedicated to the cultivation of a of whites, something aided by the merger between the cool Alpine air and the warm currents issuing from Lago di Garda. Moreover, both operate a rather extensive co-operative culture, notably distinguished by the quality of the co-ops (many of which were initiated by independent farmers).
While they do have many grapes in common—Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Bianco—each specializes in its own particular varieties. Trentino has demonstrated a particular talent with Sauvignon Blanc (which frequently goes solely by Sauvignon), Nosiola, and Müller-Thurgau. Trentino’s Sauvignon is far more restrained than many of its counterparts in the New World, as well as its fellow Italian from Friuli. Nosiola, a Trentino native, is rarely found outside its home ground, yet its lithe frame and tart acidity make for a refreshing quaffer. Müller-Thurgau offers the virtual antithesis of this slight character, providing a full-bodied, aromatically stirring wine; it is widely considered to have found an almost ideal contextual setting in Trentino.
Alto Adige also singles out a leading trio of grapes in its catalogue— Pinot Bianco, Gewürztraminer, and Sylvaner. Several producers present an individual varietal in a comprehensive stylistic range. The Pinot Bianco grape makes the most frequent appearances in this hierarchical construct, as it may be expressed in a relatively simple form or enhanced through oak. Gewürztraminer (a.k.a., Traminer and Traminer Aromatico), however, is widely regarded as Alto Adige’s signature grape, offering an intense mélange of flavors including lychee, rose petals, and baking spices. Its emblematic status reflects not only its likely identity as a native, but the customized complement it offers the region’s hearty mountain cuisine, particularly dishes such as knödel alle erbe (gnocchi with wild herbs) and smoked sausages. Sylvaner exhibits a character that is similar to that of Gewürtztraminer’s, albeit less concentrated.
Trentino-Alto Adige’s extensive white roster can obscure its fairly long-standing commitment to reds. It’s a serious red wine region, and it has grown yet more so in recent years. Both are fairly active on the international front, with the Bordeaux triumvirate—Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot—receiving more attention in Trentino than its natives, such as Schiava, which is largely consumed on a local basis. While Trentino’s autumn rains often impair the ripening of the grapes, many producers believe that the climate can ensure adequate ripening. The most successful and established of the Cabernet-based bottlings issuing from Trentino is the Gonzaga San Leonardo Rosso. On the indigenous front, the rare Teroldego is quite prized, given its enticing profile of plush berried notes and a savory quality, but it tends to not leave Italy’s borders.
Alto Adige’s Cabs are also quite trendy, yet many see potential in Pinot Nero, given that the area wholly satisfies all of this grape’s demands, including high altitudes and a distinct shift in temperature between night and day. Alto Adige’s native affairs, at the moment, largely involve Lagrein, which is vinified as both a rosso and a rosato. Known for its juxtaposition of the sweet and savory, Lagrein often delivers a rather pronounced and tannic character.
Despite the fact that they don’t receive much attention, the sweet wines of Trentino–Alto Adige are not mere also-rans in the region’s line-up. Trentino’s artisan Vin Santo producers utilize the appassimento process, much like those who craft the more famous Tuscan version. Unlike their Tuscan counterparts, however, Trentino’s winemakers stay exclusively in a circumscribed area, the Valle dei Laghi, the only subzone with a a climate conducive to the drying of grapes. The other two main dessert wines involve two sub-varieties of the Moscato grape, Moscato Giallo and Moscato Rosa. Trentino and Alto Adige both produce the wines concerned, the former of which may be derived from either ultraripe grapes (vendemmia tardiva) or appassimento. While quantities of all three dessert wines are fairly minimal, Trentino turns out a pretty sizable quantity of metodo classico dry sparklers, produced predominantly from Chardonnay and Pinot Nero, with a modest contribution made by Pinot Bianco.
Just as each Trentino and Alto Adige keep to their own winemaking pursuits, the provinces also cultivate their own signature specialties. Alto Adige finds its place of glory in the gourmet aisle with speck, an artisanally cold-smoked boned ham, aged according to local practices and traditions dating back to the 1300s. The small Alpine villages comprising the province possess abundant pastures, which account for the production of high quality staples such as Grana Padano and Asiago, as well as numerous traditional cheeses that are local exclusives; they they defy replication and are rarely found outside their zones of production, and they’re often paired with the local artisanal salame, Luganega Trentina.
Polenta is a Trentino staple, playing a fundamental role in the rather dense smacafam, baked with sausage, salt pork, and occasionally, cheese. Another menu regular, gnocchi (referred to as canederli or knödeln in the local dialect) offers diversity in its seemingly infinite catalogue of preparations, with strangolapreti, meaning “priest chokers,” being the most famous variation. You can also find dessert gnocchi in sweet, fruit-flavored versions such as canederli di albicocche (apricot) and canederli di marroni (chestnuts), sharing the meal’s end with Austrian-inspired strudels, puff pastries, and fritters.
A few IWM posts to help you make the most of your summer travel plans
Summertime approaches, and with the nearly even currency conversion rate, now is the time to visit Italy. I’ve only been twice, but Italy is never far from my mind. I spend a lot of time there in my imagination, if not in my body, and I live vicariously from other people’s visits. For these reasons, I wanted to compile my travel posts in one easy to read compendium. If you’re going–and you should–I want you to enjoy yourself, and I want to add a touch of esoteric travel to your schedule.
First, this post by my colleague Garret Kowalsky, who is in Italy right now, will help give you some solid basic advice. Garrett touches on points like check your schedules for Italian holidays, and he notes that it’s easier to visit estates in Toscana than in Piemonte. He is right on both counts.
My post on how to visit winemakers gets linked a lot by winemakers. While advice like make appointments, plan carefully and get an Italian cellphone may feel intuitive, my winemaker friends they’re shocked by how often simple visits go awry. All I can say is that going to wineries in Italy is nothing like going to wineries in Sonoma or Napa, where wine tourism is an accepted practice, and, indeed, it’s viewed as just another service that wineries offer. This is not the case in Italy, and this post gives you some essential information that will keep everyone from crying.
This past fall, I saw the film “The Trip to Italy,” and its paean to Italian food got me thinking about my favorite restaurants, mostly all in Tuscany (one is in Liguria), where I spent the most time. I made a brief list of my favorite dining experiences, with links to helpful webpages. All I can say is that if you have the opportunity to eat at any of these spots, you will be so happy. So, so happy.
Italians have a deep-seated sense of whimsy, and the things they do for fun are not necessarily the things we do for fun. You will not find amusement parks in Italy. You will, however, find three truffle museums and many sculpture parks. Going to Italy and not taking advantage of some of the more intensely Italian amusements is like going to Wisconsin and not eating bratwurst, going to Vermont and not enjoying maple syrup, or visiting New York City and not riding the subway. It’s counter-intuitive and silly. Here is my take on one Tuscan truffle museum, and here is a description of visiting a sculpture park, with links to a few others.
My best advice for visiting Italy, especially Rome, but, really, all of it is pretty simple: Get lost. Get lost in Rome. Ask when your town’s market day is, and visit it. Wander lonely as a cloud. Drink it all in, and let me know what you enjoy because, until I get to go back, I’m living through you.
A look back at the week that was
This week was all about serious thinking here at Inside IWM. We kicked off the week with part two of Francesco Vigorito’s series on building a serious Italian wine collection. He laid the foundation in part one, and in part two, Francesco talked Piemonte wines that every collector should have. As if picking up Francesco’s cue, Robin Kelley O’Connor took a long look at Barolo and explained why this wine is hot on the auction and collector market. On Tuesday, David Bertot gave his impassioned take on the Donnas’ under $25 “Mountain Barolo.” And on Wednesday, Emery Long took on the divisive topic of natural wines in the effort of helping you decide when you should go natural–and when you should reach for its opposite.
As much as our writers were taken by big thoughts about big wines, our experts were gripped by spring fever and the sheer joy of enjoyment. Garrett Kowalsky poured out a pair of 1998 Super-Tuscan icons from Tenuta dell’Ornellaia and Tenuta San Guido. On Thursday, Garrett’s brother Justin reveled in the spring weather and chose two classic white Burgundies, one from Gilbert Picq and the other from Domaine Leflaive. Crystal Edgar appreciates unusual wines, and she picked a pair from Fantinel’s boutique estate, La Roncaia, that offer full flavors of Friuli. And like Crystal, David Gwo opted to celebrate a single estate, but he chose the Rhône Valley’s E. Guigal, selecting Hermitage–one white, one red, both gorgeous.
Cheers to you, whether you’re simply enjoying the weather or thinking big thoughts with big wines!
A look back at the week that was
Last night, IWM NYC hosted a winemaker dinner with Tenuta dell’Ornellaia’s renowned Axel Heinz, and we’ve got that after-party feeling of exhaustion mixed with exhilaration. We finished the week with Robin Kelley O’Connor’s account of a lunch honoring renowned Bordeaux winemaker Patrick Léon, so you can’t fault us for feeling the party spirit. We began with a look back at Montalcino’s storied history and BBS11, the grape that launched this town and Brunello into greatness. David Gwo actually samples a bottle of Montalcino’s glory in Fuligni 2012 Rosso di Montalcino, an under $28 extraordinary wine. And Jessica Catelli asks the all-important question: Should you buy a wine by its label? The answer’s not as superficial as you might suspect.
Two of our experts stayed true to one producer in their selections this week. Garrett Kowalsky proclaimed his affection for Ada Nada’s affordable cru Barbarescos, and Crystal Edgar finds surprise and intrigue in Bodega Chacra’s old-vine Patagonian Pinot Noir. Our other two experts let recent wine experiences serve as their guides for their picks. Will Di Nunzio (who hosts this Saturday’s Big Red tasting) chose great wines from San Giuliano and Tenuta San Guido, and Francesco opted for a pair of vintage beauties from two Italian icons, Roberto Voerzio and Giuseppe Rinaldi.
It’s cold out there throughout much of the country. Here’s to great wine–and great company–to keep you warm!keep looking »