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Weird and Wonderful Red Grapes of Southern & Central Italy

Italy is a colourful country of contradictions; it is at once steeped in tradition and seemingly unchanging yet also very modern and progressive on many fronts. We see this in the country’s renewed interest in native grape varietals and a return to more traditional winemaking techniques that highlight terroir all while not shying away from technological advances in the vineyard and winery.     

In fact, no other country boasts as many indigenous and traditional grape varieties.  The latest research indicates that 350 to 600 genetically distinct and commercially relevant varieties are growing throughout the country.  There could also be more that have yet to be identified and registered.  

We’ll begin by looking at some of these red grapes from Central and Southern Italy and in future posts we’ll make our way up north.

Aglianico 

A native grape to southern Italy, planted in Campania and Puglia.  It loves hilly, volcanic soils and has earned the nickname of “Barolo of the South” due to its high acidity and tannins. Oak and bottle ageing are necessary to make the wines more approachable. In the glass expect dark, powerful, structured reds that develop more complexity with age.   

Want to try Aglianico? Give D’Angelo Aglianico del Vulture a try.

Cannonau

Sardegna’s most widely planted grape! This grape is identical to Spain’s Garnacha or known as Grenache in France.  It was likely brought to Sardegna when the island was under Spanish rule. The grape loves warm, dry, granite soils. In the glass expect a medium hued wine with floral and red fruit aromas, full bodied, medium tannins and high alcohol.  F

Fun fact; this grape is planted in other parts of Italy where is goes by the names of Alicante (Toscana), Tocai Rosso (Veneto) and Gamay del Trasimeno / Gamay Perugino (Umbria).     

Want to try Cannonau? Try Dettori Renosu Rosso – coming soon!

Nero d’Avola 

This Sicilian red grape is historically known as Calabrese and is native to the coastal town Avola in the southeastern part of the island.  It is planted all over Sicily and requires lots of heat to ripen. It’s preferred method of training is alberello; a style of low bush training for the vines. At its best, varietal Nero d’Avola has a deep colour with aromas and flavours of dark fruit, Mediterranean brush and herbs. Generally full-bodied with fine tannins and lots of ageing potential, when matured in barrel.  

Want to try Nero d’Avola? Try Purato Nero d’Avola- coming soon! 

Nero di Troia

Widely planted in Puglia.  It has thick skins, which means high tannins, and moderate acidity.  Traditionally used in blends, but today found as a single varietal that is usually more refined than Primitivo or Negroamaro (less alcoholic, lighter body). 

Want to try Nero di Troia? Try Rivera Violante Nero di Troia- coming soon!

Negroamaro

An important grape for Puglia, as it is a part of the local Salice Salentino wines. The name translates to “black bitter” referencing the dark colour of the grapes and the bitterness of the tannins.  In the glass, you can expect black fruit aromas and a rich palate with high, natural acidity. Also makes delicious and intensely fruit-forward rosés.  

Want to try Negroamaro? Try the Taurino Salice Salentino Rosso- coming soon!

Primitivo

This is an early ripening variety planted throughout Puglia. Often linked to the Zinfandel grape, but more recently discovered that both Zinfandel and Primitivo genetically connected to an ancient Croatian grape called Crljenak Kastelanski.  Produces big, rich and often concentrated wines with lovely aromas and structure.

Want to try Primitivo? Try Paololeo Passo del Cardinale here.

Gaglioppo

As tasty, as it is fun to say; this grape from Calabria is the offspring of Sangiovese and also related to Sicily’s Nerello Mascalese.  Wines made from this grape offer red currant and raspberry aromas and flavours with subtle tobacco and clay notes. 

Want to try Gaglioppo? Try Librandi Ciro Rosso- coming soon!

Frappato

Mainly grown around the town of Vittoria in southeast Sicily.  This grape is traditionally used in blends, but more producers are making single varietal Frappato now.  In the glass, expect pronounced aromatics and floral, lively, fresh and juicy wines that are light in body and tannin. 

Want to try Frappato? Try Feudo di Santa Tresa Frappato- coming soon! 

Ciliegiolo

The name refers to “cherry” fruit. This grape is one of the parents of Sangiovese and is often used as a blending partner to soften the effects of Sangiovese in a blend.  Today. some producers are also vinifying it as a single varietal, too. Like the name suggests, expect lots of cherry aromas and flavours.  

Want to try Ciliegiolo? Try Fibbiano Ciliegiolo here.

Canaiolo

Before the 18th Century, Canaiolo was considered the main grape of Tuscany.  Plantings declined after phylloxera invaded vineyards, as the Canaiolo was difficult to graft. Today, it is mainly blended with Tuscany’s star grape Sangiovese to soften its acidity and tannins, while adding perfume and mouthfeel.     

Want to try Canaiolo? Try Montevertine Pian del Ciampolo- coming soon!

Montepulciano

Not to be confused with the Tuscan wine, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, where Montepulciano is the town and the grape is Sangiovese! Montepulciano is the main red grape of Abruzzo. Historically, the grape was used as a “vino da taglio” meaning a blending wine to add colour, body, and structure to lighter reds. There are many styles of Montepulciano, from light and fresh to rich and full.  This grape makes a delicious and deeply pigmented rosato (AKA rose wine) too.  

Want to try Montepulciano? Try Ilico Montepulciano d’Abruzzo or Montepeloso Eneo.

Nerello Mascalese

Native to Mount Etna and almost exclusively planted in that region. This is a late ripening grape varietal, known to express the terroir extremely well- in much the same way as Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir.  Pale to medium intensity, along with complex aromas of red fruit, herbs, spices; minerality, high tannin and alcohol with lively acidity.  These wines can be very elegant and nuanced.   

Want to try Nerello Mascalese? Try Cantine Paolini Etna Rosso here or Frank Cornelissen Munjebel Rosso- coming soon! 

PREVIOUS POST: Weird and Wonderful White Grapes of Southern & Central Italy

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