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.
Italy is a peninsula surrounded by the Mediterranean, Tyrhennian and Adriatic seas. Meanwhile, the imposing Alps run East to West in the Northern part of the country, while the lower elevation Apennines run from the North to South along the country’s central spine. Italy is like one giant vineyard; with so many available slopes providing ideal aspects for grape ripening, along with coastal influences and rivers to moderate temperatures, and an array of ideal soil types that have all contributed to Italy’s idyllic location for viticulture and winemaking.
Each region’s landscape offers unique growing conditions. This is reflected in the grapes that are able to grow there and the styles of wines being made. Some grapes are well travelled within the country, while others tend to stay put and are happiest at home. Learning about Italian wines could be a lifelong endeavour!
There is an abundance of ideal terroirs and distinctive native grapes all over Italy. It is worth stepping off the well-trodden path to be delighted by what you will find.
We’ll begin by looking at some of these grapes from Central and Southern Italy and in future posts we’ll make our way up north.
WHITE WINE GRAPES OF CENTRAL & SOUTHERN ITALY
This grape seems to appear everywhere in Italy; some of the Trebbiano grapes are related, others are not. The most common you’ll find is Trebbiano Toscano, also called Procanico in Umbria and Ugni Blanc in France.
Fun fact – Trebbiano di Soave and Trebbiano di Lugana are identical to Verdicchio Bianco from Le Marche region.
Like Trebbiano, you will find Malvasia growing all over Italy. The name is applied to a range of grapes and many are unrelated. Malvasia can be a white, pink or dark grape. Generally, all Malvasia varieties produce wines that are aromatic and ripen to high sugar levels.
Want to try Malvasia? Give Paoloeo Malvasia Salento a taste.
One of Campania’s most ancient grapes and is grown all over the region and vinified as a single varietal and used in blends. In the glass expect pronounced aromatics, floral, herbal, sage, apple, pear, peach and tropical fruit. It can make many styles of wine, but is usually dry and unoaked highlighting freshness with its naturally high acidity.
Want to try Falanghina? Give Irpinia Falanghina Corte di Giso a taste. Coming soon!
This is the main white grape of Orvieto (in the Umbria region) where it is blended with Procanico (aka Trebbiano Toscano) to create a crisp style of white wine. Expect aromas and flavours of citrus, stone fruit as well as high acidity and a mineral quality with a light to medium body. Fun fact: there is another unrelated “Grechetto” grape planted in Umbria called Grechetto di Todi. Sometimes producers differentiate between the two…but not always!
Want to try Grechetto? Give Fontella Orvieto Classico a taste.
Greco is another ancient grape from Campania that is at its best around the village of Tufo. Also known as Greco di Tufo. It is not an easy grape to grow nor to make wine with as it oxidizes easily and can have high levels of volatile acidity. When handled well, the wines are well-structured, with high acidity and a round, full texture. Some can benefit from bottle age. (There is an unrelated Greco Bianco from Calabria).
This is traditional, though not native to, the Sicily region. The grape has been identified as Garganega, which is the main grape of Soave from Northern Italy’s Veneto region.
Want to try Grecanico Dorato? Give Frank Cornelissen Munjebel Bianco a taste. Coming soon!
This is an ancient Sicilian workhorse varietal that historically made up the base of Marsala wine. It is the most planted white grape in Italy. Today, it is used for producing easy drinking whites and it can be very useful in Italian blends.
Want to try Catarratto Bianco? Give the Purato Catarratto Pinot Grigio blend a taste. Coming soon!
A high quality Sicilian grape that results from a natural crossing of Catarratto Bianco and Zibibbo (aka Muscat of Alexandria). The grape is used for Marsala production, but also for dry wines. As a modern and dry style of wine, you can expect fresh grass, grapefruit, passion fruit and a briny quality.
Want to try Grillo? Try the Feudo di Santa Tresa Rina here. Coming soon!
The Sicilian name for Muscat of Alexandria. In Arabic, zabib, means raisin and Zibbibo is often used for making passito (a dried grape process for winemaking) wines on the island of Pantelleria.
Want to try Zibbibo? Give the Cantine Paolini Zibbibo a taste here.
This grape thrives in warm. sunny climates by the sea (who wouldn’t?) and is at its best on the granite soils of Gallura in Sardegna. Fun fact; this grape is genetically identical to Piemonte’s Favorita and Liguria’s Pigato, which also make wonderful mineral-driven white wines. These grapes have been growing in those areas for centuries.
In the glass. expect floral and fruit, herbs, stony minerality, refreshing acidity. The palate can be full, sometimes high in alcohol, and can develop smoky notes with age.
Want to try Vermentino? Give Pianirossi Vermentino a taste.
This is Le Marche’s most important white grape and considered one of Italy’s noble native varieties. Once thought to be native to Le Marche, DNA analyses have proven that Verdicchio is genetically identical to Veneto’s Trebbiano di Soave. In the glass. it has a greenish hue (“verde” means green in Italian) along with floral and citrusy flavours. The palate is minerally and well structured.
Want to try Verdicchio? Give Belisario Terre di Val Bona a taste here.
This once popular grape, native to Le Marche, nearly went extinct in the 20th century as it fell out of favour due to its irregular ripening and low yields. Thankfully, in the 1980s producers in Le Marche helped revive this varietal. It is also planted in the Abruzzo region. This high altitude loving grape ripens to high sugar levels balanced by the grape’s naturally high acidity. In the glass it is herbal, citrusy, structured and mineral focused- sometimes reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc.
Want to try Pecorino? Pick up a bottle of Illuminati Pecorino here.
Native to Puglia (and unrelated to the Bombino Nero grape), wines made from this grape have high natural acidity and subtle aromatics. Fun to say and fun to drink.
Want to try Bombino Bianco? Try Rivera Bombino Bianco here.
COMING UP NEXT: Weird and Wonderful Red Grapes of Southern & Central Italy