Wine-making in Italy goes back some 4,000 years. It has a climate and growing conditions well-suited to making wine and practically every corner of the country produces wine. It is also one of the most rich and diverse wine-making countries in the world.
Introduction to Italian Grape Varieties
Italy is the world largest producer of wine, producing 20% of the world’s wine, it has 20 wine producing regions, the highest number of grape varieties in the world with around 375 recognised, ‘official’ grape varieties and somewhere in the region of 2,000 varietal grapes – a number of which are rarely seen outside of Italy.
Each region has its own indigenous grapes and is very protective of their own varieties and methods of production for the resulting wines.
“If you tasted a new Italian wine each week, it would take you 20 years to taste your way through Italy”.
Top Red Grape Varieties
Sangiovese is the most widely-grown grape in Italy and is grown throughout the country. It derives its name from sanguis Jovis, “the blood of Jupiter”. It’s the main grape used to produce the popular red wines of Tuscany, such as, Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (that’s the place, not the grape!). It’s also widely grown and plays an important role for some the red wines produced in Umbria and Le Marche.
The world-renowned Italian red wines of Barolo and Barbaresco are made almost entirely from the grape Nebbiolo, grown in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy. Nebbiolo produces some of the most sophisticated red wines in Italy. It is said that the name Nebbiolo is derived from the Italian word for fog, nebbia. In October fog typically settles over the area of the Langhe where the grapes are grown or, alternatively, it’s name Nebbiolo due to the characteristic white-colored coating that appears on the skin of the grape late in the growing season.
Barbera is the most widely grown, indigenous, red grape of Piedmont in Northern Italy. Records exist of Barbera growing in the region as far back as the 13th century. Barbera wine is made in a variety of styles, generally offering low tannins, high acidity often sour cherry and red fruit flavors complemented by earthy overtones.
Montepulciano (the grape, not the place!)
Firstly, Montepulciano is a town in Tuscany, which has no relation to the Montepulciano grape. Montepulciano is the second most widely grown red grape in Italy (after Sangiovese) and is most noted in the regions of Abruzzo (Montepulciano d’Abruzzo) and Le Marche (Rosso Conero, Rosso Piceno, Offida Rosso) in Central Italy. It is also grown to a lesser extent in the regions of Puglia, Molise and Umbria.
Corvina is the main grape variety used to produce Valpolicella. Valpolicella is a wine zone in the Veneto region of Northern Italy and translates to “Valley of many cellars”. Corvina, native to this region, can be blended with Rondinella and Molinara to create Valpolicella.
Four distinct styles of Valpolicella are produced: Fruity Valpolicella DOC, dry Amarone (“great bitter”), Ripasso (repassed) and Recioto (sweet dessert wine).
Top White Grape Varieties
Pinot Grigio is Italy’s most popular white wine grown in the northeast regions of Alto Adige, Veneto, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, which produces some of the richest Pinot Grigio in Italy.
The most widely planted white grape in Italy and is grown throughout the country. It is mentioned in more than 80 of Italy’s DOC’s (“Controlled origin denominations”), although it has just seven of its own : Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, Trebbiano di Aprilia, Trebbiano di Arborea, Trebbiano di Capriano del Colle, Trebbiano di Romagna and Trebbiano Val Trebbia dei Colli Piacentini and Trebbiano di Soave.
Trebbiano is one of the grapes in the Umbrian white wine Orvieto and the Lazio wine of Frascati. Interestingly, it is also used to make balsamic vinegar!
The Verdicchio grape is predominantly grown in the region of Le Marche where there are two types: Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Verdicchio di Matelica. Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi is said to be the best European wine to pair with fish dishes. It is also grown in Umbria and Lazio.
Soave is located in the Veneto region of Italy and only white wine is produced in Soave. Soave must be made with a minimum of 70% of the Gargenega grape with the other 30% being Trebbiano di Soave – also grown here. Soave, along with Chianti, were the first zones in Italy to be recognised by Royal Decree in 1931.
Cortese is the exclusive variety of grape grown in the Gavi area in the region of Piedmont.
Prosecco is made with a minimum of 85% from the Glera grape which is produced in nine provinces spanning the regions of Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. The other 15% can be anyone or a combination of the following grapes: Verdiso, Bianchetta Trevigiana, Perera, Glera lunga, Chardonnay Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir. The name originated from the village of Prosecco near Trieste and also where the grape originated. If it’s not produced in the designated area it’s not Prosecco – it’s sparkling wine or spumante in Italian!
Other Varieties of Note
· Nero D’Avola is the dominant black grape of Sicily and is grown widely throughout the island.
· Primitivo (Zinfandel) is one of the most notable grapes grown in the Puglia region
· Anglianico, the most prestigious grape of the south and grown in the Campania region
Italy has successfully planted the vast majority of the international grape varieties it is the domestic vines that present the true flavour characteristics that have made Italian wines world-famous. The journey from vine to wine in Italy is probably the most complex in the world due to the sheer number of grape varieties, wine growing regions, techniques and the hundreds of years of wine making history they have under their belt.