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Native Italian grapes: Benchmark wines from Italy’s top varieties

Italy's generous bounty of indigenous varieties can be a pleasure to explore. Below, our experts highlight some key varietals and list some of the best wines...

Italian estates have traditionally played it safe by investing in Chardonnay and Merlot rather than risk it with native grapes. But home-grown varieties are fighting back, writes RICHARD BAUDAINS.

There has probably never been such a high awareness of local, native varieties, or so many success stories involving regional wines. In a market where consumers are always jostling to find a boutique producer or an unknown grape variety that expresses its terroir, Italy has always been a great source with its near-endless array of indigenous grapes. The following examples show what Italy can do when it begins to get serious about its native grapes.

Aglianico

By Andy Howard MW

Aglianico is sometimes called the ‘Nebbiolo of the south’, but this really doesn’t do the grape justice. Like Nebbiolo, wines made from Aglianico have inherent quality and a remarkable ability to age, with many examples showing alluring floral aromatics when young, and developing spice and herbal nuances with time in bottle.

Aglianico can be found across southern Italy in Molise, Puglia, Calabria and Sicily, but it is within Campania and Basilicata that it reaches its finest expression.

Volcanic influences can be seen in many, but not all, of the key Aglianico areas. However, the type (and timing) of volcanic activity is markedly different across Campania and Basilicata. Taurasi is influenced by its proximity to mount Vesuvius, with deep wind-blown ash from relatively recent eruptions having a marked impact on soils, in turn accentuating smoky, mineral characters. In neighbouring Basilicata, the finest vineyards are located on the steep eastern flanks of the ancient Mount Vulture, a volcano extinct since the Pleistocene era.

Winemakers across both regions have adapted their methods and are now allowing Aglianico’s inherent quality to shine. Greater focus on the vineyard and a gentler approach in the winery are yielding floral, fine wines that have great terroir character, yet manage to retain Aglianico’s remarkable ageing ability.

Benchmark Aglianico:

Mastroberardino, Radici, Taurasi

Intense, pure fruit allied to subtle oak, fine tannins and elegance. Some smoky, mineral flavours starting to appear. Ultra refined. A wine with real sense of place.

Elena Fucci, Titolo, Aglianico del Vulture

A potpourri of dried leaves, complex spices and herbal/balsamic notes. Plenty of tannic grip on the palate, balanced with pure, vibrant dark fruit. Will age for several decades.

Feudi di San Gregorio, Serpico, Irpinia Aglianico

Hugely concentrated with impenetrable colour. Although there is great fruit density here, the wine retains wonderful lift

Fiano

By Richard Baudains

Fiano is southern Italy’s most interesting native white variety by some distance. It makes a typically steely, dry wine with a firm structure and delicate-but-complex aromas characterised by a distinctive note of toasted hazelnut. It is fresh and immediate but, like all thoroughbred whites, it also develops with bottle age.

The variety is planted widely across the southern peninsula, and is also present in places as far apart as the Marche and Sicily. It is native to Campania, where it appears as the principal grape in the reliable, if rarely exciting, DOC blends of Cilento and Sannio. Fiano shows its best on the high, volcanic slopes of Irpinia in the province of Avellino, where it originated and where it now enjoys DOCG status.

Yields can be irregular, but producers love its resilience. As Angelo Valentino, winemaker at Macchialupa, recounts: ‘It is a grape you can leave on the plant until it’s ripe, without worrying about the weather.’

Its thick skins also make it suitable for late-harvested or even passito wines. Some producers also use oak, in a trade-off that works to the advantage of body, but at the expense of varietal aroma.

Until the mid-1990s, Mastroberardino’s Vignadora selection offered virtually the only opportunity to taste Fiano di Avellino at its classic best, but there is now an ample selection of top-quality Fiano in circulation. Raise a glass to that.

Benchmark Fiano:

Colli di Lapio, Fiano di Avellino

A nose of spring hedgerows, hazel and ripe pears; the palate starts off round and soft, and finishes long and dry; a fresh and appetising taste, with a great underlying structure.

Luigi Maffini, Kratos

A ripe-fruit nose with peach, apricot and pineapple jostling for attention at the front, and a touch of milky hazelnut in the background; a soft, juicy palate with a long, fresh finish to it.

Macchialupa, Fiano di Avellino

Delicate fruit and a nutty character on the nose; lots of energy on the palate, with a broad structure and a long, dry finish; a little closed, but shows a lot of promise.

Frappato

By Susan Hulme MW

Frappato is Nero d’Avola’s partner in Sicily’s only DOCG wine, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, in which it is permitted to make up 30%-50% of the blend.

One of Sicily’s oldest varieties, cultivated in a small area between Vittoria and Siracusa, Frappato is likely a sibling of Calabrian Gaglioppo. I have been impressed by single-varietal Frappato wines I have tasted for the sheer pleasure and enjoyment they provide: they are light, fruity, amenable wines with a delightful aroma and flavours of fresh strawberries and herbs.

Benchmark Frappato:

Cantine Paolini, Frappato, Terre Siciliane

Full of sun-warmed strawberries, herbal notes and white pepper spice. Pretty red fruits, juicy acidity and light tannins result in a lively, fun wine that is so easy to drink.

Occhipinti, Il Frappato, Sicilia

A biodynamic 100% Frappato. It’s a more serious, elegant version of Frappato. Inky and full of fresh red fruits; floral, crunchy and crisp.

Nicosia, Frappato, Sicilia

Tangy, ripe strawberry juice character wrapped in a dry body with touches of wild herbs and damp earth.

Freisa

by Marisa Finetti

Freisa is the wild and more rustic kin of one of the world’s greatest cultivars, Nebbiolo. It derives its name from the Latin word freisa, meaning strawberry. This is an ancient variety found in Italy’s northwestern region of Piedmont, particularly around Chieri, the Monferrato, and the Langhe.

Genetic studies show that Freisa and Nebbiolo share a parent-offspring connection and, according to Ian D’Agata, author of Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs, Freisa is more likely Nebbiolo’s parent.

This would explain their similarities, from the light ruby hue of their wines, to high tannins and acidity which contribute to its ageability. Like Nebbiolo, it is capable of producing a mesmerisingly perfumed wine of great structure, and is almost always a varietal wine.

The wine boasts two namesake DOCs – Freisa d’Asti and Freisa di Chieri – and is also present in Piemonte, Langhe and Monferrato DOCs, among others. The vineyard area for all Freisa grown is just over 1,000 hectares.

Produced in an array of styles from sweet to dry and still to frizzante and spumante, sommeliers are often drawn in by its profound combination of berry aromas, spice, earth, crunchy freshness and flavours of sour red cherries.

Benchmark Freisa:

G.D. Vajra, Kyè, Langhe

Kyè means “who is it” in the Piedmontese dialect, a playful nod to the little-known Freisa. Full of redcurrants and wild berries, baking spices and leather. It combines structured tannins with juicy succulence.

Giacomo Fenocchio, Freisa, Langhe
By Stephen Brook

Ripe sour cherries and cranberries on the nose, with a light toastiness. Richness and weight combines with concentration, slightly dusty tannins and ample refreshing acidity.

Borgogno, Freisa, Langhe
By Stephen Brook

Aromatic and floral nose, heady with aromas of cherries and coffee. Rich and suave, fine concentration of fruit, mild but supporting tannins, and good acidity that brings drive and punch.

Gaglioppo

By Susan Hulme MW

Gaglioppo, a red variety from Calabria, Italy’s ‘toe’ region, is one of the nation’s oldest grape varieties, dating back to a time when southern Italy and Sicily were colonised by the ancient Greeks.

It is the principal grape for wines in the Cirò DOC, situated near the town of Cirò on the Ionian coast, and has recently been shown to be a crossing between Sangiovese and Mantonico, a local Calabrian grape. The wines it produces are sometimes described as similar to a lighter, more savoury Nebbiolo.

Like Nebbiolo, it loses its colour easily and can have a reddish-orange tone. Andrew Johnson of London merchant WoodWinters says: ‘Gaglioppo is simply the most underrated grape variety I know of.’

Indeed, the message of the quality of the wines from this corner of Calabria has been slow to filter through to the outside world, but Italian wine specialist Walter Speller identifies the historic estate of Librani as a trailblazer for this appellation. Speller points out that the release in 1988 of Gravello, an award-winning Gaglioppo-Cabernet Sauvignon blend, paved the way for wider international recognition.

Gaglioppo can also be made into a rosé wine. DWWA Regional Chair Richard Baudains notes that two million bottles of rosato are made in the Cirò appellation every year. The wines are generously alcoholic with lots of plump, ripe fruit, although the trend is towards a lighter and fresher, but perhaps less characterful, style.

It is not an easy grape to vinify but when the producer gets its right, young Cirò wines have cheerful red cherry and floral aromas and a wonderfully soft, round, gulpable character. They also have an ability to marry with oak, which makes the toothsome Cirò riservas one of the top bargains from the south of Italy.

Benchmark Gaglioppo:

Sergio Arcuri, Il Marinetto, Calabria

By Susan Hulme MW

This dark orange rosé has bright aromas of citrus and strawberry fruits. With notes of mandarin, wild strawberry and orange peel on the palate. Medium-bodied, soft and round with an attractive savoury, pithy finish, it is flavoursome and full with a slight tannic finish. A more serious food rosé but good enough to enjoy on its own too.

Librandi, Gravello, Val di Neto, Calabria
By Walter Speller

Deep, complex and earthy dark fruit aromas, with cigar box and liquorice hints. Black cherry and damson fruit, with serious but polished tannins.

Calabretta, Cirò Rosso Classico, Cirò, Calabria
By Simon Woolf

Gaglioppo’s tannic character needs careful taming, and Calabretta knows just how to do it. This is full of sour cherry and cranberry fruit, spicy tannins and spine-tingling acidity. Demands a fatty pork dish.

Garganega

By James Button

Garganega is widely planted in Italy’s Veneto region and is the principle variety of both Soave and Gambellara. Studies have proven that Garganega is genetically identical to Sicily’s Grecanico.

If left to its own devices, Garganega produces high yields of lightly flavoured but aromatic grapes. But on the limestone and tufa soils of the Soave hills, where yields are kept in check and harvest can be delayed, it can produce beautifully perfumed, concentrated wines full of verve.

The styles of Soave tend to be unoaked for the Soave DOC, producing light, fresh, fragrant wines, and oaked for the Soave Superiore DOCG, giving more texture, weight and concentration of flavour which can carry the oak character.

Benchmark Garganega:

By Michael Apstein

Gini, La Froscà, Soave Classico

Wines from vineyards of this nature, regardless of country, need time. Rich with nutty undertones, while maintaining freshness.

Pieropan, Calvarino, Soave Classico

This delivers more stone fruit and less spice than the regular Soave Classico. Nonetheless, it still has gossamer elegance and invigorating freshness. A substantial wine.

Inama, Vigneto du Lot, Soave, Classico

Weighty and complex, with floral as well as stone fruit notes. It maintains Inama’s signature vivacity.

Grignolino

By Marisa Finetti

Grignolino is a wine named after the grape that is native to the Monferrato hills in the Piedmont region of Italy. Light in body and colour, with hues ranging from deep pink tourmaline to high-grade ruby, Grignolino is clean and stimulating, packing in aromas and flavours of berry, herbs and spice. Its bright acidity and freshness make it remarkably food-friendly.

It derives its name from the Piedmontese word grignolè, which means seeds. The word also refers to a grimacing expression, which would likely result from biting into something acidic or tannic. These are fair associations since Grignolino has remarkable tannins and carries more pips in each small berry than most other grape varieties. One can imagine that the resulting wine might cause a grimace – but more likely a smile – because Grignolino wines offer undeniable charm and energy.

‘In many ways, Grignolino is like a summertime version of Nebbiolo, with bright aromas of rose, sage, and white peppercorn but often more wild strawberry than dark, sour cherry, and is best enjoyed slightly chilled,’ says Kirk Peterson, a writer, educator and Italian wine ambassador in the US. ‘It has wonderfully crisp, crunchy acidity and a considerable amount of lip-pursing fruit tannins.’

Henry Davar, an instructor at Vinitaly International Academy, agrees. ‘Grignolino wines offer an aromatic profile not dissimilar to Nebbiolo, and have a similar sinewy structure – albeit on a smaller scale,’ he says.

Benchmark Grignolino:

By Aldo Fiordelli

Angelini Paolo, Golden Arbian, Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese

An elegant nose and austere palate in a sort of ‘Pommard’ style. Wild strawberry, cedar and chamomile flowers are present on the nose. A firm but not quite full body has austere yet ripe tannins, sustained by a refreshing acidity and a great peach tea flavour on the finish.

Castello di Uviglie, San Bastiano, Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese

Extremely intense and polished pomegranate fruit combined with violet and a depth of rhubarb. The wine is velvety and chewy with an austere finish, showing both a great structure and balance for ageing.

Vicara, Uccelletta, Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese

Pale garnet, almost ‘yellow’ as it is said in Italy. It shows great elegance with wild strawberry and dried rose on the palate, alongside dusty yet ripe tannins, and a vibrant acidity leading into a long liquorice- and mineral-laden finish.

Lagrein

By Richard Baudains

Lagrein has been recorded in the Alto Adige since the 16th century. Until fairly recently, over half the annual production went into a rosé called Lagrein Kretzer, but demand for reds in the late 1990s put the focus on the dark ‘Dunkel’ or ‘Scuro’ version, which has since become the flagship wine of the region.

Modern red Lagrein is the product of reductions in yields and a rethink of vinification. Urban Piccolruaz, from the Laimburg research station, sums up the winemaking process in four steps: ‘A maximum six- to seven-day soak at 30°C; delicate pumping over of the cap; immediate malolactic and straight into barriques.’

Provided you start out with fully ripe fruit, the result is a wine with a purple-ruby colour, bags of aroma and a luxurious texture. Ripeness is the key. Being a late variety in a northern region, Lagrein is vintage sensitive. It is also picky about soils. Urban von Klebelsberg, from the Abbazia di Novacella, explains: ‘Lagrein needs the opposite conditions to most premium varieties. It prefers flat sites to hillsides, and likes deep, coarse, alluvial soils and infernal heat.’

The centre of production is just outside Bolzano, at a place called Gries, where the tiny, walled vineyards are under siege from urban sprawl. Planting to meet the demand for the variety is going on in various sites in the Adige valley, but sticklers for terroir will want to look for the ‘Grieser’ mention on the label. Entry-level wines can be rather dull and, to get the full Lagrein experience, it pays to trade up into the Riserva category.

Benchmark Lagrein:

Muri-Gries, Riserva Abtei Muri, Lagrein, Alto Adige

A distinct nose of wild berries, with hummus undertones; fine-grained tannins, a firm structure and a subtle mineral finish. Get your hands on a bottle now.

Josephus Mayr, Unterganznerhof, Lagrein Riserva, Alto Adige

The Unterganznerhof has a spicy fruit nose with a touch of inkiness; it’s long, dry and juicy on the palate, and slightly light on the extract, but boasts fine tannins.

Produttori Santa Maddalena, Lagrein Riserva Taber, Alto Adige

A well-made example of the modern style of Lagrein, the Produttori Santa Maddalena has chocolatey oak in with the fruit, and soft tannins.

Malvasia Istriana

By Richard Baudains

As the name suggests, this particular member of the Malvasia family originated in Istria, from where it spread up the coast to what is now Friuli-Venezia Giulia in the 14th century.

Friuli is the only Italian region which grows the variety today. Traditionally it has been considered a minor grape, used mainly in blends rather than alone, but it is starting to find its own voice. Left to its own devices, Malvasia tends to make rather simple, dilute wines, but if yields are kept in check it is capable of whites with a personal, floral character, peachy fruit and great sensitivity to terroir.

On the limestone plateau above the bay of Trieste, Carso Malvasia is all tangy intensity. In the Collio and the upper Isonzo on the other hand, the wines are rich and round with impressive depth of fruit and often a distinctive spicy nuance.

‘Feminine’, says Nicòla Manferrari, who is one of the variety’s greatest supporters. ‘Mediterranean’, says Gianfranco Gallo, who has recently started bottling a special selection.

More elegant than Friulano (previously ‘Tocai-Friulano’) and more complete than Ribolla, and yet mysteriously less planted than either, Malvasia is – hopefully – heading for a revival.

Benchmark Malvasia Istriana:

Borgo del Tiglio, Collio

Elegant, complex, scented with aromas of pressed flowers, honeydew melon and a hint of walnut oil. Glossy, concentrated ripe fruit palate with white pepper on the finish. Very personal.

Skerk, Carso

Intense citrus and white blossoms on the nose, mouthwatering freshness on the palate filled out by masterfully handled lees ageing. Subtle fruit and a long, minerally finish.

Vie de Romans, Dis Cumieris, Isonzo

Sweet, floral nose, with hints of tropical fruit and cinnamon in the background. Soft, round and full-bodied palate with suave complexity and length on the finish.

Nerello Mascalese

By Stephen Brook

The appeal of Nerello Mascalese is easy to understand. Not only is it beautifully scented with red fruits, but the palate is marked by natural acidity that gives the wines poise and freshness.

The wines have the same power as Nero d’Avola and other southern grapes, alcohol levels being invariably 14% or more, yet despite their seeming fragility, they carry the alcohol well.

Nerello Mascalese is a grape that evokes the north rather than the Mediterranean, and its wines are more easily mistaken for Pinot Noir, Mencia, or Nebbiolo (especially aromatically) than for southern reds. Nerello may have more overt tannins than Pinot, but it has a good deal less than the often ferocious Nebbiolo.

Benchmark Nerello Mascalese:

Pietradolce, Barbagalli, Etna

Raspberry aromas infuse the nose, which is rich yet lifted and elegant, with great purity of fruit. It’s suave and very concentrated with imposing tannins, but not too extracted.

Benanti, Rovittello, Etna

Vibrant and minty, with crunchy raspberry aromas. It’s intense and very concentrated, with robust tannins that don’t obscure the fine texture. Has energy and drive.

Passopisciaro, Contrada R, Terre Siciliane

The raspberry-scented nose is rich and flamboyant, thrilling. It’s full-bodied, powerful and dense, with bold tannins, and it has structure rather than heat or extraction.

Pelaverga

By James Button

Pelaverga is a rare grape indigenous to the Piedmont region in Italy. Two DOCs produce wines from Pelaverga: Colline Saluzzesi DOC and Pelaverga Verduno DOC.

The former is in the Saluzzo hills in the province of Cuneo, while the latter covers the town of Verduno and extends to parts of neighbouring Roddi and La Morra.

Pelaverga grapes are bluey-purple in colour and can have a lot of bloom on the skins. The bunches are fairly large although the berries themselves are relatively small. Wines made from Pelaverga are light in colour but can have good intensity of flavour. They are notable for their fragrant character and good acidity.

Benchmark Pelaverga:

Castello di Verduno, Basadone, Verduno

Ripe and sweet in character, it has intense strawberry and cherry fruits backed by some textural weight. It’s delightfully fresh, with a plump, ripe expression.

GB Burlotto, Pelaverga, Verduno

Fragrant strawberry and herb notes combine with hints of Angostura bitters. In the mouth, the tightly bound strawberry and cherry fruits are outlined by a hint of iron savouriness, framed by some subtle tannins.

Fratelli Alessandria, Speziale Pelaverga, Verduno

A cherry nose is followed by a fairly intense mouthful of bitter-edged red and black cherries. Textured and spicy, it’s a delicious early-drinking wine.

Ribolla Gialla

By Richard Baudains

Ribolla Gialla does not have the aromas of a Sauvignon, the fruit of a Chardonnay, nor the body of a Tocai Friulano. Traditionally defined as a blending variety, for years it was excluded from the DOC of its native Collio and considered a commercial non-starter. This view is changing, however. Interest in native varieties and the swing towards easier-to-drink styles have led to a demand that is persuading producers that this variety has a future.

Much of the credit for the Ribolla revival belongs to Collio growers Josko Gravner and Stanko Radikon, and the Bensa brothers of La Castellada. They showed that, by treating Ribolla like a premium variety, you could get a premium wine. They also taught the region that Ribolla will age well in oak.

However, its appeal remains in what producer Marko Primosic calls its ‘honest drinkability’. It is a late-ripening variety that is sensitive to site. ‘If you make a mistake about where you plant it, you might just as well grub it up,’ says Ivana Adami, of the Ronco delle Betulle. The fact that it only does well on the premium slopes of the Collio and Colli Orientali means that a dramatic increase of production in the future is unlikely.

Benchmark Ribolla:

Primosic Gmajne, Ribolla Gialla Collio

Oak-matured Ribolla from Oslavia; a complex nose with fern and moss, and a hint of vanilla; a balanced palate with citrus.

Ronco delle Betulle, Ribolla Gialla Colli Orientali Rosazzo

Opens with candied fruit and a touch of vanilla; develops fresh and citrussy on the nose; excellent structure and length, with a broad, dry finish; will open up with time.

Vinai dell’Abbate Colli Orientali Ribolla Gialla

A classic example of the unoaked style from Abbazia di Rosazzo vineyards; light and dry, with aromas of hedgerows, apple and lemon peel.

Sangiovese di Romagna

By Richard Baudains

Romagna has not always enjoyed huge prestige as a wine region. Claudio Fiore, son of the Tuscan-based winemaker Vittorio, says that his decision to settle in Romagna was greeted with a mixture of derision by fellow winemakers.

That was in 2000. Today, Romagna’s native red variety is the most improved, and one of the most interesting, sources of Sangiovese in the country. Riserva styles are beefy and full bodied (even excessively so in some cases) while, one step down the DOC scale, ‘Superiore’ wines make supple, everyday drinking. Both categories represent good value for money, which is a good reason in itself to seek them out.

Another is that the wines generally give you straight, unblended Sangiovese character. Although the DOC allows the use of complementary (in this context, read international) grapes, the majority of top producers remain faithful to the monovarietal tradition – Sangiovese di Romagna is a wine, not a grape variety. There are bio-types that are typical to the region, but Tuscan clones are also widely used. The choice of clone in itself is probably not a determining factor.

As Cristina Geminiani, President of the Convito di Romagna producers’ association, stresses, what has really marked the break with the past is the new approach to vineyard management, which gets full ripeness out of the late-harvested Sangiovese, and allows producers to make wines of a richness unimaginable in the past in Romagna.

Benchmark Sangiovese di Romagna

Stefano Ferrucci, Domus Caia Riserva, Sangiovese di Romagna

A distinctive dark colour and a full, intense, wild-berry nose; a great fruit impact and volume on the palate, with a velvety, tannic finish.

Castelluccio, Ronco delle Ginestre

Bags of colour; slightly closed-up fruit on the nose; tightly-packed tannins and a long finish.

Tre Monti, Thea, Sangiovese di Romagna

Cherry brandy, bay leaf and mushroom on the nose.

Schiava

By Federico Moccia

Schiava has been a leading indigenous red variety in Italy since the 16th century. Its home is the region of Trentino-Alto Adige, once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, where locally it also takes the German name of Vernatsch.

Schiava can also be found in the nearby Lombardy region, but rarely as a monovarietal wine or as a leading grape in blends.

The finest expression of Schiava is found near the mountainous landscapes of the Dolomites, more specifically in the Trentino-Alto Adige DOCs of Südtirol and Lago di Caldaro, with the purest expressions to be found in the sub-regions of Santa Maddalena and Meranese, where Schiava thrives in the warm climate and high level of ventilation. Gravelly alluvial soil lines the slopes up to 500 metres in altitude, and a high diurnal range pushes the temperature variations.

These areas exposed to all-day sunlight but also to natural threats need an ally, so the traditional pergola training system is employed to protect the thin skinned grape from sunburn and hail, whilst supporting the bunches as they become heavier towards harvest time.

Schiava produces a red wine delicate in colour with crunchy, aromatic red fruits, floral notes with hints of violet, and a gentle acidity. It is silky in body with tannins that are never aggressive. It’s harmonious and elegant but complex on the palate, a beautiful marriage between wild berries and fine herbs. Schiava is usually drunk young but is capable of developing balsamic and leafy notes with bottle ageing.

Benchmark Schiava:

Cantina Girlan, Gschleier Alte Reben Vernatsch, Alto Adige

A fine illustration of just what this grape can achieve, made from vines over 90 years old.

Kellerei Meran , Fürst, Meranese, Südtirol

A juicy and succulent mouthfeel, with aromas of violets and dry almonds, subtle use of oak and hints of fine-grained tannins.

Waldgries, Antheos, St Maddalena Classico, Südtirol

Elegant and ripe red fruits alongside exceptional florality, crisp acidity and gentle tannins.

Tenuta Castel Sallegg, Bischofsleiten, Lago di Caldaro Classico

A single-vineyard wine where aromas of violet and intense blue fruits find their ultimate freshness, with smooth tannins and vibrant acidity.

Uva di Troia

By Richard Baudains

Legend has it that Diomedes brought this enigmatic grape to Italy following the sack of Troy. A more prosaic theory is that it is named after the village of Troia in the north of Puglia. It is the principal grape of the moderately well-known Castel del Monte Rosso, and contributes to various other local DOCs.

Highly regarded as a blending variety for its depth of colour – it is also known as Nero di Troia – it had never enjoyed particular celebrity in its own right. The first producers to cast it in the role of an upmarket monovarietal were the Rivera family from Andria. Other local wineries followed suit. Some come out as IGTs, others as Castel del Monte DOC.

The most interesting examples are sourced from the high plateau known as Le Murge, where the cooler climate and ferrous-limestone soils accentuate the spicy floral aromas of the variety and impart a mineral note. Uva di Troia wines are big on extract, which makes them suited to oak ageing and possible long living. Improved winemaking has smoothed a lot of the rough edges, but producers admit there is still work to be done. They can be encouraged by a vote of confidence from Randall Grahm, the Californian champion of ‘ugly duckling’ varietals, who was so enthusiastic about his first encounter with Uva that he commissioned it for his Bonny Doon label.

Benchmark Uva di Troia

D’Alfonso del Sordo, Guado San Leo

Subtle wild-berry fruit on the nose, and discreet oak; the firm, concentrated palate needs time

Rivera Puer Apuliae, Castel del Monte

A floral nose, with berries and pencil lead in the background.


Attilio scienza

Research scientist, leading expert in the DNA of vitis vinifera, agronomist, charismatic educator and indefatigable champion of biodiversity, Attilio Scienza is one of the most influential figures in Italian wine, and catalyst of the revival of native varieties.

As head of faculty at the University of Milan, he coordinates projects aimed at identifying, studying and preserving native varieties- and bringing them back into production. In Sicily, for example, he ran a 10-year clonal-selection project with the aim of creating a platform of local varieties for the island’s future production. Scienza calculates that there are around 1,000 named grape varieties present in Italy. Only 360 of these are included in the National Grape Variety Register and, of these, only 200 are in production.

Working at the interface between research and the industry, Scienza is under no illusions that commercial success is the key to survival of varieties at risk of extinction. ‘Grape vines shouldn’t be kept in collections like animals in zoos,’ he says. ‘They have to get out and make wine again.’ The greatest obstacles to their revival? In his opinion, flying winemakers who vinify all grapes as if they were Chardonnay or Merlot, and writers who disregard any wine that does not fit into a standard varietal tasting.

Rescued varieties

The native-grape revival has seen numerous varieties rescued from the brink of extinction. Some are destined to remain local curiosities, but others look set for greater things. Oseleta is a Valpolicella variety with distinctive character retrieved from oblivion by Masi, and is now a fixture in the Amarone blend. Vitovska is a unique, delicately scented white variety that producers from the Carso DOC zone in Friuli have adopted as their signature wine. The variety everyone wants to plant in Friuli-Venezia Giulia is the monstrously impressive red Pignolo. It is going to be big. Lacrima di Morro d’Alba is an exotically scented red launched by Stefano Mancinelli, which is now finding its way onto numerous lists in the Marche. The intriguing Timorasso, from the Colli Tortonesi, has the potential to become Piemonte’s top native white varietal. Two reds of obscure origin but very distinctive character, Casavecchia and Palagrello Nero, are causing a stir in Campania, while, in Calabria, the consultancy team of Attilio Scienza (see separate box, p13) and Donato Lanati are making great wines for Librandi from the rediscovered Magliocco (red) and Mantonico (white) varieties.


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