Italian Grapes from A to Z
Dark and brooding, this intense red grape arrived in southern Italy centuries ago from Greece (the name is a corruption of ellenico, i.e., Hellenic). Grown now primarily in Basilicata and Campania, its wines are usually fiercely tannic, smoky and full of robust dark-berry flavors. They also age well—decades, for the best bottlings.
Barbera is almost always thought of as Piedmont’s “B” grape, and not just because it starts with that letter—more because it lives in the shadow of Nebbiolo. But when carefully made (and not over-oaked) it is responsible for elegant, medium-bodied reds that carry their sour-cherry and spice flavors along a line of vibrant acidity.
This exotic grape variety, grown mostly in southern Italy’s Campania region, makes luscious, full-bodied, floral white wines marked by rich pear and honey-spice flavors. A subregion in Campania called Fiano di Avellino creates the most sought-after bottlings.
The principal grape that’s used in Soave (a demarcated region near Venice that has undergone a renaissance in recent years), Garganega produces white wines that might be considered just shy of medium-bodied, with citrus and melon fruit and often an almondy finish.
This robust red grape variety is planted throughout central Italy, but it does best in the Abruzzo and Marche regions. There, in wines labeled Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo and Rosso Conero, respectively, it creates plummy, forceful reds with broad, soft tannins.
Piedmont’s most famous grape, responsible for both Barolo and Barbaresco, is also in many ways the region’s most difficult: It is grown successfully almost nowhere else, and its wines, when young, are often so astringent and tannic that they’re jarring. Given five or 10 years of age, though, Nebbiolo’s gorgeous perfume of roses, herbs, cherries and plums emerges, and the tannins soften to a silken grace.
Nero d’ Avola
Nero d’ Avola (translation: the black grape of Avola) is actually found throughout Sicily, and lately in places as far-flung as Australia and California. Its widespread appeal lies in its generous, ripe, black-fruit flavors and soft, enveloping tannins, which seem to embody an ideal of Mediterranean warmth.
This pale-skinned cousin of Pinot Noir thrives mostly in the north of Italy, particularly in the Friuli and Alto Adige regions. Though more full-bodied than Pinot Grigio, it still makes light-bodied white wines, often with flavors recalling crisp pears and green apples.
Probably Italy’s most famous grape, thanks to its role as the pivotal grape of Tuscany (and hence of Chianti), Sangiovese is grown throughout central Italy. It is responsible for everything from bargain-priced, berry-flavored, pizza-pairing reds to the thrillingly aromatic, complex, age-worthy wines of Brunello di Montalcino.
The most widely planted white grape variety in Italy, Trebbiano mostly produces bland, forgettable plonk—most of which, thankfully, doesn’t make it to the U.S. Yet it does make some appealing, affordable wines, and in the hands of a great winemaker (like Emidio Pepe), it takes on floral aromas and a luscious, even honeyed texture.
Confined to Italy’s Marche region—and to only two DOCs within Marche, dei Castelli di Jesi and di Matelica—this white grape variety is known for a subtle delicacy in both its fragrance and flavor. Imagine fresh herbs followed by crisp, lemony citrus notes.
One of Italy’s most compelling white grape varieties, Vermentino is grown up and down Italy, but almost always by the coast (in Liguria, for instance, as well as in Tuscany and Sardinia). There, the cool climate seems to bring out its best qualities: fresh, focused acidity; savory, lightly herbal flavors; and a complex, minerally finish.