Getting to grips with grapes
May 8, 2020

Without crushing them… 

Vinnie has a rather catholic taste in music and at the moment he is listening to Cars Hiss By My Window by The Doors; the melancholic and distant feel of both the lyrics and the music reflect our mood during this period of isolation. Outside, Spring is working its annual magic and the leaves of the oak trees are bursting forth in vivid green – they are indeed beautiful, but it only serves to remind us that we should be in Italy now. So where can our musings take us to divert us from this involuntary incarceration? Well, a tour of the grapes of Italy would seem to be a fruitful way to distract ourselves. 

Most wine drinkers will be able to name a few grape varieties; names like  MerlotShirazCabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are all well known, but how many are there in Italy? There is a national registry of wine grape varieties which lists an astonishing five hundred and sixty nine! Climates in Italy vary enormously, from the Alpine north to the almost tropical south, with the Appenine Mountains running down the centre providing continually-changing altitudes. These, together with other factors, provide the differing conditions that are necessary to support such a wide range of grape varieties. 

If you have never seen grapes in the vineyard at harvest time, the first thing that will surprise you is the size; they are much smaller than the dessert grapes you buy in the shops. There is a reason for this – the colour of red wine comes from the skin and so the more skin, the more colour you can extract and deep colour is something that wine drinkers appreciate. The other thing you will find surprising is the flavour; if you are lucky enough to be visiting around harvest time, known as the vendemmia, be sure to taste the grapes. They are like little flavour bombs going off in your mouth – just fabulous. 

So what are the famous names to look out for in Italian grape varieties? Possibly the easiest way to tackle this in a brief overview is to look first at the North, then Central, and finally Southern Italy.

One of the dominant varieties in the North is Nebbiolo. The name roughly translates as foggy which is particularly appropriate given the climate in the Po valley which dominates this area. Strong in both tannins and acidity, in Piedmont this grape is used to produce the king of Italian wines namely Barolo and its consort, Barbaresco, the queen. Across from Piedmont, in the Veneto, famous red wines like Valpolicella and its big brother, Amarone, are produced. These depend, for the most part, on Corvina – the name means blackish and derives from corvo meaning a crow. It is typically thick-skinned with a flavour of sour cherry. We can’t ignore the great white wines produced here and the most famous would be Soave whose principal grape is Garganega. Alongside that, we  have Glera, the variety that produces Prosecco, the classic aperitivo across Italy.

Wine production in Central Italy is dominated by Tuscany where one grape variety towers above all others, namely Sangiovese. The name derives from sangue di Giove or the blood of Jupiter, the king of the gods – what a truly great name. This renowned grape is the principal ingredient of Chianti and the sole grape used for production of the celebrated Brunello. It also surfaces under the name of Prugnolo Gentile in Montepulciano and Morellino in Morellino di Scansano.

The South of Italy covers a huge area. Around Naples the grape of choice for the production of red wines is Aglianico although, if only for the name, Vinnie likes Piedirosso or red feet. Flanghina is a popular grape used for white wine in this area. The South is collectively known throughout Italy as the Mezzogiorno or midday and as you move towards the southernmost part of the peninsula the climate heats up and the landscape becomes drier. The varieties that do well here are predominantly red and produce deep full-bodied wines. Three of the most popular ones are Primitivo, known in America as Zinfandel, secondly, Negroamaro or black and bitter and, lastly, Nero di Troia or black of Troy. The latter name betrays the Greek roots of Italian wine-making in the millenium before the birth of Christ.

This can only be the briefest of overviews of Italian wine. To find out more, join Vinnie and I as we journey through this beautiful country and talk to the winemakers and learn more about the grapes they use in search of their own versions of wine heaven. 

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