One of the natural delights of drinking Italian wine is that you have over 700 grape varieties to choose from. That’s right, over 700. By contrast, 93% of Napa and Sonoma Valley are planted with only eight varieties (in descending order: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel. Source: Vinography) Why is this?
Mostly because in Italy, winemaking has been going on for thousands of years. And that is no coincidence either. It happens that the Italian peninsula has very diverse but ideal terroirs for grape growing and winemaking. More on that below. Let’s first review the history quickly.
The first vines in the world to be trained and harvested were in the Caucasus region of Georgia in what is now Russia. Noted Natural Wine writer, Alice Feiring has just written a book about that.
Brought down through what is now Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon, wine arrived in the Mediterranean. I visited a Phoenician settlement on the island of Mozia in Sicily where wine was made 3,000 years ago. The Phoenicians, Etruscans and Greeks were all seafarers, who carried wine and winemaking technology around the Mediterranean.
Charlotte Horton, a winegrower in the southern part of Tuscany on the Monte Amiata (an extinct volcano that the Etruscans believed was home of their gods), has discovered Etruscan winemaking basins that probably date back 2500 years. (Read more)
Every fall at the end of the harvest, she puts the last grapes in the basin, presses them by foot and makes “Etruscan” wine by simply leaving the foot pressed must to ferment in her cellar.
This history dating back not just centuries but millennia, gave winegrowers plenty of time to figure out which grape varieties grew best in the diverse soil, climate and altitude of Italy. Some of the most interesting Italian wines come from volcanic soil which naturally protects vines from disease and pests. These pre-phylloxera vines south of Naples are over 300 years old.
And these, on the Etna volcano in Sicily are over a hundred years old.
This history with the fact that Italy has always been fragmented (by geography and by its political history) meant that practically every village developed its own wines based on what grapes grew well there. No centralized government under rulers like Louis XIV or Napoleon in France ever arrived. Italy was only united in the middle of the nineteenth century. Italians still tend to think of themselves as Tuscan or Sicilian rather than Italian.
The good news is that if someone tells me that a wine was made with Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, I know that it’s a red from the Etna volcano. If it’s a Nebbiolo based wine, it’s from the Langhe region of Piemonte (or if it’s Nebbiolo but called Chiavennasca, it’s from the Valtellina of Lombardia). The grape variety identifies the place the wine comes from.
The bad news is that this plethora of localized grape varieties means that there is no way to “simplify” Italian wine. The only way to learn is to start region by region tasting and learning the varieties. My database is still a work in progress, but it’s a place to start connecting grape varieties with the names of wines and the regions that they come from.
Choose a region and learn the grape varieties. Try the wines. An easy one is Toscana (Tuscany) where a large part of the red wine is made with the native variety, Sangiovese. (Leave aside the Super Tuscans made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc until your palate can recognize Sangiovese.)
Or begin with Sicilia (Sicily) which has four major areas: Etna volcano, the Southeast near Vittoria, the northwest near Palermo, and the Island of Pantelleria. The varieties in broad brush are
Etna Reds: Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio
Etna Whites: Carricante
Vittoria Reds: Nero D’Avola and Frappato
Vittoria Whites: Grecanico
Near Palermo Reds: Nero D’Avola and Perricone
Near Palermo Whites: Catarratto and Grillo
Pantelleria White: Zibbibo (Read more)
And, I should note, that a variety like Nero D’Avola, found in two areas, tastes very different (much lighter) in the soil around Vittoria than from the soil around Palermo.
The diversity in native varieties along with the differences in climate, soil and winegrower methods makes Italian wine endlessly entertaining and pleasurable. You will never know everything, but you will have a lot of fun learning. The varieties are so closely tied with geography and history that inevitably, the wines pull you into Italian culture and food.
As a teaser, can you guess what part of Italy these fossilized shells came from?
A lot of Italy was under the sea at various times, meaning that the shells left behind millions of years ago lend minerality (crispness and elegance) to wine. When you combine the huge number of native varieties with this kind of terroir, the result is stupendous…and cannot be replicated elsewhere.
Keep reading Uncorked to learn about Italian wine. Check out the travel page if you want to plan a trip to see for yourself.
(Answer: Southern part of Tuscany near Siena at Pacina)