There’s a sea change happening in Italian wine: more and more producers are returning to the 500+ native grape varieties found in Italy alone. No other country can claim such a sheer diversity of grapes. Consider that 90 percent of French wine comes from only 15 grape varieties and 90 percent of Californian wine is made from a mere 10.
While the common French varieties (Chardonnay, Cab, Merlot) spread across Italy over the last few decades – in large part to help gain access to international markets – many Italian producers are now looking for alternatives. They’ve got a rich wealth of options right at their doorstep, reviving and experimenting with their indigenous grapes – and, in some cases, rescuing them from extinction.
This was one of several key messages I took away from Vinitaly’s Edmonton roadshow on May 2, 2017. Vinitaly is the world’s largest wine show, held annually in the spring in Verona. Vinitaly also runs a travelling roadshow every year, and one of this year’s stops was Edmonton. That’s pretty exciting, as Edmonton is a fairly small market and we often get overlooked for Calgary, if shows even decide to stop in Alberta (which they often don’t).
The opening plenary was entitled Italy North to South: The Regionality, Diversity and Native Grapes. It was hosted by Ian D’Agata: Vinitaly’s scientific director, Vinitaly International Academy’s scientific advisor, and a wine writer with a 25 year career. He’s a pretty remarkable guy: a medical doctor by trade as well as a much-lauded expert on Italian wine. His book The Native Wine Grapes of Italy was published in 2015 and is the definitive guide to that country’s indigenous varieties. (It’s also my most recent wine book acquisition – stay tuned for a review.)
D’Agata’s Italian wine knowledge has been described as “encyclopedic” and I would certainly agree with that descriptor after attending his seminar. He casually tossed out informed commentary on wines, wineries, grapes, vintages, terroir, geography without having to glance at any notes. Also, that laugh? Yeah, that’s a laugh you don’t forget.
It was my preferred style of tasting, too: conversational, tangential and elevated beyond a 101 level. D’Agata mentioned, at the end, that it may have been a different format of tasting than people were used to, as it focused on detailed information on the subjects at hand, rather than worrying whether we were tasting raspberries or blackberries or blueberries. I found that incredibly refreshing, but at least one person disagreed with me – a couple days after the tasting, I overheard someone complaining that the tasting was “useless to service.” I think either she missed the point entirely, or she needs to work on her wine knowledge. I’d be tickled pink if more servers in the city could engage on a deeper level with this stuff.
I recorded the session and listened to it again while taking detailed notes, and I hope others did the same – it was such a deluge of intensive information that so much went in one ear and out the other at the time. The pace was also a bit quick, especially towards the end, as the session started a solid 40 minutes late. (A word of constructive feedback to the organizers: being on time is key, especially when you have a group of professionals who’ve booked multiple tasting sessions that day.)
The following are my notes on the 15 wines that we tasted during Vinitaly’s opening plenary. These were all benchmarks in some way, either of the grape variety and/or the producer. (In other words, they were all pretty damn good.) I’ve included some commentary provided by D’Agata (my paraphrasing, not verbatim) as well as my own tasting notes.
Ruggeri ‘Giustino B’ Prosecco Valdobiaddene Superiore DOCG Extra Dry, 2015 (Veneto)
D’Agata: The sign of a good Prosecco is a creamy mouthfeel – too many are thin and tart, one-note wines with faults that are trying to hide behind bubbles. There’s a fashion for very dry wines right now, but Glera (the grape variety used to make Prosecco) reaches its peak aromatics when made Extra Dry (which, contrary to the name, has a bit of residual sugar).
Mel: Now THIS is what a Prosecco should taste like. A delicate, classic white peach nose followed by a beautiful, creamy mouthfeel wrapped around a core of acidity. Leave the bottle.
Tiberio Trebbiano d’Abruzzo DOC, 2016 (Abruzzo)
D’Agata: The name of the wine is Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, but the name of the grape variety is Trebbiano Abruzzese – they are often used interchangeably, but this is incorrect. Also: don’t just call it Trebbiano, the same as, when talking about Pinot Noir, you wouldn’t just call it Pinot – just as there are many different Pinots, there are many different Trebbianos – eight, in fact – and they all make very different wines. This sloppiness in Italian wine nomenclature needs to stop: specificity is critical if we’re ever going to raise the global bar of Italian wine quality and knowledge.
Why? For years, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo was famous as a cheap wine but that’s because the vineyards were actually a shit mix of Trebbiano Abruzzese and several other varieties (Bombino Bianco and Mostosa, among others) that were once erroneously believe to be all the same thing. When isolated and grown on its own, Trebbiano Abruzzese can make some pretty damn fine wines, but not when co-planted with several other varieties that all ripen at different times and need different growing conditions.
Mel: There’s nothing cheap, thin or green here. Instead, this is a wine that’ll have you thinking of strolling through Florida’s orange groves at harvest. Also, I solemnly swear to be specific forevermore when talking about Italian grape varieties, Dr. D’Agata. I even bought your book to help me with this.
Graziano Pra ‘Otto’ Soave DOC, 2016 (Veneto)
D’Agata: There’s a huge drop-off in quality when you get past the top four estates making Soave. There’s a veritable Soave ocean out there, but most tends to be thin and tart. Usually Soaves are 100 percent Garganega, but the top ones are 70/30 blends of Garganega and Trebbiano di Soave – showing that there’s something to Trebbiano di Soave that should be explored further.
Mel: A profusion of lime flowers and a hint of mineral alongside very ripe lemon, at turns salty and creamy on the palate. It’s like sinking into a salted milk bath in the middle of an orchard in bloom.
Santa Maria la Palma Vermentino di Sardegna ‘Blu’ DOC, 2016 (Sardegna)
D’Agata: Vermentino is one of Italy’s hottest white grapes right now, alongside Pecorino. It’s so popular, in fact, that the French are using this Italian grape name on the labels of their Rolle – Vermentino’s French synonym. That is possibly the highest compliment a French winemaker could give. Sardegna lives and dies with Vermentino, as it’s the region’s most planted variety. It’s also chameleonic: a dead ringer for Sauvignon Blanc when harvested early, it undergoes a complete metamorphosis when left to ripen a few more weeks. For the scientists in the crowd, that’s because it loses the thiol molecules that gives Sauvignon Blanc its signature passionfruit, guava and gooseberry flavours, and instead has more terpenic molecules, which contribute musky, herbal qualities.
Mel: You’re sitting in a patch of sun-baked mint high on the windswept hills overlooking the sea when a strange lizard passes by. The lizard speaks to you in French: “Oui, d’accord. Vous gagnez ce tour.”
Sartarelli ‘Tralivio’ Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore DOC, 2015 (Marche)
D’Agata: This is a benchmark Verdicchio producer that is devoted solely to a single grape, Verdicchio. Half of the wines produced in Le Marche are made from this grape, though its origins are unclear: it may have been introduced by way of Veneto back in the 15th century and indeed, Verdicchio is similar to Trebbiano di Lugana and Trebbiano di Soave, two Veneto varieties. The name “Tralivio” means “among the olive trees” – it’s very typical, in this area, for vineyards to be interspersed with olive groves.
Mel: Am I drinking Manzanilla sherry? The nose hints of fresh-pressed apple juice and a slight oxidative quality but then you’re slapped in the face with a bracingly bone dry, mineral-rich palate with a good dose of salinity on the finish. Pass the raw oysters, stat.
Ronco del Gelso ‘Toc Bas’ Friulano Isonzo del Friuli DOC, 2015 (Friuli)
D’Agata: Isonzo is a flatland river plain and the area is gravelly and hot – proving that not all great wine has to come from hillsides (though this is often the case). The grape variety is Tokai Friulano but the wine is called Friulano, because Hungary decided they had dibs on the Tokai name. It’s tricky to make good wine from this grape in Friuli, as it has thin skins and doesn’t like rain. This winemaker takes chances and harvests late, in order to give additional aromatics.
Mel: Very dry, high acidity, herbal, white peach, citrus, elegant. Maybe I’ve got palate fatigue at this point because my creative faculties are failing – but this is tasty, don’t get me wrong. On to the reds!
Tasca d’Almerita Guarnaccio Perricone Sicilia DOC, 2014 (Sicilia)
D’Agata: Perricone is a grape variety that has something to say and we’re just starting to listen. A Sicilian exclusive that was previously co-planted with Sicily’s plentiful Nero d’Avola vines, Perricone is now being explored as a monovarietal by more producers. It’s interesting and shows promise, but we’re only at the beginning of seeing what it can do.
Mel: Red candy, round and juicy but a bit blank in the middle; a hint of tar. Okie dokie.
Bricco dei Guazzi Albarossa Piemonte DOC, 2013 (Piemonte)
D’Agata: Albarossa is a non-natural grape: it’s a crossing, a laboratory-made grape variety, just like Müller-Thurgau, Vidal and Kerner. It was created by Giovanni Dalmasso in 1938, who thought he was crossing Nebbiolo with Barbera – but, the joke was on him because he actually had Nebbiolo di Dronero, also known as Chatus. Nonetheless, Albarossa is a very high quality crossing that’s heavily underrated, probably because of the bad reputation of poor quality wines made from other crossings, like the infamous Blue Nun made from Müller-Thurgau. We’re going to hear more about Albarossa.
Mel: This eschews most fruit, save red cherry, in favour of dry rock, a hint of tobacco and white pepper. I love weird, uncommon wines so I’ll definitely be seeking more Albarossa out. I also have a special place in my heart for Frankenstein grapes, shitty German whites aside.
G.D. Vajra ‘Kye’ Freisa Langhe DOC, 2013 (Piemonte)
D’Agata: This is one of the greatest unknown wines of Italy, made from one of Italy’s noblest grape varieties. Freisa is a very close relative of Nebbiolo and they smell very similar, but Freisa has a much tougher tannic structure than Nebbiolo so it must be handled very deftly to produce a good wine.
Mel: Some floral violet and tarry aromas – yep, this is definitely related to Nebbiolo. It’s quite juicy, but those tannins are indeed rather hard; I want to set this down in the dark and come back to it in 10 years.
Varvaglione Cosimo Collezione Privata Negro Amaro dei Salento IGP 2013 (Puglia)
D’Agata: Negro Amaro is one of the two big grape varieties of Puglia, the other being Primitivo (Zinfandel). Also, spell it correctly: it should be two words, Negro Amaro, not one as many people erroneously list it. Negro Amaro gives Puglia outstanding rosatos, great light reds, and age-worthy heavier reds if you air dry the grapes as for Amarone. So it’s basically a jack-of-all-trades, and an underrated one, at that.
Mel: Warm red fruit, cherry, fairly sleek with a hint of flowers and black pepper on the finish. It’s not rank or punchy as I sometimes find Negro Amaro to be, which is nice. I can’t really explain it any better than that but you’ll know what I mean if you’ve had cheap Negro Amaro.
Marotti Campi ‘Orgiolo’ Lacrima di Morro d’Alba Superiore DOC 2014 (Marche)
D’Agata: This is one of the most interesting wines of the tasting – stick your nose in the glass, take a whiff and you’ll immediately understand why. Lacrima di Morro is an aromatic red grape, just like the Muscat family of white grapes. If you don’t like this bottle, don’t bother trying any others – it doesn’t get much better. However, Lacrima di Morro does become a bit less pungent with age and it really should get some bottle age before you crack it open.
Mel: Did grandma get too close to the candles and singe her hair again?
Torre dei Beati ‘Cocciapazza’ Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC 2012 (Abruzzo)
D’Agata: Montepulciano will be one of the hottest red wines in Italy within the next five to 10 years – and it won’t just be known as a mere barbecue wine, either. This benchmark wine proves the potential of this variety.
Mel: Fuck yeah this is good.
Madonna della Granzie ‘Bauccio’ Aglianico del Vulture DOC, 2009 (Basilicata)
D’Agata: Aglianico is one of Italy’s noblest red grape varieties. It will grow just about anywhere and gives pretty good wine everywhere too, but it loves volcanic soil best. The top Aglianicos come from volcanic regions, where they attain a depth and complexity that just isn’t found elsewhere. This is why Aglianico from Basilicata, Italy’s second smallest wine region located between Italy’s heel (Puglia) and toe (Calabria) is so good. If you visit this region you’ll see the extinct Vulture mountain, which has seven peaks and apparently looks like a vulture with its wings outspread. The locals will tell you this story, but D’Agata says he has been there 36 times and swears it looks nothing like a vulture until you’re drunk.
Mel: As deep and dark as the black rock of ancient lava beds, with tannins that’ll stain your teeth like blood stains the pale flesh of a carrion bird’s neck. In a good way. But maybe don’t serve this on a first date.
Rocca Bernarda Novecento Selezione della Fondazione Pignolo Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC, 2008 (Friuli)
D’Agata: The Pignolo grape variety takes its name from the Italian word for pinecone, pigna. This is a reference to the very tight bunches of grapes that this variety produces. It is among the top three most tannic Italian varieties – give it at least eight years before it becomes drinkable, seriously. Producers are currently working on softening them up to make them more approachable when younger (without dumping in a bunch of Merlot like they used to). There are about 30 producers of Pignolo in Friuli right now; back in the 1980s you’d be lucky to find three – so there’s increased attention on this variety.
Mel: Yep, it’s still pretty tight even though it has spent almost a decade in the bottle. But it’s not hard, and I could see myself getting down with this variety – it’d be a good reason to bust out the ol’ decanter, that’s for sure.
Donnafugata ‘Ben Rye’ Passito di Pantelleria DOC, 2014 (Sicilia)
D’Agata: Remember to be specific when talking about the grape variety of this wine and call it Muscat of Alexandria, because Muscat alone does not exist – it’s a family of several different varieties. This grape loves the heat and the sun, resulting in rich and heady aromatics. This particular dessert wine can also age at least 10 years.
Mel: The aromas and flavours tell you exactly what to pair with it: figs, raisins, honey. Get to work on that dessert.