Italy’s Varietals

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Italy has well over 1,000 grape varietals, over 400 of which are approved by the EU for wines produced throughout all of Italy’s 20 regions. Most are historic. Some are indigenous. Others were introduced into Italy by the Ancient Greeks, Crusaders, or traders from Europe, Africa, and Asia. Universities are committed to studying and preserving Italian varietals, as are local growers and winemakers. Included in this glossary is a list of some of Italy’s most important varietals.

Red Grapes

Aglianico: Grown in Southern Italy, this ancient Greek grape is deep in color with a thick skin. It is used to make the famous DOCG Taurasi wine and DOC Aglianico del Vulture. This is the vitis Hellenica, introduced to Italy by the Ancient Greeks around 600 BC.

Barbera: Found in the Piedmont region of Northwestern Italy, this grape has a high natural acidity and blackberry, black cherry, black raspberry and black plum flavors. It is second only to Sangiovese in acreage for red wines planted in Italy. Like Sangiovese, Barbera produces a range of wines from the simple to the sublime.

Bonarda: Also known as Croatina or Uva Rara, Bonarda can be vinified by itself or blended. It is the #1 varietal in Argentina.

Brachetto: Aromatic and fragrant, this varietal is often made to be charming, fizzy, off dry, and low in alcohol. Usually it is a rose with scents of roses and the taste of strawberries. Most popular is DOCG Brachetto d’Acqui from Acqui Terme in Piedmont.

Cabernet Franc: This native Bordeaux grape has been popular in Friuli and Veneto for over a century. In Trentino and Tuscany, it is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon. Universities have discovered that much of what was thought to be Cabernet Franc is in reality Carmenere.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Tuscan Cabernets are full of blackberry, black currant, cassis, eucalyptus, leather, mint and plum flavors. It is often the only variety or a component in the Super Tuscan wines. Cabernet Sauvignon, the uva Francesca, was introduced to Italy centuries ago.

Cannonau: This is the Grenache or Garnacha, brought to the dry, windy slopes of Sardinia by the Spanish. It accounts for powerful, dry island red wines. Carignano: The Spanish introduced Carignano to Sardinia in the 14th Century. It grows well in the Sulcis DOC zone in southwestern Sardinia. This grape varietal makes juicy, dark, full-bodied red wines.

Cesanese: Fast growing in popularity and prestige, Cesanese is the red vine of the Castelli Romani and Colli Albani regions just south of Rome. This varietal is aromatic, with notes of rosemary, sage, plums, and cherries. Usually it yields lighter reds to be enjoyed young.

Ciliegiolo: Introduced to Tuscany by the Spanish, this is a low acid grape with cherry nuances. It is generally blended into the big reds of Tuscany and Umbria. It is becoming more popular as a varietal, especially in costal Tuscany, where it yields rosés and light reds.

Corvina: Medium to port-like color with bursting red cherry flavor, this grape is the most important in Valpolicella and Amarone wines, usually blended with Rondinella and Molinara. Also called Corvina Veronese, this is a superstar red from the Lessini Hills near Lake Garda in Veneto.

Dolcetto: Dolcetto translates into English as “the little sweet one” in reference to its sweet taste when the grapes are ripe. Found in the Piedmont region, it is rich in color, dry with a spicy berry fruit flavor. In Liguria it is known as Ormeasco. The best Dolcetto come from Diano D’Alba and Dogliani.

Frappato: This is a spicy, wild berry red used to make Sicily’s DOCG Cerasuolodi Vittoria. Ampelographers are divided: Did it come from Spain or is it native to Ragusa?

Freisa: Best known for lighter, delicious red wines called Freisa d’Asti DOC, this varietal is marked by fragrances and flavors of strawberries. Enjoy young. Gaglioppo: Softly tannic and earthy with a robust garnet to red color, it is best known in Calabrian wines. There is some planted in Marche, Campania, Umbria, and elsewhere, but it is part of the best DOC reds of Calabria: Donnici, Lamezia, Melissa, Savuto, and most famously Ciró.

Grignolino: Produces crisp, tannic, highly acidic, pale hued, floral reds with nuances of pink grapefruit in Piedmont’s Asti and Monferrato zones.Try it with cheesy or cream based sauces. Fonduta, anyone? It takes its name from grignole, which means “pits” in the local dialect. Grignolino grapes have at least 3 pits. Lacrima: There are only a handful of producers of the cultish DOC Lacrima di Morro d’Alba from coastal Marche. It is aromatic, deep purple in color with the fragrance of violets and roses. When the clusters are ripe, juice seeps from its berries; hence lacrima (tears). Enjoy the wines young with poultry or other white meats.

Lagrein: Indigenous to Trentino-Alto Adige. Soft tannins and low acidity with almost blueberry-like fruit and mineral tones. Lagrein Dunkel (scuro) is the dark red. Lagrein Kretzer is the delicate rosato (rose).
Lambrusco: The wild red grape varietal of Emilia-Romagna. Very versatile with several important clones. It can produce rose or red wines, usually fizzy with low alcohol. Ideal with salami and prosciutto.

Marzemino: Wine from this aromatic grape was immortalized in Mozart’s operatic masterpiece, Don Giovanni. It is herbaceous, tangy, fruity with touches of walnuts and vanilla. You will find it in Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, and most importantly Trentino.

Malvasia Nera: (see Malvasia Bianca)
Merlot: Found in Northern Italy, this grape has blackberry, cassis, baked cherries, plums, chocolate and mocha flavors. Due to the similar flavors, it is often confused with and blended with Cabernet Sauvignon. It is softer than Cabernet and more prolific, especially in Friuli.

Molinara: Used to blend with Corvina for DOC Bardolino, Valpolicella, Amarone, and Recioto. It adds acidity. It takes its name (the miller’s vine) from the flower-like coating on the grapes. This varietal has begun to be eliminated from the Valpolicella blend in favor of using more Corvina.

Montepulciano: Widespread throughout Central and Southern Italy, particularly in Abruzzo, this grape has a smoky quality with herbal red flavors. Its real name is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Together with Sangiovese and Barbera, one of Italy’s most important varietals. It also grows in Marche, Molise, Puglia, and Lazio and is #7 among grapes planted in Italy. Did sheep and wool traders bring it to Abruzzo from Tuscany? Is it Sangiovese in disguise? The drama continues. Nebbiolo: Found almost exclusively in Piedmont, this grape has tar and violet flavors and a rich espresso-like bitterness. Its earthy flavor is ideal for making Barolo and Barbaresco wines. It is called Spanna in the Novara Hills and Chiavennasca in Valtellina. Its name comes from “nebbia,” a soupy fog that hits Piedmont in the fall when the Nebbiolo is harvested. This is Piedmont’s most important red grape which is responsible for lordly wines, akin to Burgundy’s Grand Crus.

Negroamaro: Southern Italian grape widely grown in the Puglia region, it has a slightly bitter, espresso-like flavor that is perfect for rustic wines. It is found in most of the DOC reds of Puglia and is #6 among grapes planted in Italy. It is responsible for powerful reds and powerful roses.

Nerello Mascalese: The red grape of Mt. Etna is also found in Campania. Lively and spicy, it goes well with flavorful dishes. It is #14 among vines planted in Italy. Nero d’Avola: Known as the “aristocratic red grape of Sicily”, it has a fruity, herbal flavor and is used to make full-bodied, often complex wines. Also called Calabrese. You may pick up licorice, cloves, and bitter chocolate. #12 among plantings in Italy. This is the island’s classic, seductive grape variety.

Piedirosso: This is also called “per-e-palummo” or pigeon’s foot, since the stems have a reddish color. It is the ancient Roman “Colombina.” Its herbal, peppery structure makes it perfect for blending into Campania’s DOC Lacrima Cristi del Vesuvio Rosso.

Pinot Grigio: The most popular white wine in America actually comes from a red grape, a mutation of Pinot Noir. Pale in color, it has scents of apples, coriander, and black pepper. It is crisp, fresh, and clean.

Pinot Nero: Difficult to make wine from because it mutates easily, this grape is known for its silky texture, earthy aroma and flavors of baked cherries, plums, mushrooms, cedar, chocolate, dry leaves, and mountain berries. It is used both in red and white table wines and in sparkling wines throughout Northern Italy.

Primitivo: One of the leading grapes of Puglia, this grape is similar to a rustic Zinfandel with big, bold berry flavors, and often used as a blending grape. Its DNA links it to Zinfandel. It may have originated in the Balkans. DOC Gioia del Colle and Primitivo di Manduria may be the best manifestations of this varietal.

Refosco: The full name is Refosco del Penduncolo Rosso – Refosco with red stems. This rustic, hearty vine grows not only in northeastern Italy, but also in Slovenia, Romagna, and in Southern France, where it’s called Mondeuse. Rondinella: A high yielding vine used for blending with the Corvina Veronese to make Bardolino, Valpolicella, Amarone, and Recioto. It softens the Corvina and adds fragrance to Valpolicella wines.

Sangiovese: Known as Italy’s “most famous grape,” it has a cherry flavor when it is young. When it is aged, it takes on earthy properties such as dried leaves, dried orange peel, and mocha. It is used to make Tuscan Chianti, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino. It can also be found in the “Super Tuscan” wines. It is Italy’s #1 planted varietal. It is also called Prugnolo Gentile, Brunello, and Morellino in different zones. Widely planted outside of Tuscany, you will find excellent Sangiovese in Umbria and Romagna.

Sagrantino: Grown in Umbria, it is dark with bold, intense flavors, and used to make one of the region’s top wines, Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG, both dry and passito, as a dessert wine. It is historically linked to the Church where it was used in services, even exorcisms.

Schiava: Called Vernatsch and Trollinger in German, Schiava is Alto Adige’s most widely cultivated red grape. Probably of Slavic origin, in medieval times the vine was attached to a tree for support, thus becoming a slave to the tree. Schiava in Italian means both slave and Slavic. Schiava wine is vibrant with echoes of strawberries.

Syrah: Known sometimes as a “guy’s grape,” it has strong aromas and flavors such as leather, wild blackberries, smoke, roasted meats, pepper and spice. It is the noble varietal of the Rhone Valley in France, but it loves the Tuscan coast, the hills of Cortona and the warmth of Lazio.

Teroldego: Found in Trentino-Alto Adige, it is one of the leading grapes of the region, and is used to make highly-structured wines with blackberry fruit and tar flavors. The name means “Tyrol Gold” in Italian. It is most famous for DOC Teroldego Rotaliano.

Uva di Troia: A noble, tannic red vine cultivated primarily in DOC Castel del Monte in north and central Puglia. This varietal was brought to Italy by the Ancient Greeks.

Vespolina: The “wasp” (vespa) grape of the Novara Hills in Northern Piedmont. Wasps are attracted to its sweet fruit. Usually blended into the big reds in the area.


White Grapes

Albana: The Albana Gentile grows principally in the hills of Romagna. Albana di Romagna was Italy’s first DOCG white wine. It is a sugar factory and versatile. It can produce dry (secco), semi-sweet (amabile), and sweet (dolce), but the most recognized are dessert (passito), made from dried grapes.

Ansonica: AKA Inzolia. One of Sicily’s most prolific vines. It also grows well in coastal Tuscany. #16 in total plantings in Italy. Floral and aromatic, it adds strength and minerality when combined to create Marsala, et al.

Arneis: Considered one of the three top white grapes of Italy’s Piedmont region, it is light with apricot, green apples, melon, and almond flavors with floral aroma. Often used in making refreshing, dry wine. It has made a big comeback. It is sometimes called Barolo Bianco and Nebbiolo Bianco. Also makes a dessert wine, Arneis Passito.

Catarratto: #1 in Sicily; #2 in all of Italy in plantings. There are two major clones: Commune and Lucido. It is savory, aromatic, reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc. Best in DOC Alcamo Bianco. Blended into Marsala, et al.

Chardonnay: Grown in Northern and Southern Italy, the Northern Chardonnay grapes have a creamy apple-vanilla flavor. Southern Chardonnays, those grown in Tuscany, tend to be oaky and buttery. Many of Italy’s Chardonnays are un-oaked. Also used in sparkling wines.

Coda di Volpe: Named “fox tail” due to the shape of its grape clusters. Blended into Campania’s Vesuvio ad Sannio whites. Good acidity and minerality. Cortese: Found in Northwestern Italy, this grape has apple, citrus and honey flavors. It’s the main varietal in the medium-bodied Gavi wine. It loves the hills of Tortona. Gavi is called “the poor man’s Chablis.” It is sometimes blended into DOC Bianco di Custoza in Veneto.

Erbaluce: Best known for DOC Erbaluce di Caluso, both dry (secco) and dessert (passito) from dried grapes. It is probably a mutation of Fiano, brought to Piedmont from Campania by the Romans.

Falanghina: Rescued from extinction by Francesco Avallone. It is best known for DOC Falerno del Massico. It is Campania’s “go to” white. Dry, supple, fruity, with notes of vanilla.

Favorita: This is a light, delicate white from Piedmont, responsible for DOC Langhe Favorita. It may be related to Vermentino.

Fiano: Grown primarily in the Campania region in the town of Avellino, this grape has a rich, floral flavor and is known as the finest varietal of Southern Italy. In ancient Roman times it was called Latino. Pliny called it “apianum” (bees), because bees loved its fruit. Rescued from extinction by the Mastroberardino family. DOCG Fiano di Avellino ages well.

Friulano: Formerly known as Tocai Friulano. Best known for DOC Friulano, but also used in blends from Lombardy and Veneto. Creamy, floral, with nuances of apricots, try Friulano with prosciutto di Parma.

Garganega: Grown in the Northern region of Veneto, it is best for making rich, full wines with an intense mineral flavor and is the main varietal used in Soave and Gambellara. There are notes of pears, apricots, and pineapples. #13 on Italy’s list of grapes planted.

Gewürztraminer: Known predominantly in France, Germany, California and New York State, but the birthplace of this spicy, fragrant grape is Tramin (Termeno), a town in Alto Adige, Italy. This lively white has notes of forest flowers and tones of lychees fruit.

Grechetto: Found in Umbria, this grape has a nutty flavor and is used in making the medium-bodied Orvieto wine. Also grows in Tuscany, where it is sometimes used in Vin Santo. Fresh, crisp, with notes of pears and elder flowers.

Greco: An ancient Greek variety now grown primarily in Campania, it is crisp with intense citrus, floral, stone and mineral flavors. Used to make the famous DOCG Greco di Tufo. It also grows well in Latium and Calabria. It offers flavors of peaches, almonds, even figs and orange peel. It also makes the rare DOC Greco di Bianco in Calabria and is blended into white Ciró and Melissa. Grillo: Probably from Puglia, brought to Sicily after the phylloxera. It grows well in Marsala and Trapani. It has good body and notes of butterscotch and hazelnuts.

Inzolia: (See Ansonica.)

Kerner: A noteworthy cross of Riesling and red Schiava, first developed in 1969, it is immensely popular in Germany. In Alto Adige Kerner produces fine, elegant, dry whites.

Malvasia: An ancient Greek grape transplanted to Italy, it has honey and spice flavors and is used in the Sicilian dessert wine Malvasia delle Lipari, and in the Tuscan dessert wine Vin Santo. There are many clones, both red and white. They all share intense sugar levels, apricot fragrance with touches of hazelnuts and almonds. It grows in more than 10 of Italy’s 20 regions. Its name comes from Monemvasia, a port in southern Greece, known as Malmsey in Madeira. Malvasia Nera: A red grape, grows well in Tuscany and in Puglia, where it is blended into important local varietals. Red Malvasia di Castelnuovo Don Bosco is planted in a small DOC zone in Plemonte.

Moscato: A fragrant grape with many clones, red and white, probably Middle Eastern in origin. It grows in almost every region in Italy, with nuances of peaches, apricots, orange zest and a cleansing, crisp acidity. Most famous for DOCG Asti; others include Chambave Moscato, Rosenmuskateller, Goldenmuskateller, Moscadello di Montalcino, Moscato di Trani, and Moscato (Zibibbo) di Pantelleria.

Müller-Thurgau: Of German origin, it is believed to be a cross between Riesling and Swiss Chasselas. It has an explosive tropical fruit flavor with a very crisp, acidic finish. It loves the sunny slopes of Trentino. Developed in Geisenheim, Germany, by Dr. Herman Müller, a native of Thurgau, Switzerland. Popular in Italy where Italians call it Müller for short.

Nosiola: Crisp and fruity. It is a little known aromatic varietal from the hills outside of Trento. Both dry and sweet versions have a nutty, orange zest character. Nuragus: Probably brought to Sardinia by the Phoenicians. Light, fresh, harmonious seafood wine. DOC Nuragus di Cagliari is second in output in Sardinia only to DOC Vermentino di Sardegna among the island’s white wines.

Pecorino: Enjoying a comeback in Marche and Abruzzo. Complex and delicious with overtones of cinnamon, apples, licorice, and jasmine. Petite Arvine: Light and flinty with hints of grapefruit and mandarin orange flavors. It grows well in Val D’Aosta and in nearby Switzerland. Picolit: The delicately sweet, flavorful white from Friuli’s Colli Orientali and Collio. Enjoy young. It was a favorite of the Hapsburgs. Production is very small due to “floral abortion,” which causes only a few grapes in each cluster to develop. Pigato: Light to medium bodied with both mineral and floral flavors, it thrives in Liguria, making excellent dry white wines of character. Pignoletto: There is a saying in the hills of Bologna: “Prosciutto e Pignoletto, matrimonio perfetto!” Prosciutto and Pignoletto make a perfect marriage.

Pinot Bianco: Often blended with Chardonnay, this grape offers a lush, creamy texture with a baked-apple flavor. It’s at its best in the Sudtirol, Alto Adige, where they call it Weissburgunder. Also used in sparkling wines.

Pinot Grigio: Friulian and Trentino-Alto Adige Pinot Grigios, used to make light to medium bodied wines, can be delicate with peach, almond and green apple flavors or they can be rich and creamy. This is actually a red grape, a mutation of Pinot Noir. See Red Varietals. In the Sudtirol it is called Ruländer.

Prosecco: The real name for the grape is Glera. It produces DOC and DOCG frizzante (fizzy) and spumante (sparkling) from the hills of Treviso in Veneto to the town of Prosecco in Friuli, close to the border with Slovenia. The best of the pale, delicate, floral Proseccos are called Cartizze.

Ribolla Gialla: Native to Friuli Venezia Giulia, this grape is delicate with citrus and peach flavors. It is the ancient Rebula vine, brought by the Venetians to Friuli in the 12th Century. It has subtle aspects of apples and cantaloupes.
Riesling: Grown mainly in Australia, Austria, California, France, Germany, New York State, New Zealand, South Africa, Virginia and Washington State, it is considered by many to be the “most noble and unique white grape variety in the world,” also the most underrated. The Riesling grape is high in acid, light in body and has flavors of ripe peaches, melons and apricots. True Rhine Riesling, Riesling Renano, grows very well in Alto Adige. There is a lesser varietal Riesling Italico, which is the German Welsch Riesling.

Sauvignon Blanc: This grape can be smoky with an herbal character, or creamy with delicate honey and hazelnut flavors. The finish is of grapefruits. Brought from Bordeaux and the Loire more than a century ago, you can find classy Sauvignon in Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Alto Adige, and Friuli. Those from Collio and Colli Orientali match the best Sauvignons in the world.

Sylvaner: A grape of German origin, it is unfairly considered to be a neutral grape, dry with an intense floral nose and a steely mineral taste. Italy’s finest are from Alto Adige, especially from the chilly Val d’Isarco.
Torbato: An underrated white grape, grown in Sardinia and southern France. Fragrant and rich in taste, it is probably of Spanish origin.

Trebbiano: From the ancient Roman Trebulan, there is now a big family of Trebbianos. In France it is called Ugni Blanc and is the varietal used to make Cognac. Usually dismissed as a high yield, high acid neutral wine, some of the variations are quite good. Some examples are Trebbiano di Soave, Trebbiano Romagnolo, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, and Trebbiano di Lugana (Torbolan). It is blended into many DOC wines from Tuscany, Umbria, and Latium. #3 in Italy in plantings.

Verdicchio: Grown in Marche’s DOC Castelli di Jesi and DOC Matelica zones, Verdicchio is an ancient green grape. It may be related to the Trebbiano or Vermentino. One of the rare Italian whites that can age well – it even has a riserva classification. Underrated and underappreciated, it is enjoying a resurgence. Verduzzo: Found throughout northeastern Italy, it makes dry and sweet versions. It is best known for Friuli’s DOCG Ramandolo dessert wine, where the complex nuances of apples, pears, apricots, orange zest, and honey of the varietal shine. Vermentino: Related to the Malvasia (Malmsey) grown on Madeira, it spread from Portugal and Spain to Liguria, Sardinia, and coastal Tuscany. It likes sea breezes. Herbaceous and peachy with a bittersweet finish. One of the best is northern Sardinia’s DOCG Vermentino di Gallura.

Vernaccia: From the Latin “vernaculum,” Vernaccia means local or native. There are many unrelated grapes throughout Italy, both reds and whites, called Vernaccia. A few examples are DOC Vernaccia di Oristano (Sardinia), a nutty, sherry-like amber white this is perfect with bottarga; red DOC Vernaccia di Serrapetrona (Marche) with nuances of raspberries and dried roses; and, the most illustrious, DOCG Vernaccia di San Gimignano (Tuscany) which won the praise of Michelangelo in one of his poems. There is also a riserva.

Zibibbo: (See Moscato.)

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