The Treasure Hunt: Grapes and Wines
By Igor Ryjenkov MW
Italy is the top world wine producer and relies on its native grapes to accomplish that. Paradoxically, very few Italian grapes are planted or excel elsewhere, making the country a treasure trove of unique grapes and wines.
Historically–and today–each region has had its own traditions and cultural context which extend to food and wine. The locals are fiercely loyal to their cuisine–and their grapes. Thus, Abruzzo relies on its hearty Montepulciano grape to make deeply coloured, black-fruited great value reds. Verdicchio, Marche’s ace white grape, makes wines with quince, almond and citrus notes and with good acidity and weight. The white Glera grape, shared by Veneto and Friuli, is responsible for the tank-fermented, Asian pear-scented super-popular sparkling Prosecco. Let’s go in for a closer look at some more highlights.
In hot and arid Sicily, the grape-growing flourishes largely thanks to the well-adapted local grapes and the higher elevations, such as those provided by Mount Etna. The Etna Rosso DOC reds, based on Nerello Mascalese alone or blended with Nerello Capuccio, show a mineral streak and surprising freshness with floral, herbal and red fruit notes. The Etna Bianco DOC could be either entirely or mostly Carricante with two Catarrattos-Bianco Commune or Lucido rounding the blend. The wines have fresh acidity with citrus, minerality, and floral and smoky notes yet are fleshy and rich. The red Nero d’Avola and white Grillo are but two of the other many grapes of interest. Nero makes a deep-coloured, well-structured red with plum, cedar, herbs and minerally notes. Grillo keeps its acidity well and is fresh and citric. But it is the Etna wines that are undisputedly the up-and-comers of Sicily and, arguably, the entire country.
Exceptionally, the island of Sardinia shares its key local red grape with France and Spain: Cannonau is none other than Grenache/Garnacha, yet there are some good arguments for its Sardinian and not mainland Spanish provenance. Cannonau di Sardegna DOC usually has a deep but not opaque colour, medium tannin and body, mineral, floral and balsamic notes, and preserved dark fruit and berries. The main white grape and wine in Sardinia is Vermentino di Sardegna DOC, another ancient grape with disputed provenance and presence in most of southern Europe. These wines can range from light to full, with moderate acidity, a nice round mouthfeel, a saline note and flavours from citrus and flowers to tropical fruit elements. But both reds and whites are very distinctly Sardinian.
In Piedmont, regal Nebbiolo casts a long shadow, but the region has a number of other interesting grapes. The lemony, fresh white wines rely on local Cortese (in Gavi DOC) and Arneis. The red Grignolino and Freisa make crisp, light, sometimes frizzante, early-drinking wines to pair with savoury salumi. A tier up, Dolcetto makes deeply coloured, mid-weight wine with plush tannins that are lovely early and, if well made, can age. Barbera is more structured with more acidity if lighter coloured and makes red- and dark-fruited reds ranging from accessible to serious examples meant for cellaring. Both grapes make an appearance as d’Asti or d’Alba e.g. Barbera d’Asti DOCG, or in blends in other DOCs, like Langhe. And finally, Nebbiolo, Piedmont’s top-notch grape and one of the crown jewels of Italian and global winedom. It also can be found as Langhe, or d’Alba/d’Asti designation, in blends or alone, but it truly shines in Barolo and Barbaresco DOCGs. Late-ripening and finicky, it gives the wine medium to a deep colour with the aromas traditionally described as “tar and roses”, which can also be interpreted as new leather, camphor or mint, hibiscus flowers and cornelian cherry. It usually has fresh acidity, ripe yet firm tannins and a medium to full body. The modern examples of more structured Barolo and more airy Barbaresco are enjoyable young, but many rewards extended cellaring with the savoury underbrush, mushroom and fruit preserve elements and softened tannins. The best of these wines truly belongs to the pantheon of the best in the world.
We have just scratched the surface, as there are many more finds even in the regions we visited here, let alone those we missed. So do not wait, dive in and start discovering or re-discovering the treasure trove that Italy is–there is so much to explore, and so little time.
Toronto-based Igor Ryjenkov MW was the first in Canada to earn the prestigious Master of Wine credential in 2003. His wine business expertise has been informed by 24 years with the LCBO, first in retail, then in key buying positions, and lastly, in projects, most notably, developing the new 5-dot wine style matrix.