Italy produces almost 20% of the earth’s total wine grape harvest every year. With twenty regions and 110 provinces, the country’s rich biodiversity is the result of several millenia of trade, incursions, colonization, hybridization, and evolution. Among the 1368 grape varieties that are used to make wine, at least 377 (28%) of those varieties are Italian. One authority has counted more than 500 grape varieties that are grown throughout the peninsula. The topography of Italy is 35% mountainous and 40% rolling hills. This isolation and physical separation helps explain the development of strong regionalism, dialects, and local allegiance of the people (See: campanilismo).
With 77 Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG’s), 330 Denominazione di Origine Controllata, plus numerous Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT’s) and the newly added Menzioni Geografiche Aggiuntivi (MGA’s), Italian wine presents a dizzying array of opportunities to explore for the adventurous oenophile.
Below is a regional summary of all twenty Italian provinces with key grapes, producers, DOCGs, DOCs, and wines to look out for. Consider this a primer and easy to use guide to navigate the wonderful world of Italian wine.
Val d’Aosta in the northwest corner of Italy is best known for its ski resorts on the southern side of the Alps along the Swiss and French borders in the shadows of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. This region is Italy’s smallest grape growing region with less than 500 hectares of vineyards. Val d’Aosta is home to some of the highest altitude vineyards in the world such as Prie Blanc vines located as high up as 3500 feet above sea level.
With a winemaking history that dates back to the Roman era, many producers determined it’s better to work as a team than try to farm solo. Over the centuries, thousands of small, family growers formed collaborative winemaking companies called cooperatives. The 90 kilometer wine valley straddles the Dora Baltea River. The wine growing areas are divided into the Alta (Morgex), Media (Aosta), and Bassas (Donnas) regions. Cave Mont Blanc is the largest winery in the region, yet it produces only around 140 thousand bottles of wine. There are no DOCGs and only one DOC, called Valle d’Aosta.
Many of the red wines from the region exhibit Ricola-like aromas of Alpine herbs. The wines can have notes of licorice, smokey herbs, cinnamon, light to high tannins, red and black currants, and can be medium to high acid and taste rustic.
The key grapes grown in Val d’Aosta include;
- Prie Rouge - aka Premetta, fairly rare today. Intense aromas and light tannins.
- Petit Rouge - comprises 20% or 100 hectares of the DOC plantings. Look for wines from the Torrette cru for wines of finesse and depth.
- Fumin - a sibling of Petit Rouge, solid tannins.
- Cornalin - very tanninic, this wine needs to age to show its best potential.
- Mayolet - light to medium bodied with refined aromas of black currant with a hint of cinnamon.
Piemonte in the northwest region of Italy is home to Nebbiolo, considered the “King of Wines and the Wine of Kings.” Giacomo Conterno’s Monfortino is Italy’s most expensive wine and trades for around $1000 per bottle. The name Barolo comes from “bas-ruel” which means “low place” in Celtic. Nebbiolo is a genetic parent grape to Freisa, Neretta and Vespolina. The wine characteristics of Nebbiolo are ruby, garnet color, red fruit, floral, savory, strawberry, orange peel, roses, and lavender. Nebbiolo wines have high tannins, acid, alcohol and moderate body and are exceptionally age worthy.
Barbera makes it home in Piemonte and is the third most planted red variety in Italy. Barbera is easy to grow, high yielding, drought resistant, and late ripening. Barbera is best in hot vintages to balance out the naturally high acid.
Arneis is an important white wine grape that was near extinction with only 45 hectares remaining in 1970. Today, there are 970 hectares. Arneis means “little rascal.” Arneis is difficult to grow and quickly loses acidity at harvest. Arneis wine has a creamy texture and white fruits. Vietti and Giacosa are the producers credited with resurrecting the varietal for commercial production from the Cornarea clone grown predominantly in Roero.
Cortese is the main white grape in wines from Gavi. Gavi, like Soave, was a victim of its own success. As it gained fame, production grew to high levels and quality dramatically diminished.
There are five Nebbiolo DOCG’s, three Barbera DOCG’s, three Dolcetto DOCG’s, three sparkling DOCG’s, plus two white wine DOCG’s (Erbaluce and Gavi) in Piemonte.
The key DOCG’s in Piedmont are:
- Asti - for spumante wines
- Barbera d’Asti
- Brachetto d’Acqui
- Ruche di Castagnole di Monferrato
- Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba
- Nizza - Barbera area
- Erbaluce di Caluso
- Ghemme- look for wines from Ferrando
The key DOC’s in Piedmont are:
- Freisa d’Asti
- Grignolino d’Asti
- Malvasia di Casorzo d’Asti
- Dolcetto d’Alba
- Barbera d’Alba
- Langhe - located in the rainshadow of the Alps, so quite hot summers and cold winters.
- Nebbiolo d’Alba
- Verduno Pelaverga
- Colli Tortonesi - look out for Timorasso from Walter Massa.
- Colline Novaresi
Lombardy is most famous for its scenic and fancy lakes region at the foothills of the Alps which includes Lago Maggiore, Lago Lugano, Lago di Como, Lago Iseo and Lago di Garda. There are five key Nebbiolo vineyards in the Valtellina and they are Sassella, Inferno, Grumello, Valgella, and Maroggia.
The wines of Franciacorta in Lombardy are remarkable in that the DOCG has instituted the strictest production codes of any classic method production area. The modern sparkling wines of Franciacorta date from the 1950’s. In 1967 the region was recognized as a DOC. In the 1980’s, the producers in the region began to favor Chardonnay over Pinot Bianco. In 1995, when the DOCG was awarded, 80% of the grapes in the region are 75% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Nero, and 5% Pinot Bianco with a small amount of Erbamat planted as insurance against climate change due to its high acid and late ripening qualities.
Key producers in the region include Belucci (one of the first in 1950’s), Ca del Bosco, and Barone Pizzini.
There are several styles of sparkling wine produced in the region including:
- Franciacorta - generally a minimum of 18 months aging
- Franciacorta Rose - a minimum of 24 months aging
- Franciacorta Saten - a minimum of 24 months aging with <6 atmospheres of pressure, which makes it more “silken” and it is a blanc de blancs (white grape wine)
- Franciacorta Millesimato - minimum of 30 months aging
- Franciacorta Riserva - minimum of 60 months aging
The key DOCGs of the region include:
- Valtellina Superiore- famous for its Chiavennasca (aka Nebbiolo) planted among 2500 km of stone walls on steep terraces.
- Oltrepo Pavese Metodo Classico - producing wine since 40 BC.
- Franciacorta - famous for its sparkling wines.
- Sforzato di Valtellina aka Sfursat - Nebbiolo made with air dried grapes similar to Amarone.
The key DOCs of the region include:
- Bonarda dell’Oltrepo Pavese
- Garda - Bardolino, Lugana
- Mantova - Lambrusco styled wines
- Lugana - white wines made from a grape very similar to Verdicchio
- Pinot Nero dell’Oltrepo Pavese
- Sangue di Giuda dell’Oltrepo Pavese
The important subregions of Alto Adige include:
- Val Venosta
- Val d’Adige - 71% of plantings are Pinot Bianco
- Valle Isarco
- Bassa Atesina
The key DOCs of the Trentino-Alto Adige region are:
- Alto Adige aka Sudtirol in German
- Lago di Caldaro
- Teroldego Rotaliano
- Valdadige or Eschtaler
- Trento DOC - a sparkling wine production area
The most common grape varieties in the region include:
- Schiava - light bodied wines, pale red in color, notes of strawberry.
- Lagrein - second most planted grape in the region, one of the darkest colors like Malbec, related to Pinot Nero, violet aromas, plums, blackberries, spices. Makes an amazing Rose, called Kretzer.
- Teroldego - most important in Trentino, an ancient grape and parent to many other regional grapes, planted in Campo Rotaliano, dark in color, wild berries, spice, tea.
- Marzemino - mentioned by Don Giovanni in Mozart’s opera, medium bodied, aromatic red.
- Traminer Aromatico - one of the most aromatic white grapes.
- Nosiola - made as a dry white and air dried grapes to make a sweet wine.
This northeast region of Italy shares a border with Slovenia and the area has changed hands many times between Romans, Venetians, Lombards, Austro-Hungarians, and Yugoslavs. The name Giulia refers to Julius, the emperor of Rome. Not surprisingly, the region is home to many international varietals including Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Many of these varieties were introduced post phylloxera near the turn of the 20th century.
The white wines of Friuli blossomed after World War II and are now considered some of the finest in the world. Diverse soils and micro-climates are the setting for a range of wines such as the high acid whites of the Carso and Collio and the hot flatlands of the Colli Orientali that produce surprisingly good Bordeaux varietal wines. Friuli Venezia Giulia (FVG) is also home to one of the ancient grape varieties called Picolit, which is used to produce a singular passito sweet wine that has been served to Popes for centuries.
The key DOCGs of the Friuli Venezia Giulia region are:
- Colli Orientali Friuli Picolit - sweet wine
- Ramandolo - sweet Verduzzo
- Rosazzo - home to a famous abbey that maintained vineyard and wine traditions through wars and resurrected several native varietals from near extinction.
The key DOCs of the Friuli Venezia Giulia region are:
- Collio Goriziano or Collio
- Friuli Colli Orientali
- Friuli Grave
- Friuli Isonzo
The most important wine grape varieties in Friuli Venezia Giulia are:
- Tocai Friulano aka Lison, aka Tai
- Ribolla Gialla
- Picolit - considered the Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes of Italy
- Verduzzo Friulano
- Cabernet Franc
Liguria is in the northwest central part of Italy with a long coast line. The region is most famous for the Cinque Terre which are five stunningly beautiful seaside towns on the coast of the Ligurian Sea. One of the towns, Vernazza, may have given name to a recognized white varietal, Vernaccia. Locally, the grape is referred to as Favorita.
There are no DOCGs in Liguria. Key DOCs include:
- Cinque Terre e Cinque Terre Sciacchetra
- Colli di Luna
- Rossese di Dolceacqua o Dolceacqua
- Riviera Ligure di Ponente
- Ormeasco di Pornassio - Dolcetto that is brighter in color, more perfumed and sweeter tannins than in versions from Piemonte.
- Golfo del Tigullio - Portofino
- Sciacchetra DOC - produces an air dried sweet wine.
Other wine grapes of region include:
Emilia-Romagna is the northern most region of central Italy and has been historically linked to Lombardia and Milan. The region is separated into two parts with Emilia on the west side of Bologna and Romagna to the east and south of Bologna. The region is a significant exporter of food and wine. Consumers around the world recognize Lambrusco, Balsamic vinegar from Modena, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese from Parma, tortelloni, and global clothing and accessory brands like La Perla, Furla, and Max Mara.
The region is 20% mountainous, 5% hills, and 75% flatlands.
Production of the Labrusche or Lambruscos comprises 88% of the production around Reggio Emilia and Modena. The Lambrusco group of grapes are considered the oldest grapes in Italy and morphed over time from wild grape varieties. Many different styles of Lambruso fizz are produced including red sparkling wines that are Brut, Semi-secco, Rosato, Dolce, and Extra Dry styles. There are also more aspirational types of Lambrusco that are made in the traditional champagne method or metodo ancestrale.
There are four main Lambrusco grapes:
- Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro is only grown on hillsides, likes clay soils and is lower in acid which makes it ideal for dolce style wines.
- Lambrusco di Sorbara is the palest in color, likes sandy soils and is the most fragrant. Curiously, this grape is dioescious, which means it’s not self-polinating. As a result, Lambrusco Salamino is often planted nearby to pollinate the Sorbara.
- Lambrusco Salamino is so named because the grape bunches look like a salami. This is the most abundantly planted grape in the area and has qualities of both the Sorbara and Grasparossa di Castelvetro.
- Lambrusco Maestri has the most tutti frutti or bubble gum expression and is high yielding.
There are only two key DOCGs of Emilia-Romagna region:
- Colli Bolognesi Classico Pignoletto
- Romagna Albana - one of the best sweet wines in Italy, made since Roman era and the first white wine DOCG.
The key DOC in Emilia Romagna is:
- Colli Piacentini - Gutturnio is a blend of Barbera and Croatina
Key wine grapes of the region include:
- Malvasia di Candia Aromatica
- Albana- the first white wine DOCG for passito style wines
- Sangiovese - look for high quality and good value produced near Predappio
- Trebbiano Toscano
- Terrano - a very high acid, dark purple red
The area between Verona and Venice in the northeast of Italy is now the largest wine growing region in Italy. This is due in large part to the explosion of Prosecco production. Importantly, 70% of the wine produced in Veneto is designated as DOP quality.
The region of Valpolicella is named because of its Latin name, Vallis Polisccellae, (valley of many wine cellars). The ancient wines of Rome were more likely similar to Recioto, the sweet wine of the region. During the Ventian republic (La Serenissima 697-1797), the Venetian traders commanded the Mediterranean sea and are credited with creating the Malvasia brand of wines that were planted throughout the Mediterranean.
Important grapes of the Veneto include:
- Corvina- aromas of violets, red cherry, spices, black like a crow, used in Valpolicella
- Rondinella - blended with Corvina
- Molinara- less widely used in the Valpolicella
- Garganega- the white wine from Soave is an ancient grape
- Trebbiano di Soave
- Durella - used to make sparkling wines in Lessini
- Osleta - dark, red grape used in Valpolicella blends, rarely as a mono-varietal bottled wine
Wines to look out for include Lugana from the Lago di Garda region, a crisp, dry white wine with an herbal note related to Verdicchio. Also look out for Bardolino Rosso, a lighter red wine style that is excellent in the summer, served chilled. Bardolino Chiaretto made from Corvina and other varietals and is a lovely Rosato wine, perfect to enjoy around the lakes region during the warmer months. Ripasso is a style of wine that uses semi-dried grapes to pass young Valpolicella wines over the grape must used in Amarone production.
Amarone, the famous wine made from air dried grapes, is a modern phenomenon.
Amarone grapes are harvested early because they will lose acid during the 100-120 day drying period. The first Amarone was bottled in 1950 and was recognized as a DOCG only in 2010.
Key DOCGs in the Veneto include:
- Amarone della Valpolicella
- Bardolino Superiore
- Colli Euganei Fior d’Arancio - fantastic late harvested sweet wines
- Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Prosecco
- Recioto della Valpolicella
- Soave Superiore
Key DOCs in the Veneto include:
Tuscany is perhaps the best well known wine region in Italy due to the famous Renaissance city of Florence and the global ubiquity of Chianti. Sangiovese is the most important grape in the region and has an incredible history. The first mention of Chianti was in 1398. Sangioveto was referenced as early as 1552 in the de Medici botanical collections. The name is believed to come from the “blood of Jove or Jupiter” given its color.The Chianti Classic Consorzio was launched in 1924 with thirty three charter members to protect the quality of the wines from the region. The 1960’s saw the end of mezzadria, a form of sharecropping that valued quantity over quality.
The origins of Sangiovese were once believed to be in Tuscany, but now it may be that Sangiovese was brought to Tuscany from Sicily when the de Medici family owned lands there. Sangiovese may be a genetic offspring of Ciliegolo and Negrodolce. Sangiovese is known to have crossed with Mantonico and there are many offspring including Morellini, Vernaccia Nera, Fogliatonda as wells as many grapes in Calabria and Sicily like Galioppo, Frappato, and Nerello Mascalese. There are believed to be more than one hundred clones of Sangiovese.
The Chianti Classico region is located south-southeast of Florence and north-northwest of Siena. Dramatic microclimates and changes in altitude directly effect the grapes and styles of wines produced in this vast region. Higher altitude vineyards tend to have higher acid and more elegance. Some of the highest quality, age worthy, and best value red wines in the world are produced in this Chianti Classico. There are over 580 members and 376 bottles of wine in Chianti. In 1872, Barone Ricasoli published his formula for Chianti and it included 70% Sangiovese, 20% Canaiolo Nero, and 10% Malvasia Bianca Lunga.
In 2014, a new classification was added to the Chianti hierarchy called Gran Selezione. These wines must be aged 30 months before release and be from estate vineyards. By comparison, Chianti Classico Riserva must be aged 24 months before release. Chianti Classico DOCG must be 80% minimum Sangiovese and have 12 months of ageing. Since 2000, no white grapes are allowed in the Chianti Classico blend. Two regions to look out for in the Chianti subzones are Colli Senesi and Rufino. There are no oak aging requirements in Chianti.
Montalcino is located 40km from Siena and only 40km from the Tyrrhenian Sea. The southern part of Brunello di Montalcino DOCG is more coastal, hotter and drier.
Francesco Santi was a pharmacist in the 1890’s who updated farming techniques in the region. At the time, he was making sweet white wine using the local Moscadello grapes. His son, Ferruccio Biondi-Santi isolated the Sangiovese Grosso clone (BBSII) and this is the original biotype used at the Il Greppo estate. He is considered the father of Brunello wines in Montalcino.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is a Tuscan wine region 70km east of Siena. The region has a more continental, cooler climate than Montalcino and typically has more fog and rain due to its proximity to the Appenine mountains. Some of the best quality and value Sangiovese wines are to be found in this area.
The key DOCGs of the Tuscany region are:
- Brunello di Montalcino
- Carmignano- look out for Sangiovese-Cabernet Sauvignon Supertuscan blends
- Chianti & Chianti Classico
- Vernaccia di San Gimignano - the first DOC in Italy
- Vino Nobile di Montepulciano - recognized as a DOCG in 1980
- Elba Aleatico Passito
- Morellino di Scansano
The key DOCs of the Tuscany region are:
- Rosso di Montalcino
- Vin Santo del Chianti & Chianti Classico
- Bolgheri & Bolgheri Sassicaia
- Colli di Luna
Some of the grapes planted in Tuscany include:
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Cabernet Franc
- Trebbiano Toscano - previously blended into Chianti, now used in vin santo
- Aleatico - used to make a sweet red wine
- Malvasia Bianca Lunga - used to make vin santo
Lazio is home to the wines of imperial Rome and the latifundia, or wealthy, large landholders who absorbed land as the spoils of war. The area southeast of Rome in Lazio is known for its Castelli Romani. There is more acreage dedicated to the historically important and aromatic Malvasia Bianca di Candia than anywhere else in Italy. This grape is prized for its high yields that supply the local residents with aromatic, simple, and inexpensive wines.
Bellone is another native variety in Lazio that is locally known as pagadebito (pay your debts). Several grape varieties in Italy are given this synonym when they are appreciated for high yields with which one can pay back their debts. Cori DOC is an up and coming region for quality Bellone.
Cesanese has two related biotypes, Cesanese Comune and Cesanese d’Affile. The latter is better, with smaller berries, and more aromatic terpenes.
Frascati is a light, effervescent wine produced in Lazio that is very popular.
The key DOCG’s of Lazio are:
- Cannellino di Frascati
- Cesanese del Piglio
- Frascati Superiore - dry white wines with 70% Malvasia Bianca di Candia and Malvasia di Lazio
The key DOC’s of Lazio are:
- Castelli Romani
- Cesanese di Affile
- Colli Albani
Umbria is the only landlocked region in Italy and has traditionally been allied with the Romans. The region’s topography consists of 65% hills, 30% mountains and 7% flatlands. Orvieto is a wine region that overlaps with Lazio and produces a well regarded wine that is a blend of Grechetto di Orvieto and Grecchetto Todi (aka Pignoletto in Emilia Romagna and aka Grechetto Gentile). Grechetto di Orvieto is possibly a relative of the Trebbiano family of grapes and makes a high acid, simple white wine of white flowers, chamomile, and lemon-lime.
Trebbiano is a group of white wine grapes that are planted widely in Umbria and go by numerous local names.
While some Sangiovese and Barbera are planted in Umbria, Sagrantino is the most famous red wine grape and it makes Italy’s most tannic wine. The name Sagrantino comes from sagrestia (sacred) or sagra (feast). Sagrantino was produced and served at holy church occasions and/or feasts. Grown around the area of Montefalco, the wine has black fruits, violets, aromatic herbs, pine, and strong tannins. Sagrantino grapes are also used to make an air dried passito sweet wine.
There are only two DOCGs in Umbria:
- Montefalco Sagrantino
- Torgiano Rosso Riserva - minimum 70% Sangiovese, aged a minimum of 3 years.
The key DOCs in Umbria include:
- Montefalco - named for Federico II, who practiced falconry in this area
The wines of this region on the Adriatic coast were prized by the Romans. The area was fortified with eighteen Castelli to protect the northeast border of the empire. After the fall of Rome, there was a decline in agriculture in the region. The Castelli of Jesi are a result of Federico II being born in this town. The topography of the Marche are 30% mountainous, 60% hilly, and 10% coastal.
Verdicchio is the most important white wine grape in the Marche region. Verdicchio is considered one of Italy’s greatest white wine grapes due to its age-ability and ability to express place or terroir. Verdicchio Riservas can show amazing complexity and improve with 10-15 years in bottle or more and take to new oak aging, similar to premier cru chardonnay in Burgundy. Verdicchio is also known in various parts of Italy as Trebbiano di Soave, Trebbiano di Lugana, Trebbiano Verde in Lazio and Verzello. Verdicchio is named for its green color.
The flavors of Verdicchio are complex.They can include white flowers, dried flowers, green apple, peach lemon, pineapple, orange and pear plus herbs like fennel, anise and almond honey with flint and sea spray. Factors that influence the variety of expressions include the soil, altitude, exposure, yields, harvest period, macerations, reduction, lees ageing, and oak influence.
The key DOCGs of the Marche region are:
- Castelli di Jesi Verdicchio Riserva - look for Bucci and Santa Barbara producers.
- Conero - a national park covers this area, wines are up to 50% Sangiovese and Montepulciano blends.
- Offida - an area that produces interesting native varieties like passeria and pecorino.
- Verdicchio di Matelica Riserva - the only North-South valley between Apennines and Adriatic, this DOCG is only 1/9th the size of Jesi.
- Vernaccia di Serrapetrona - unique red sparkling wine made in Charmat method from Vernaccia nera made in dry and sweet styles with air dried grapes.
The key DOCs of the Marche region are:
- Lacrima di Morro - one of the most aromatic dry red wines anywhere in the world.
- Rosso Conero
- Rosso Piceno
Grapes planted in the Marche include a small amount of Pinot Nero, Vernaccia Nera (aka Grenache), and Lacrima. Lacrima is unique as an aromatic red wine varietal that expresses amazing floral scents of violets, rose, lavender, cinnamon, nutmeg and black cherry.
Abruzzo’s topography consists of 65% mountainous, 34% hilly, and only 1% flatlands. Abruzzo is considered the greenest region in Italy and even in Europe. Much of Abruzzo is covered by a national park. While the region is a prodigious producer of 8% of grapes in Italy, it only produces 2% of the wine in Italy due to lots of bulk wine production that is shipped elsewhere. Many of the largest cooperative wineries are located in Chieti.
Montepulciano is an important grape produced in Abruzzo and is produced in every DOP region except Trebbiano d’Abruzzo. The grape produces wines that are generous, with high anthocyanin levels (dark color), and flavors of black fruit, dark cherry, plum licorice, and tobacco.
Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is unique from the other Trebbiano grape varieties and is considered to be of the best quality. Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is compared in quality to top white Burgundy from France and many of the wines from the top producers like Edoardo Valentini, Emido Pepe and Tiberio command similar prices. Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is considered one of Italy’s most age-worthy white wines and it has notes of white flowers, orchard fruit, creamy texture and mineral.
Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Terrramane is the only DOCG in the region. Key DOC’s in Abruzzo include
- Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo - the best examples of this Rosato are from L’Aquila where a major earthquake struck in 2009.
- Montepulciano d’Abruzzo
- Trebbiano d’Abruzzo
Molise is a small region in the central southern part of Italy. There are no DOCGs in Molise. The key DOCs in Molise are;
- Biferno - typically red blends of Sangiovese and Montepulciano.
- Tintilia del Molise - an up and coming red wine that is aromatic and makes amazing Rosato.
Basilicata is a small region in southern Italy with interesting grottos called Barile, which were dug by Albanian immigrants in the 15th century. These later became wine cellars for family production. There is only a single DOCG in Basilicata and it is an important one: Aglianico del Vulture Superiore. Aglianico del Vulture is also a DOC. Vulture mountain is so called because the shape of the seven peaks look like a vulture's wings. The Aglianico from Vulture has the most intense fruit aromas and flavors.
Unique to this wine region are tufa, unique limestone formations, that have been carved into “scesso” used as family wine cellars. Paternoster was one of the historic producers in the region that is now owned by Tommasi.
Matera is a DOC that surrounds Matera, which is a medieval town that was recently a cultural capital of Europe.
Campania is an important historical region in the world of wine as the region and the island of Ischia were central trading points for the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans. The wine of Falernum described by Pliny the Elder in his book Natural History would have come from Campania. The topography of Campania is dynamic. Most people associate Campania with the popular Amalfi Coast and the beach areas around Naples. In fact, the area northeast of Naples toward Avellino and Irpinia have a much cooler climate more similar to Piemonte than the warm coast. It is not uncommon for it to snow in these higher altitude mountains of Camapania.
Aglianico is the most important red grape in Campania. The name is possibly derived from the Spanish “aglia” and “llano” or “grapes of the plain.” Aglianico has an unknown parentage and is possibly related to Dureza, Teroldego, and Mondeuse. It has a possible uncle genetic relationship with Syrah. Aglianico is late ripening, has small, thick skinned berries and is very tannic. The keys to quality Aglianico include green harvesting, sufficient hang time, removal of grape pips, cap management, and barrique ageing.
Two important regions for Aglianico are near Benevento, which is located toward the Apennine hills about 2.5 hours driving northeast of Naples. Taburno is located northwest of Benevento and Taurasi is located southeast of Benevento. Both of the winegrowing regions around Taburno and Taurasi are located near extinct volcanoes and specialize in Aglianico. The Aglianico from Taburno has higher acid and is generally more “amaro” or bitter. The Aglianico grown in Tausasi is more floral and “fine”. The volcanic soils combined with diverse soils and altitudes create interesting and expressive wines that are considered some of the finest in Italy and the world.
On the nose, Aglianico shows violets or rose molecules similar to Nebbiolo.
The most important grapes in Campania are:
- Greco di Tufo
- Numerous other native varieties such as Biancolella, Forastera, Piedirosso, Coda di Volpe Bianco.
The key DOCG’s in Campania are:
- Aglianico del Taburno
- Fiano di Avellino - perhaps the original Falernum wine of ancient Rome, look for wines from Lapio
- Greco di Tufo
- Taurasi- thanks to Mastroberardino, this was the only DOCG in Campania until 2003.
The key DOC’s in Campania are:
- Campi Flegrei
- Costa d’Amalfi
- Falanghina del Sannio
- Falerno del Massico
- Ischia - piedirosso aka per e palummo
Puglia is located in the “heel of the boot” of the Italian peninsula. It is a rich, fertile region and it is the sunniest and warmest region in Italy after Sicily. Puglia has the second highest vineyard acreage in Italy and it is the most prolific producer of wine in the country. With 800km of coastline and endless plains, Puglia is a breadbasket for Italy and Europe.
As with other regions of Southern Italy, the area has seen numerous incursions, settlers, and colonizers over the centuries. Federico II built the Castel del Monte in 1240-1250 which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Between 1500-1700, the Spanish Aragones colonized much of the area around Lecce. Malvasia Nera di Lecce is planted in the area and is identical to Tempranillo.
Uva di Troia is an indigenous, native variety produced in the Alta Murgia in the northern part of Puglia. This grape is high in terpenes and norisoprenoids which gives the wine exotic, spicy, coriander and tobacco flavors. The aromas of the Uva di Troia wines are red cherry, black pepper and the wine has a medium body and medium acid with good color.
Primitivo is the most widely exported wine from Puglia. Primitivo was identified as identical to the American Zinfandel grape, but its progenitor is actually from Croatia and possibly Montenegro (Kratosija grape). Primitivo ripens unevenly, has good color, high sugar and alcohol, with aromas of red and black fruit, tobacco and underbrush.
Negro Amaro is a grape that directly translated means “black bitter.” Research suggests the original name derives from its Latin and Greek heritage “nigra mavro” which means “black black”. However, molecular analysis suggsts the grape is unrelated to most Greek varieties. Negroamaro wine has aromas of dried flowers, tobacco, at times a chemical note, and dark fruits.
The key DOCG’s in Puglia are:
- Castel del Monte Bombino Nero - a rare Rosato DOCG of pomegranate, cranberries and bitter almond.
- Castel del Monte Nero di Troia Riserva
- Castel del Monte Rosso Riserva
- Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale
The key DOC’s in Puglia are:
- Aleatico di Puglia
- Gioia del Colle - best examples of Primitivo
- Negroamaro di Terra d’Otranto
- Primitivo di Manduria
- Salice Salentino
Sicily has the largest area under vine in all of Italy. Yet, only 2% of the wine is of DOC quality and only 5% of the wine produced is bottled. Much of the wine produced is sold in bulk or for table grapes or distillation. The earliest archeological evidence of winemaking in Sicily dates to 12,000 B.C. By 750 B.C. Sicily had three Phoenician and twelve Greek colonies. Then the Romans invaded. Subsequent incursions in Sicily included the Vandals, Goths, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, Angwins, Germans, Spanish and Austrians.
The Aeolian islands include Lipari,Vulcano, Salina, Stromboli, Filicudi, Alicudi and Panarea. These islands are highly regarded for producing sweet Malvasia and interesting white wines with a saline component. The island of Pantelleria is closer to Tunisia than Sicily and produces stunning air dried passito wines.
Since WWII, cooperative wine making facilities and bulk wine producers have dominated much of the production in Sicily. Private investment and the rebirth of quality winemaking, particularly for indigenous varietals began only in the 1980’s.
68% of the vines in Sicily are of indigenous, native grape varieties. The varietal plantings in Sicily include:
- 30% Catarratto - named for the “falls” of abundant, high producing yields.
- 16% Nero d’Avola
- 6% Insolia aka Ansonica
- 5% Grillo
- 28% Other varieties, including international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah.
- 3% Grecanio
- 3% Nerello Mascalese
- 1-2% each of Frappato, Zibbibo, Perricone
Catarratto is Italy’s fourth most planted white varietal, but this is declining. In the 1980’s, Catarratto represented 75% of the total plantings in Sicily and is now around 30%.
Grillo is an offspring of Catarratto and Zibibbo, but it doesn’t have the aromatics of Zibibbo. Plantings of Grillo have tripled in the last ten to twenty years, as it constitutes the backbone of Marsala. Grillo is ideally suited for the climate in Sicily as it can withstand dry, hot weather, wind, and salt air.
Nero d’Avola has become one of the most successful exports from Sicily. The grape has high anthocyanins, high malvin content (deep purple color), moderate phenolics, sweet tannins. Nero d’Avola tolerates the hot, dry climate and soils with a high sodium content. The resulting wine is high in sugar, acid, and alcohol and low in pH. Nero d’Avola is also known as Calabrese. It has hints of laurel and Meditteranean shrubs in the aromas of the wine.
Mt. Etna in eastern Sicily climbs to 3300 meters with black volcanic soils that nourish a dynamic wine region. The altitude of the mountain creates dramatically different microclimates. In 1968, there were only 3 wine producers in Etna DOC. Benanti was a pharmacist who owned no land but applied his knowledge of chemistry to modern winemaking. The first wave of modern pioneer winemakers in the region arrived in the early 2000’s. Producers such as Frank Cornellissen at Passopisciara and Mark de Grazie at Terre Nere led the way. Today, there are more than 130 producers in the region producing over four million bottles of wine per year. 70% of the wines are red and most producers have less than ten hectares. Etna has the coolest average annual temperatures in all of Sicily. The eastern side of Etna near Milo is home to one of the rainiest areas in all of Italy where Carricante is planted.
The key red grape of Etna is Nerello Mascalese which varies widely based on the altitude and type of soil and vine training system on which it is grown. It is often light in color and body, not unlike Pinot Noir, and has unique smoky, herbal, and floral aromas and flavors due to the unique volcanic soils.
Sicily is the only region in Italy with a true dessert culture. Much of this influence is due to the incursions of Arabs from North Africa and also the influence of the Byzantines from Turkey. Sweets like cassata, cannoli and gelato are known around the world. Not surprisingly, Sicila excels in producing unrivaled sweet wines in the islands and is known around the world for Marsala and other sweet wines.
The production of Marsala in the western part of Sicily near Trapani reflects the influence of the Spanish on the island. With a similar climate or style of production of sherry in Jerez, John Woodhouse arrived in 1773 to produce a more accessible and less expensive Madeira in Marsala.
In 1883, V. Florio expanded production and by 1898, western Sicily was shipping its wines throughout Europe to supplement wine regions that were decimated by phylloxera. In 1921, there were 50 firms producing Marsala. In 1970, there were 100 firms. Today, there are only 15 large firms producing the majority of Marsala.
Marsala has a minimum of 17.5% ABV for Fine and 18% for others.
The sweetness levels are defined as Secco (<40 grams/Liter residual sugar), Semi-Secco (41-100 grams/Liter residual sugar) and Dolce (>110 grams/Liter residual sugar). Marsala Oro and Ambra are produced from Insolia, Catarratto, Grillo and Damaschino grapes. Marsala Rubino is made from a minimum of 70% Nerello Mascalese with some Nero d’Avola and Perricone. The Fine versions age for one year. The Superiore Marsala ages for two years. Marsala Superiore Riserva ages for four years and Marsala Vergine ages for five years minimum. A small amount of Marsala Vergine Stravecchio and Riserva is aged ten or more years. Some experts believe that the only true quality wines that reflect the quality tradition of Marsala are the Vergine and Marsala Solera styles.
A wine to look out for is from Marco de Bartoli Vecchio Samperi, which is 100% Grillo, aged for twenty years with a relatively dry 12.5 grams per liter residual sugar. This wine was first released in 1980.
Another sweet wine of exceptional quality is Passito di Pantelleria. This small island is hot, dry, and windy. It’s so windy that it records >320 days per year of winds that exceed 20km/hr. For this reason, grape vines are firmly planted to the ground as small trees called Alberello Pantescosurrounded by small wells. These bush vines are similar to plantings in Santorini Greece and the Canary Islands in Spain. The soils are gravel and sand. To produce Passito, the grapes are harvested in three stages. The first stage is Uva Passa Malaga. These higher acid grapes are dried in the sun or in stenditoio (hoop houses with windows) called serre. The second harvesting stage is of fresh grapes that are furthest from the trunk of the vine, as these have the highest acid. The last stage is to harvest Uva Passolata. These grapes will be rehydrated with water or wine and added to the fermentation tank to raise the alcohol and contribute the dried and baked fruit flavors to the final wine. Passito di Pantelleria ages six to eight months and is bottled with a minimum of 110 grams/Liter residual sugar, which is similar to the amount of sugar in Sauternes.
The food of Sicily reflects its rich cultural admixture. Caponata is one such example. This eggplant dish melds sweet raisins, spicy chiles, local vegetables and spices, capers, lemons, tomatoes with a tantalizing agro-dolce combination of aromatic herbs.
The key DOCG’s in Sicily are:
- Cerasuolo di Vittoria - a blended wine of a minimum 30% of Frappato and Nero d’Avola. Producers of note include Nerocapitano, Occhipinti, and Paolo Cali.
The key DOC’s in Sicily are:
- Etna- look for Carricante from the east side of Etna near Milo and Nerello Mascalese from Passopisciaro.
- Faro - NE tip of Sicily, historic home to Nocera, a near extinct indigenous varietal.
- Malvasia delle Lipari - golden, honeyed, amber wine with bitter orange.
- Noto - best area for Nero d’Avola
- Siracusa - home to Frappato
- Vittoria - named for Vittoria Colonna Henriquez who granted lands to settlers who planted at least one hectare of vineyards.
Sardegna or Sardinia
Sardinia means “ichnus” in Greek, which means “footprint”. A mysterious civilization lived on the island from 1900-730 bc and built more than 800 Nuraghe (stone fortified dwellings). Sardegna was influenced by the Moors, the crown of Aragon in 1324 and the House of Savoy in 1718. Cannonau is identical to the Spanish grape Grenache and other influences from Spain are evident today.
The main red grape of Sardinia is Cannonau which is said to be identical to Vernaccia Nera, Gamay in Umbria, and Tocai Rosso. Traits of Cannonau are that it is heat and drought resistant, very productive, low anthocyanins, low tannin and acid, and high alcohol. It easily oxidizes and often has a browning color, particularly with age.
The main white grape and only DOCG in Sardinia is Vermentino di Gallura.
Contini is a key producer to look out for Vernaccia di Oristano, The Antico Gregori wine has up to 30 years of blending and 19% ABV. Hugh Johnson called this “one of the 20 wines you must taste before you die.”
The key DOCG’s in Sardegna are:
- Vermentino di Gallura
The key DOC’s in Sardegna are:
- Cannonau di Sardegna
- Carignano del Sulcis - aka Mazuelo aka Bovale Grande.
- Malvasia di Bosa - a dry, oxidized style wine that has saline, dried orange, anise and hazelnut and can age a very long time.
- Monica di Sardegna - a light bodied red wine.
- Nasco di Cagliari - dry and sweet white wines, from Latin for “musky”, one of the oldest varietals.
- Nuragus di Cagliari- aka “abbondanza” because of the high yields and named for “fire”.
- Vernaccia di Oristano - a region that shows the Spanish-Aragones influence with this sherry-like wine.
Calabria is the original land called Oenotria named for the Greek king Oenotro around 1500 B.C. For a thousand years, Calabria was the richest region in Italy. Ironically, it is now the second poorest region after Basilicata. Librandi is a pioneer producer that helped reestablish quality minded winemaking to the region. There are no DOCG wines from Calabria. The main grapes grown in Calabria are Greco Bianco (identical to Malvasia di Lipari) and Galioppo ( a child of Sangiovese and Mantonico). Galioppo has a sibling genetic profile with Nerello Mascalese, Frappato, and Susumaniello.
The key DOC’s in Sardegna are:
- Greco di Bianco
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