Let’s talk about Italy without mentioning a certain fruity sparkling wine or a pale-as-water everyday drinking white because this proud wine-producing country has so much more to offer than just these two. Vying each year with France for the title of largest producer of wine in the world (which Italy has won in the last few years), it is a country of many famous wine names with well-deserved international recognition. We are familiar with many of these top wines; we have been long-term and regular consumers of them; we know what to match them with food-wise; we‘re even quite happy (well, prepared anyway) to spend above the average to drink them. So it surprised me to learn that the following question on the TV programme Pointless was a pointless answer: What is the grape from which the Italian wine Barolo is made?
The grapes from France roll off the tongue quite easily for most of us because they have been planted in vineyards from Bordeaux to Napa, from Burgundy to Barossa, and are splashed across New World wine labels. Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon are grapes we are familiar with. We know how to pronounce them and we have a shrewd idea of what the wine will taste like. But what of Nebbiolo, Garganega or Sangiovese? How about Aglianico, Corvina or Fiano? Most of the time, the wine is labelled by town name or more accurately by its area appellation, its DOC/DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata/ Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) and only rarely is the grape variety mentioned on the label.
Nebbiolo is the pointless answer to that question, responsible for arguably Italy’s finest red, Barolo. It makes full-bodied, tannic wines, high in acid and with its natural affinity with oak has great potential for ageing. The aromas and flavours of this king of Italian grapes are varied depending on the vineyard site and the age of the wine and can be red fruit and floral in character through to earthy and tar-like.
You will probably have drunk Sangiovese before – it’s the principal variety of Tuscany, used in Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG and in Chianti, where, by the DOCG law, it must make up a minimum of 75% of the blend. The super-posh Brunello di Montalcino DOCG is always 100% Sangiovese, but it is known as Brunello here. I didn’t say this was going to be easy, did I? Characterised by cherry flavours, these wines are not too dark in colour belying the fact that they are nevertheless pretty full on in body and acidity.
Corvina also reveals cherry-like aromas, tending towards a medium-bodied style but again with a gutsy acid backbone which makes it the perfect grape for Valpolicella and its aristocratic cousin, Amarone. From the north-east to the central south and home to the best wine of the Aglianico grape, where it is helpfully called Anglianico del Vulture. Grapes are grown on the slopes of the extinct volcano, Mount Vulture, producing big, dark, bold chocolatey reds which develop a refined silkiness with age. These tend to be wines which punch well above their price point.
A couple of white grapes of note among the many planted are Garganega used for Soave – pale, light and citrusy crisp – and Cortese, Gavi’s grape. Gavi wines, when they are done well, offer up structured, complex styles which can be peachy and floral with notes of melon and lemon. My current Italian white favourite though is Fiano. I like it either singly or as part of a blend. Grown for the most part in southern Italy, particularly in Campania, it does well in the volcanic soils around Naples. It’s a grape that produces low yields so many wine-makers steer clear of growing it for economic reasons. Others love it for its thick skin, good structure and characters of stone fruit, honey and nuts. Dry and rounded, it works brilliantly with white meats and creamy pasta dishes.
Italy grows several hundred grape varieties, many of which are indigenous. So with the few that have been mentioned here, we have barely scratched the surface. But it’s a start. A start, with any luck, towards exploring further and trying something other than Prosecco and Pinot Grigio from a wine country which makes so many more exciting wines throughout its geographically varied mainland and islands.
Try some at Love Wine Festival on 5th November at The Burlington Hotel. Tickets are now on sale at www.lovewinefest.co.uk
To win a bottle of the Co-op’s Truly Irresistible Fiano send your name to and address to firstname.lastname@example.org. Closing date is 31st August, 2016.