A Comprehensive Look at Italy’s Native Grapes
The name of this blog is Learn Italian Wines; I’m happy to write about my knowledge of this subject, which has been formed by more than 60 visits to wine regions around the country over the past fifteen years. I’ve been able to talk with winemakers, vineyard managers and winery owners – as well as other journalists that share my passion – about specific Italian wines and have learned about an incredible array of products that seem to be endless.
So it was with great excitement when I read the recently published book Native Wine Grapes of Italy by Rome-based writer/educator Ian d’Agata. Simply put, this is an exhaustive, encyclopedic study of this particular subject that is first-rate. While it is admittedly written for the serious student of Italian wines, I do think that casual Italian wine lovers will enjoy this book as well, given its dearth of information as well as its tone.
D’Agata covers everything here – and I mean everything. Everyone who knows Italian wines is familiar with famous varieties such as Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Barbera. If you’re a more serious student of this topic, then you probably know about cultivars such as Piedirosso, Fumin and Oseleta. But have you ever heard of Ortrugo, Cjanorie or Corenossa? They’re all part of this book as well.
The author covers a lot in this book and your enjoyment will depend on how much information you need. For example, there are detailed listings of various clones of the hundreds of varieties listed here; for example, there are two dozen separate clones of Barbera listed. I’m not certain how many people reading this book will care about this, but it’s always better to have too much information that too little in my opinion.
For each grape, D’Agata goes into great detail about its history and in many cases, explains how the grape received its name. He is smart enough to list two or more explanations for many of these varieties; I mention this as there have been too many writers these days that list only one theory, as though we’re supposed to believe this as gospel. I’m fascinated with words and their meanings, so it’s wise of the author to make this topic a more complex one.
But getting to the meat of the sections on each variety, D’Agata writes about the areas in which these grapes are grown, the soils and the distinctive characteristics of each variety. He includes quotes from winemakers about particular cultivars and also comments on examples of wines made from many of these grapes from outside Italy, including versions from California (and other parts of the United States), Canada, Australia and a few other countries. These sections, titled “Which Wines to Choose and Why,” is especially nicely organized and helpful to the reader searching for the best wines made from particular varieties. He rates his favorite wines from Italy with stars – one, two and three – instead of the meaningless point system; for me this is a real plus, especially as most readers will discover some excellent wines that are little known outside their immediate areas.
While this is a very serious book, D’Agata does offer his opinions – this is not a dry analysis of Italian wine. For example, he states that “Verdicchio is arguably Italy’s greatest white grape variety”; regarding Nebbiolo, he opines that it is “Italy’s greatest native grape… and one of the world’s five or six great cultivars.” These opinions are held by other experts on Italian wines and varieties, but it’s nice to read this from the author, who then gives us a multitude of reasons why he feels this way.
He also writes with a nice sense of playfulness from time to time. Describing the red variety Uva di Troia from Puglia, he writes, “the wine is never a blockbuster, but rather an exercise in equilibrium: think Marcello Mastrojanni, Cary Grant or Hugh Grant, not the bodybuilders in your gym.” When describing the stylistic changes in Barbera over the past few decades, he writes,”like many who have decided to consult plastic surgeons in these appearance-dominated times, Barbera wines have also undergone a remarkable makeover.”
There is also a chapter, almost 70 pages in length, titled “Little Known Native and Traditional Grape Varieties.” If you thought the varieties I listed earlier, such as Ortrugo and Corenossa were obscure, wait until you read this chapter to discover varieties such as Corinto Nero (Sicily), Francavidda (Puglia), Lecinara (Lazio) and dozens of others. This chapter is followed by three separate tables with detailed information about grape plantings throughout Italy in terms of hectares planted as well as percentages; this information is very helpful. This book covers it all!
D’Agata mentions that this book is the result of thirteen years of conducting interviews and walking through vineyards as well as many more years of tasting. He is to be commended for his tireless research and for taking the time to write this book which I highly recommend.
Native Wine Grapes of Italy
University of California Press, 620 pages ($50)