Posts tagged ‘university of california press’

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

Ian d’Agata

University of California Press, 620 pages ($50)




August 11, 2014 at 11:50 am 3 comments

The Real Story of Brunello di Montalcino

Brunello di Montalcino, one of the world’s most celebrated red wines, is particularly loved and appreciated in America. Approximately one in every four bottles of this wine is sold in this country, as consumers seemingly have identified Brunello as their favorite premium Italian wine. The fact that it’s from Tuscany doesn’t hurt, but it’s also become a bit of a status symbol among American wine drinkers, even more so than its Italian counterparts, Barolo and Amarone.

Yet few consumers really know a great deal about this wine, the territory where it is produced or the individuals who make it. The Brunello marque is so strong, the identity of this wine so associated with grandeur, that few consumers can name more than a handful of estates that craft this wine. The fact that they can drink a bottle of Brunello is what’s most important in the eyes of many.

Given this view, it’s wonderful that Kerin O’Keefe has just written Brunello di Montalcino: Understanding and Appeciating one of Italy’s Greatest Wines (312 pages, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, $39.95). O’Keefe, an American who has been living in Italy since 1991, began writing about Italian wines a few years after that and today, is one of the world’s leading journalists on the subject, contributing articles to such publications as Decanter and The World of Fine Wine among others. Personally, I have known Kerin for about a decade, when I first met her – appropriately enough – at a tasting in Montalcino. She is a trusted colleague and someone who willingly shares her knowledge and opinions.

O’Keefe’s book is worthwhile on so many levels, combining an introduction to the area and its wines in general to a look at recent events and finally, detailed descriptions of a few dozen estates that she considers important as well as influential. One of the primary themes that she drives home in this work is that over the past three decades, the style of Brunello has undergone a serious change, at least with some producers. She writes about the introduction of French barriques – 225 liter barrels – that became fashionable for maturing Brunello in the 1980s and ’90s (and still continues today to some extent). These casks are much smaller than the large oak barrels known as botti that were the traditional vessels used to age the wines in this area. As botti range in size from 20 to 60 hectoliter – or 2000 to 6000 liters – these casks gave far less wood influence to the wines, allowing for greater varietal character (Brunello di Montalcino must of course, be produced entirely from the Sangiovese grape).

The reason why some producers made the switch to the smaller barrels, according to the author, was to try and earn a high score from one of the influential wine publications that were rewarding California and French wines – as well as the infamous Super Tuscans made from international varieties – for their dark colors and super ripe fruit qualities. O’Keefe describes the characteristics of these barrique-aged wines as having “intense chocolate, vanilla and toast influences of new oak;” for the author, this was not beneficial for a wine made with Sangiovese, as the oak flavors “weighed down the variety’s vibrant cherry-berry and mineral sensations.” She is clearly opposed to barriques – she labels this trend in Montalcino as “the dark side” – and she also quotes area producers who explain why barriques significantly alter the true character of a Brunello, resulting in a loss of tradition as some producers opted for instant fame. (The author is also quick to point out that thankfully, there are still many estates that have stayed with the time-honored ways of producing Brunello.)

O’Keefe also goes into great detail about the infamous Brunello scandal of 2008, when it was reported that the prosecutor of Siena had charged four producers with using varieties other than Sangiovese in their Brunello. Given the deep ruby red and purple colors of some of the examples, journalists had been suspecting this for several years, but now here it was officially out in the open. Much was written over the past three years about this sorry affair (not all of it true); O’Keefe’s account of this situation is the best version I have read, not only for its attention to detail, but also in its fairness (she lets one of the accused producers have his say about his winery’s involvement).

Francesco Marone Cinzano, Proprietor, Col d’Orcia  – Col d’Orcia is one of the leading producers of Brunello in the traditional style and one of the author’s favorites. (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

The author takes a close look at the best producers of Brunello, organizing them by subzone and explaining why the best wines take on a sense of the local terroir. Among her favorites are companies such as Col d’Orcia, Poggio di Sotto, Lisini and Biondi-Santi (the author had previously penned a book on this last producer.) She writes about their particular conditions, both in the vineyards and the cellar and contributes a nice summary of the characteristics of each particular wine from these vintners. I love the fact that O’Keefe has omitted several famous Brunello producers, as they favor a modern approach not in step with her likes, while for some producers (such as Banfi), she includes them for their influence, but at the same time, takes them to task for their business practices as well as the style of their wines.

O’Keefe ends the book with a section entitled, “Beyond Brunello,” in which she describes other wines of the area (Rosso di Montalcino, Sant’Antimo, e.g.) as well as lending some valuable tips on pairing Brunello with local foods. This section alone, particularly the food and wine recommendations, should prove to be of invaluable help to anyone touring this area or trying to impress friends at dinner.

In an era where there is so much misinformation about any number of wines and wine news, it’s refreshing to read the work of an author who not only knows her subject in great detail, but one who is opinionated and tells her story in an engaging fashion. Whether you are just discovering Brunello di Montalcino or have been enjoying these wines for decades, this book is highly recommended.

April 28, 2012 at 1:26 pm 8 comments

tom hyland

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