WineThe Collection

The pick of Italy’s indigenous grapes

No country boasts as many grape varieties as Italy. Ian D’Agata traces the trend for indigenous wines back to its roots, and picks 10 fine examples

Words by Ian D’Agata

Piedmont – indigenous grapes
The Collection
Piedmont is home to a huge number of indigenous grape varieties, such as Freisa and Nascetta, as well as the more well-known Nebbiolo, Dolcetto and Barbera

Wine is firmly entrenched as part of Italy’s national identity – from the climate and geological diversity to the fact that most Italians will have grown up with wine at the dinner table (and possibly a grandfather or grandmother who tried their hand – literally – at squeezing a few grapes in their time, to make a house pour).

But Italy’s single greatest blessing is its astonishing number of native grape varieties. No other country comes close to Italy’s 500-plus officially identified grapes. To put things in perspective, that figure is greater than the sum of all those native to France, Spain and Greece, which are second, third and fourth on the list.

Frank Cornelissen
Belgian winemaker Frank Cornelissen's Munjebel Rosso PA 2017 is made with native Sicilian variety Nerello Mascalese (photo: Alfonso Cevola)

Roughly 28% of the world’s wine grapes are Italian, and even though many of these varieties are reduced to scattered plots of vines here and there, Italy makes wine in commercially relevant numbers from many of them. In other words, there is a very practical significance to Italy’s large number of native varieties – unlike the often anecdotal or academic interest in native wine grapes of many other countries.

Ever since I wrote Native Wine Grapes of Italy, indigenous grapes and their wines have piqued the interest of wine experts and wine lovers worldwide. The book helped, but with our increasing appetite for authenticity in the glass, it was only a matter of time before Italy’s native wine grapes claimed their day in the sun.

Native wine grapes hail from a particular place and region, and express a terroir unlike that of grapes cultivated anywhere else in the world. They are also specifically adapted to the environment in which they grow, representing the most ecologically friendly agriculture possible. In addition, they are intimately associated with the local culture, history, tradition and people.

Italy indigenous grapes
Italy is home to more indigenous grapes than any other country in the world, with in excess of 500 varieties officially identified. Illustration: Noma Bar

In a world where sourcing local ingredients is all important, native grapes were in the right place at the right time. They are used to make wines that, in Italy (and elsewhere), are almost always wildly more interesting than the eminently forgettable Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Petit Verdot and Syrah wines made across the globe, all in the same formulaic manner.

Twenty years ago, you would not have been able to find more than two or three varietal wines (and in some cases, none at all) made from the likes of Bellone, Carricante, Grignolino, Nerello Mascalese, Nascetta, Pecorino, Timorasso and a slew of other noble Italian wine grapes that had fallen completely by the wayside. Often, such grapes did not measure up to growers’ expectations of disease resistance and copious yields.

At the same time, native grapes were seen as good only for inexpensive quaffers of no consequence. Now, though, the likes of Barbera, Montepulciano, Nerello Cappuccio, Monica, Nasco and Perricone have finally been studied and reassessed. Today, there are more than 60 Pecorino wines, 30-plus Timorasso wines and about the same number of Nascetta wines. Grape varieties people never imagined were capable of giving age-worthy wines are now proving everyone wrong – who imagined a wine made with Grignolino could age and improve after 15 years of cellaring?

Native Italian wine grapes are now so popular that many are regarded as international

Wines made with native grapes are starting to command increasingly high prices – a surefire sign of increased consumer interest. In fact, native Italian wine grapes are now so popular that many of them are coming to be regarded as international. The global vineyard area devoted to the likes of Barbera, Fiano and Montepulciano still lags way behind, but it is increasing steadily, from Australia to Chile to California.

Every day, many new wines made with indigenous grapes are hitting store shelves, wine lists and collectors’ cellars around the world. Clearly, these wines all differ, given the huge diversity in terroir, but most are at the very least interesting, and at best excellent and exciting – and worthy of a grander stage than grandmother’s table. The return to prominence of Italy’s native grapes is a win-win situation for all – here are 10 excellent examples to try (note: the grape variety is indicated in brackets after the vintage).

Club Oenologique Issue 7

This article is taken from the spring 2021 edition (Issue 7) of our quarterly magazine which focuses on wine, spirits and good living, with vivid imagery and insightful articles. Click here to find out more.