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THE JOY OF DIVERSITY OF ITALIAN GRAPE VARIETIES.
One small consolation of “lockdown” has been the opportunity to try lots of different wines. Much as we all have our own favourites, it is most rewarding to try and discover something new and different. This is especially the case when so many parts of the world keep churning out very similar mass market wines often made by or in consultation with “travelling” wine makers.
Sauvignon Blanc is now the biggest selling white wine in the UK and pretty well every country grows this grape varietal, some making more interesting wine than others. This is closely followed by Pinot Grigio and of course Chardonnay. Reds are the same with Merlot being the most popular grape, but interestingly Rioja, generally a blend of more than one grape, is the UK’s best-selling red. Perhaps it is good marketing, but I suspect the more complex flavours, most often developed from ageing in oak barrels, appeals to the British taste and often works very well with British traditional cooking – roasts, chops and stews.
When it comes to Italy, to say we are spoilt for choice would be a serious understatement! There are just short of one thousand identified grape varietals grown, some 350 have been officially classified, leaving literally hundreds of very old and obscure varietals, and masses of different clones. I suppose it is not surprising as every region in Italy grows individual and often very different styles of grapes in the multitude of different climates.
Grapes are grown from the foothills of the Alps and the Dolomites in the north, Aosta, and Trentino, right down to the toe of Italy, Calabria, Puglia and Sicily. With two of the most famous growing regions in the World, Piedmont in the north and Tuscany in the middle.
Italy is the second biggest producer of wine in the World after France, and has a history going back to the Ancient Greek and Etruscan civilisations when they colonised Italy in around 800 BC and brought the Vitis Vinifera (the wine making vine) firstly to Sicily and then coastal areas of Southern Italy. Some of those ancient Greek varietals, or at least closely related clones, still exist in parts of Campania and Calabria. In some small very old and remote vineyards, one can still find some of these varietals and old vine training systems which go back over a thousand years.
But the big expansion of grape growing for wine started with the Romans following their defeat of the Carthaginians in the second century BC. The Romans were masters of the art of wine making, using amphora as well as barrels to ship their wines around their ever-expanding Empire. By the end of the first century AD the Romans had spread vine growing in a big way to France (Gaul) and Spain (Hispania), and even in England, mainly in the South. There is evidence however of grapes being grown up as far north as York for the use of the Legions guarding Hadrian’s Wall.
It is interesting to note that in the first century AD there was a period of about a hundred years of global warming, about plus two or three degrees, which allowed this English wine production, but then it got cold again and vine growing died out. But then again, after the Norman conquest of England in 1066, there was another warm period, when the monks brought over from France and successfully planted and made wine in their Monasteries here. And today a million vines were planted in England last year and the English wine scene is booming, particularly for sparkling wine. So, nothing is new!
On the UK shelves for Italian wines it is wonderful to see so many of the exciting and interesting “new”, or should I say “old”, grape varietals are starting to appear. Particularly delightful, as so many of these tastes and flavours go so well with the wonderfully diverse and delicious regional cooking found throughout the different Italian regions. For example, we have always enjoyed good Chianti with tomato or Bolognese sauces, the bright acidity in the Sangiovese, grape grown up in the cooler hills in Tuscany, going so well with the tomato acidity in the sauces.
For white wines, never under-estimate a good Trebbiano, the grape behind Orvieto and often as a different clone also blended with other varieties, as Frascati. But over the last few years I have fallen in love with the extraordinarily lovely, bright and complex Falanghina grape, mainly from Campania. My favourite is the Falanghina Beneventana from around the area of Benevento to the north and east of Naples, it is a more complex clone than other Falanghinas.
The Falanghina Taburno from a producer called Masseria Frattasi is a wonderful example of this grape. Drink with sea food or shell fish or with good cheeses. One of my favourites is the Taburno:
For a much richer version from old vines and harvested very ripe often with a touch of botrytis (like Sauternes) and perfect with blue cheese like Dolce Latte or Gorgonzola, try the same winery’s Donnalaura Falanghina:
Also from the same region comes Aglianico. This great dark skinned red grape, is now felt to be right up there with Sangiovese and Nebbiolo as one of the Nobel and finest grape varietals in Italy, and I particularly love the Aglianico from the Beneventano region for its elegance, structure and ability to age well. A fine example is made by Masseria Frattasi:
The other whites seriously worth finding are Arneis from Piedmont, Catarratto Bianco and Grillo from Sicily, Pecorino from Abruzzo right down into Vernaccia di San Giminiano in Tuscany. For the reds; Refosco dal Peduncolo rosso from Venezia Giulia and Friuli, Lagrein from Trentino, and Frappato in Sicily. Of the near to one thousand Italian grape varietals, I hope you will find these exciting, and try to find some good dishes to accompany them from the same region, it generally works best. At Artigianoshop.co.uk, you will find an excellent Grillo, (a wine with lovely fresh bright fruit and a saline/mineral backbone and great with fish and shellfish.
Artigiano shop also have a lovely Pecorino which comes from the same place as the cheese of the same name, a wine with floral and peach and apricot aromas, elegant as an aperitivo or with fish and salads.
Artigiano shop also have an all time favourite
, one to keep in the fridge for a small glass whilst cooking and then a larger glass whilst eating! That is their Pinot Grigio, Le Pianure.
Le Pianure is unoaked with fresh minerality from the chalky soils of Friuli-Venzia Giulia. Not the thin often bland mass market Pinot Grigios, this has lovely crisp fruit and a long intense finish.
Finally all sparkling wines are booming, led by Prosecco, English Sparkling Wine, and French Cremant. Champagne has some serious competition. But you must try the wonderful fizz from Trento, the Trento DOC is up there quality wise with top Champagne, made in the same way, bottle fermented, aged and later disgorged and from the same grapes as Champagne. It’s cool high altitude up in the Dolomites is often cooler than Champagne, and maybe this resistance to global warming temperature rises will make this the most sought after fizz of all. Try Ferrari Brut Maximum, available at Amazon.
Bravo to the Italian wine makers for keeping all this variety and not following trends in many other wine growing countries to forget their heritage and this diversity and some delicious grape varieties.
Artigianoshop.co.uk is a small specialist Italian fine wine importer has generously provided a voucher of £20 off for a £100 order and £40 for a £200 order on all purchases. Reveal yours by clicking ‘Reveal voucher’ at the voucher table above.
Christopher Burr, MW,
15th February 2021