There are over 2,000 traditional, indigenous grape varieties thriving in Italy and of the top 20, only one, Merlot, is an immigrant. Aside from the “SuperTuscans,” most of which involve Cabernet Sauvignon in one way or another, Italy’s world-class wines are all made with her own grapes, each perfectly expressive of place and perfectly matched to the cuisine of its region. We know most of these wines by place names – Chianti, Barolo, Amarone, Valpolicella – but perhaps it’s time to introduce the grapes behind the wines.
The name could scarcely have a more heavenly pedigree, derived from sanguis Jovis, Latin for “the blood of Jupiter. The Etruscans were growing it in the hills around Florence in pre-Roman times and it grows there still, the variety at the heart of the blend of grapes that goes into Chianti. But there is Sangiovese and there is Sangiovese — a great many distinct clones or variations of the grape exist. Factor in differences in climate and terrain, the farmer’s notions and the winemaker’s whims, and it’s no surprise that wines made from this grape vary dramatically. That’s why Fazi Battaglia Sangiovese delle Marche is a simple, easy-drinking light red while a Brunello di Montalcino, from the clone of Sangiovese called Brunello, can be one of the greatest wines you will ever drink, rich and complex and happy to age for the better part of a century. Chianti is such a broad field that there’s no shame in sticking to a familiar and trusted producer. Antinori’s Chianti Classico Riserva is a delicious heavyweight with a nose of raspberries and cherries, a good long finish and a refreshing trace of the tannic austerity of its youth. It’s perfect with veal and has the acidity to stand up to antipasti or a pasta dish with tomato sauce. Good young Chiantis benefit from decanting or even being poured into a clean glass jug. The oxygen loosens them up beautifully.
Never heard of Corvina? How about Rondinella, Niolinara and Negrara? You won’t see their names standing alone on a label but in the western Veneto they comprise the blend that makes Valpolicella and its two variations, Valpolicella Ripasso and Amarone. Corvina is the lynchpin of the quartet, accounting for up to 70 percent of the blend; Negrara may not be included at all. It’s fascinating to explore the different effects these grapes can achieve. A regular Valpolicella like that from Bolais lightweight, quaffable with a cheerful nose of cherry and almond. But pick and dry the grapes in well-aired conditions over the winter and then press these raisins into wine, letting all the sticky sugars turn to alcohol, and you end up with a dry Amarone. The version from Tedeschi, Amarone is extraordinary, a wine to sip and ponder over, perhaps with a little hard cheese and a bowl of nuts for company. The nose is full of blackberries, black cherries, exotic spices and tobacco leaf, and there’s a hint of bitterness behind the dry richness, the bitterness that is the literal translation of Amarone. The third expression of these grapes falls somewhere between the two. Ripasso is a wine-making technique by which the unpressed skins of the dried grapes used to make an Amarone are added to regular Valpolicella, boosting richness, flavour and alcohol. Cesari Mara Vino di Ripasso Valpolicella is a stunning example, smooth and rich with a trace of sweetness, as if someone had taken those Valpolicella cherries and turned them into an intensely flavoured compote. Look for this wine the next time you have a stew of beef or venison.
I once spent an evening with a fanatic Barolo collector, down in his luxuriously accoutred wine cellar, nibbling on Parmesan cheese and lasting very, very old Barolos. “I love them when they’re over the hill,” he sighed, “with an orangey rim when you hold the glass up to the light and the scent of old roses.” They were superb, fragrant and fragile-nothing at all like the dark, tannic, complex, muscular wines they had been in their youth. Barolo is one of the world’s greatest red wines; Barbaresco’s not bad, too. Both come from a small part of Piedmont close to the town of Alba, world centre for white truffles, and both are a glorious expression of the Nebbiolo grape. So why isn’t Nebbiolo a household name? It’s very much a homebody. It shows up a little in Lombardy and near the Swiss border in Valtellina, but refuses to perform anywhere else in the world. Walk the rounded hills outside Alba on an October morning, and you can almost see why. It’s a particularly serene and lovely place with the deep valleys still full of autumnal mist. According to the romantics, those vapours, or nebbia, gave Nebbiolo its name, because the grape ripens very late in the fall, its juice black with extract, tannins and acidity, demanding years in oak before the wine becomes drinkable. I recently tasted the Batasiolo Baroloand it was like sipping black velvet, still with a tannic rigour, still with robust acidity (how good it would have been with roast lamb!) but full of a complex sensation of black fruits, violets and licorice. Heavenly stuff.
Here is one grape not native to Italy, but when we call it by its Italian name, Pinot Grigio, we think of a distinct style of wine quite different from Pinot Gris in Alsace or Oregon, or Rulander in Germany. At least, that used to be the case… The cool hills of Friuli and the mountainsides of the Alto Adige, both in Italy’s northeast, have always been Pinot Grigio’s heartland south of the Alps. The local taste was for crispness and acidity in these wines and, since this grape tends to lose acidity quickly as it ripens, producers always picked Pinot Grigio early. The acidity was still zinging and the body surprisingly full, but the fruit hadn’t really had time to develop much of the character it shows in other countries. In the last couple of years, that profile seems to be changing. Check out Collavini’s Pinot Grigio from Friuli — there are lemons and marzipan on the nose and a lingering citrus and almond flavour in the opulent body. Or try the Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio from the Alto Adige — the nose suggests lemon and orange, and the fruity intensity of the flavour is more like a Sauvignon than a Pinot Grigio. My guess is that producers are lowering yields in the vineyard to concentrate more flavour into the grapes, and picking them a little bit later than they used to in days of yore. Pinot Grigio has emerged as a new favourite in North America, lighter and fresher than Chardonnay, smooth, tangy and approachable. I tried the Santa Margherita the other night, served with a plain grilled sea bream dressed with olive oil, lemon and parsley. It was a terrific match, the full body of the wine matching the richness of the fish, the delicate flavours in delicious harmony.
The history books tell its of a wine called Pulcinum that the ancient Romans loved. It came from a place in the northeastern region of Friuli, from a town (and a grape variety) now called Prosecco, and it was nothing at all like the Prosecco we drink today. Our Prosecco comes from a different area altogether — a tiny region of dramatically steep, exceedingly beautiful hills in the Veneto region, about 50 kilometres north of Venice. It’s the Venetians’ local bubbly, and aficionados distinguish subtleties between the crisp delicate sparklers from Valdobhiadene and the slightly softer, fruitier versions from Conegliano, a stone’s throw away. Either is deemed the proper fizz to use in a Bellini, the glamorous cocktail invented at Harry’s Bar in Venice that calls for a liquidized ripe white peach and a splash of Prosecco. Prosecco is not a wine of powerful character. It’s dry, has a slight fragrance and flavour of apples and enough acidity to perk up your taste buds. Above all, it’s marvellously refreshing, a lovely way to start the evening or wake up the palate at brunchtime. And its very neutrality works in its favour with delicate foods like sushi. It won’t pick fights with the fish, or the ginger, the wasabi or the vinegared rice, and if you decide to switch to sake later in the meal, your taste buds won’t do a somersault. That is Prosecco’s nature — affable. sociable, easy-going — whether you choose very dry Prosecco di Valdobbiadene or the slightly fruitier Vino dei Poeti. These wines are for having fun.