Discover Italian Wines: The Top Red-Grape Varieties
Twenty-one red grape varieties compose Italy’s major varieties for red wine. Four of these are especially important, either for the quality of wine they produce or for their dissemination throughout the country. Explore this “fab four” of Italian red wine and discover a new favorite.
The indigenous Sangiovese (san joe VAE sae) is the most planted red variety in Italy’s vineyards. It’s the lifeblood of red wine production in the central Italian regions of Tuscany and Umbria; it also grows in several other regions. It is the major grape of Chianti and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and the only variety in Brunello di Montalcino; many critically acclaimed Super-Tuscan wines also derive largely from Sangiovese. (Super-Tuscans are expensive wines with proprietary and often fanciful names and heavy bottles.) Common blending partners for Sangiovese include the native Canaiolo (can eye OH lo) grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.
Dozens of clones, or subvarieties, of Sangiovese exist, some finer than others. (This variety changes in response to its grapegrowing environment, which accounts for its diversity.) One family, of clones responsible for many of the best Sangiovese wines is called Sangiovese Grosso (“large Sangiovese”). Some Tuscan producers call Sangiovese Grosso “Sangioveto,” but this is not an official name.
The characteristics of Sangiovese include only a medium intensity of color, high acidity, firm tannin, and aromas and flavors of cherries and herbs. Most wines made from Sangiovese are lean in structure; they’re generally medium-bodied, but some are light-bodied or full-bodied, depending on where the grapes grow. The more serious wines based on Sangiovese are capable of developing forest-floor aromas and a seductive smoothness and harmony with age.
The Nebbiolo (nehb be OH loh) variety is a specialty of the Piedmont region. This native Italian grape makes two of Italy’s very greatest red wines, Barolo and Barbaresco, as well as several less exalted wines.
Nebbiolo produces full-bodied, characterful wines that are high in acid and have marked tannin, but generally have only medium color intensity. Nebbiolo’s aromas and flavors vary according to the vineyard site, but cover a wide spectrum, from fruity (strawberry) to herbal (mint, camphor, and anise) to earthy (mushrooms, white truffles, and tar) to floral; these aromas can be very vivid and pure. The finest Nebbiolo-based wines take many years to develop and can live for decades; many approachable, young-drinking wines from Nebbiolo also exist. Nebbiolo is usually not blended with other varieties; when it is, Barbera and Bonarda are predictable partners.
Until Sangiovese dethroned Barbera sometime in the past 20 years, Barbera (bar BAE rah) was the most planted red variety in all of Italy. It still grows in many parts of the Italian peninsula, but its finest wines come from Piedmont, Barbera’s home turf.
Barbera is a very unusual red variety because it has almost no tannin. It does have deep color and high acidity, as well as spicy and red-fruit aromas and flavors that are vivid in young wines. The combination of high acid, low tannin, and vivid flavor make Barbera wines particularly refreshing. The finest expressions of Barbera are unblended, but many blended wines containing Barbera do exist.
This unsung native variety is the pride of the Campania and Basilicata regions, in Southern Italy, where it makes Taurasi and Aglianico del Vulture (ahl YAHN ee co del VUL too rae), respectively. Aglianico came to Southern Italy from Greece millennia ago, and today grows as far north as Lazio; in the South, it also grows in Molise, Puglia, and Calabria.
At its best, Aglianico makes dark, powerful red wines of high quality. But its production is relatively small, and in many cases the variety is merely part of a blend with other southern varieties. Nevertheless, it is one of Italy’s finest red varieties, and has excellent potential.
Other important red varieties
The following 17 red varieties are also quite important in Italy. Here they are in alphabetical order:
- Cabernet Franc (cab er nay frahnc): This French variety has grown in Italy’s northeastern regions for more than a century; today, its use is declining somewhat in favor of Cabernet Sauvignon (with which it is often blended)
- Cabernet Sauvignon (cab er nay soh vee n’yon):Some Italian wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon show the dark color, firm tannin, and blackcurrant flavors typical of the variety, but many others are lighter in color, body, and tannin, and have vegetal flavors — all indicative of high crop yields and under-ripe grapes.
- Cannonau (cahn nah NOW):This Sardinian variety is actually Grenache (as it’s known in France) or Garnacha (as it’s known in its native Spain). In Sardinia, it’s the island’s main red variety, making light- and/or full-bodied wines as well as rosés.
- Corvina (cor VEE nah):Most Corvina-based wines have light to medium body, high acidity, medium tannin, and flavors of red cherries. It has great potential as a stand-alone variety for fine wine.
- Dolcetto (dohl CHET toh): A variety that’s quite important in Piedmont, where it’s valued not only for its deep color and spicy, berry character, but also for its early-ripening tendency.
- Lagrein (lah GRYNE):Technically Lagrein Scuro, or Lagrein Dunkel (dark Lagrein),an historic variety in Alto Adige, where it makes perfumed, medium-bodied reds and light roses, as well as some rich, dark, characterful red wines. Lesser clones of Lagrein also exist.
- Lambrusco (lam BREWS coh):An ancient, native variety that’s critical to the health of the wine economy in Emilia-Romagna, thanks to the success of Lambrusco wines in the U.S. This grape has delicious flavors of red fruits and spice, medium tannin, and fairly high acidity.
- Merlot (mair loh):In Italy, this variety typically makes medium-bodied wines, at best, with medium color intensity and flavors that are vegetal and herbal (symptomatic of overly high crop yields or inappropriately cool climates).
- Montepulciano (mon tae pull chee AH noh):It produces medium-bodied wines with unusual smoky, red-fruity, and vegetal flavors; these wines range from seriously good to quaffable in quality.
- Negroamaro (NAE grow ah MAH roh):Literally, “black and bitter,”a native variety that’s widely planted in the South, especially Puglia; it makes flavorful, high-alcohol wines.
- Nero d’Avola (NAE roh DAHV oh lah): This high quality variety — known as Calabrese in its native Calabria — is important mainly in Sicily. It makes deeply colored, age-worthy wines that are full-bodied and moderate in tannin, with heady flavors of ripe fruit and herbs.
- Pinot Nero (pee noh NAIR oh):This variety is significant throughout northeastern Italy and in Lombardy, in the Northwest, for both still and sparkling wines. Because it’s one of the world’s major red varieties, winemakers in various other regions, including Piedmont and Tuscany, are trying their hands with it.
- Primitivo (prim ih TEE voh):Primitivo makes deeply colored wines with spicy, ripe berry character, full body, and high alcohol.
- Refosco (reh FOES coh): A specialty of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, this variety makes velvety-textured, medium- and full-bodied wines with ripe plum flavors — many of which are quite good.
- Sagrantino (sag rahn TEE noh):This variety is fairly limited in its production zone, but is responsible for the dark, intense, ageworthy red called Montefalco Sagrantino, from Umbria.
- Schiava (skee AH vah):The most common variety in Alto Adige, where it generally makes light- to medium-bodied, easy-drinking red wines. German-speaking locals call it Vernatsch. Several sub-varieties exist.
- Teroldego (teh ROHL dae go):A major, native variety in the Trentino sub-region, in northern Italy, where it produces fresh-tasting, fruity reds with good color; similar to Lagrein.