Speak Italian Wine Grapes

Get to Know Italian Wine Grapes

Get to Know Italian Wine Grapes

While the names of French varietals now roll with ease from the tongues of English speaking wine drinkers, Italian grapes are greatly unknown save Pinot Grigio or perhaps Sangiovese.

For some time now Chardonnay is nearly synonymous with white wine. Restaurant patrons order Chardonnay reflexively just as they ordered Chablis in the 70s and 80s. (Ironically, they were rarely drinking authentic French Chablis, that is made from Chardonnay, rather a simple and often cheap domestic wine that cunningly borrowed the name Chablis.)

On the red side of the wine menu Cabernet and Pinot Noir have become somewhat synonymous with red wine. How about the great Italian grapes?

But the balance of grape power is more bleak for the Italian varietals. While Chardonnay is atop of the white grape hierarchy and Cabernet tops the red, French varietals hold the runner-up positions as well.

How about Merlot? French. Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier are French, French, French, and French. (See our unique look at French Wine Varietals.)

Italy is known by the casual wine fan for offering Pinot Grigio (and the examples most often poured in bars and restaurants are simply adequate at best). More experienced wine drinkers know Sangiovese and perhaps Barbera but beyond that they are hard-pressed to name an Italian wine grape.

In an effort to balance the scales of global grape power, we offer this simple “cheat sheet” of Italian varietals. Most of these varieties produce wines with great balancing acidity that make them ideal at the dinner table. This is far from complete as Italy offers an incredible array of varietals and wine styles but it’s a start.

Curious about more wine grapes? See our big list of wine grapes here.

Italian Wine Grapes

Grape Description
Aglianico A red grape variety of ancient origin, likely Greek. A favorite among Roman and Greek scholars. Grown primarily in Central and South Italy most notably in Campania and Basilicata. The resulting wines are most often medium to full-bodied and sturdy. Taurasi and Aglianico del Vulture are the most recognized wines. This great grape variety is now finding a home in California and Australia. Aglianico produces wines that are dense in fruit with generous tannins and acidity.
Arneis A white variety grown in the Italian region of Piedmont where it produces primarily dry, zesty, and fruity wines in the hills of Roero. The wines are typically dry and medium to full-bodied offering wonderful aromatics akin to spring flowers, apricot, and Asian pear. This stylish grape is now seeing limited use in California and New Zealand.
Barbera A tremendous red variety native to Italy’s Piedmont region where it enjoys official (DOC) status. Barbera follows Sangiovese as Italy’s most widely planted variety. It was once a very popular variety in California where it often produced wines of distinction. Sadly, Barbera planting in California has been greatly diminished although it is well-suited to many of the popular appellations. The wines typically have deep color, intense fruit, low tannins, and generous amounts of acidity.
Bonarda A red variety native to Piedmont’s Novara Hills where it contributes to several DOC wines. Bonarda is also widely planted in Argentina. Many believe it to be synonymous with Charbono grown in California. The wines are often rich and fruity with soft tannins and a refreshing dose of acidity.
Brachetto A red variety most commonly used to produce sparkling, semisweet, red wines in Piedmont. The variety is scarcely seen outside of Italy.
Cortese A popular and ancient white variety grown in Italy’s Piedmont region where it produces the famous northern wine, Gavi. Outside of Piedmont the variety is important in Oltrepò Pavese, Veneto, and Lombardy. Cortese is rarely seen outside of Italy (although we have seen a few California versions at BevX). The wines are often light and dry with crisp acidity and it is often paired with seafood.
Corvina A popular and greatly significant red variety grown in Italy’s Veneto region and throughout the northeast. Corvina is the primary grape responsible for Valpolicella (including Amarone) and Bardolino. The quality movement in these areas has resulted in a new appreciation for Corvina recognizing it as one of Italy’s noble red grapes. The wines of Corvina are most often medium-bodied with a fresh and sometimes tart cherry flavor with low tannins and a great balance of acidity.
Dolcetto A popular red variety grown in Italy’s Piedmont region where it produces varietally labeled wines grown primarily in and around the towns of Alba and Asti. The resulting wines are softer, fruitier, and less tannic than the region’s best known varieties, Nebbiolo, and Barbera. This variety is growing in popularity in California where it tends to make darker and richer wines than found in its native Italy.
Falanghina An ancient white variety grown primarily in Italy’s Campania region. The wines are quite unique being fruity and exotic while crisp with bright acidity. The flavors are unique and expressive but very approachable making Falanghina a perfect rut-busting wine and a clever alternative to Pinot Grigio.
Fiano An ancient white varietal, known as Apianum to the Romans and Vitis Apiana due to the fact that the sweet grapes are irresistible to bees. Fiano is used most prominently in Campania’s Fiano di Avellino. The wines show exotic fruit notes with a generous dose of natural acidity. It is a classy aperitif.
Gaglioppo An ancient variety that is both flavorful and delicate reminiscent of fresh crushed wild berries. Gaglioppo is popular in Italy’s Calabria region where it produces the great DOC Ciro and Donnici, as well as contributing to many other wines of the region. The wines are full-bodied while relatively light in color. Gaglioppo wines are often at their best with moderate bottle aging that allows the tannins to mellow and the flavors to harmonize.
Garganega A white variety native to northwest Italy where it is primarily responsible for the famous Soave among other wines of the Veneto region. At their best the wines are rich in orchard fruits with a good dose of acidity and complex dried fruit notes.
Grignolino A red variety that was once a fashionable variety in Italy’s Piedmont region where it still is employed to produce light, fruity wines near the town of Asti.
Lagrein A red variety long appreciated in Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige district. The wines can be quite high in acid and sometimes astringent. The wines are deeply colored with dense berry and earth notes. The variety is a rarity outside of Italy but we have seen a lovely example from California that gives up hope that this quirky variety may grow in popularity.
Montepulciano (d Abruzzo) An ancient and increasingly popular variety grown in central and south Italy. Quite confusingly, this variety has no relation to the Tuscan town of the same name that is produced from Sangiovese.
Nebbiolo One of Italy’s most noble red varieties. Most prominent in the Piedmont region where it is responsible for the tremendous DOCG (Italy’s top official classification) wines Barolo and Barbaresco, as well as the lesser appreciated Gattinara and Ghemme. Synonymous with Spanna. For the grower, Nebbiolo has a reputation of being difficult. The wines are often light in color but don’t be fooled. Nebbiolo wines are often robust with high tannin levels. Flavor and aroma characteristics include: violets, herbs, cherry, raspberry, tar, truffles, and dried berries.
Negroamaro An increasingly popular variety from Italy’s Apulia region. Grown throughout the south of Italy where it produces fruity, dark, and often assertive wines.
Nero d’Avola Nero d’Avola is Sicily’s most noted red variety and is now grown in several southern Italian regions. The variety is growing in popularity thanks to a good number of exports sold at value prices. Synonymous with Calabrese.
Pinot Grigio Synonymous with Pinot Gris. Perhaps Italy’s most popular export white variety where it produces wines of varying interest. At its best Pinot Grigio produces wines with fresh fruit flavors and great balance. Sadly, the variety is often over-cropped making wines that are thin, lifeless, and instantly forgettable.
Primitivo A successful and robust red variety from Italy’s Apulia region. In the US, Primitivo gained recognition when it was first discovered that it was a close relative to California’s beloved Zinfandel. Primitivo is gaining in popularity as many new labels, often available at competitive prices, have found there way to US stores and restaurants. The wines are rich and rustic with blackberry and raspberry flavors.
Sangiovese Italy’s most planted varietal as well as one of its most noble red grapes. Sangiovese is famously used in Tuscany where it is the primary variety of Chianti. Various clonal varieties produce Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and many others. Sangiovese is used throughout Italy and is now being found increasingly outside of Italy. In California the variety is growing in popularity. At it s best Sangiovese produces wines with balance over power offering accents of earth and herbs with dense, dry fruit.
Verdicchio An ancient white variety of distinction most prominently used in Italy’s Marches. The variety is best showcased in the areas of Castelli di Jesi and Matelica where they produce wines that are noted for their complex ripe green apple notes and distinctive nutty accents. Recently, we have seen Verdicchio in California! Stay tuned.
Vermentino A white variety producing unique wines from Tuscany to Sardinia and Liguria. The variety is also important in the South of France. This versatile produces dry, crisp white table wines, as well as sparkling and sweet wines.
Vernaccia A white variety of some distinction most notably known for its wines produced in and near the Tuscan town of San Gimignano, Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Vernaccia produces wines with a pleasing fruity character matched with generous acidity and a fresh, clean finish. It is rarely seen outside of Italy while we have lately seen a handful of US examples.

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