A Taste of Italy: Discover the joys of Italian grapes
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A Taste of Italy: Discover the joys of Italian grapes

Written by
Vintage Cellars
January 31, 2019
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Meet the Italian grape varieties with centuries of heritage on their side. Lucky for us, these grapes are thriving in Australia due to similarities in climate and culture.

Grown locally or in their home soil, Italian varieties are enjoying a moment. Imports of Italian wines into Australia have been on the rise for a decade, and there is a familiarity among wine drinkers that sees many of us enjoy prosecco, pinot grigio and nebbiolo on a regular basis.

Similarities between Australia and Italy in climate and wine and food culture help explain our ongoing attraction to Italian wines. Then there’s the taste. Italian varieties are made with food in mind, hence they are subtle, modest in alcohol, often savoury and invariably dry to finish.

Italian white wine varieties
Each Italian wine region has its own distinctive, native white grape variety perfectly suited to its terroir. Sicily has grillo and catarrato. In Veneto, the garganega grape stars. When in Tuscany, you are in the territory of trebbiano, malvasia, vermentino and vernaccia.

In typical Italian style, you may not see a grape variety promoted on the front label as you do in Australia. If a variety is listed it may appear in tandem with a town name, for example, Vernaccia di San Gimignano. The terroir of a place is closely related to style and, to the Italians, quality.

Start your Italian white journey with garganega and grillo. Garganega is the grape behind Soave, grown on the hills above the town of Soave in the Veneto region. Enjoy it in its youth for melon, chervil and pear flavours, or seek out aged examples under the name Soave Superiore for a rich, honeyed and complex wine.

Grillo is Sicily’s great secret, a hybrid grape created specifically to lap up the island’s hot, dry conditions. Traditional winemaking involves skin contact for a broader, earthier, spicier wine. The modern school of winemaking looks to brighter, fresher, fruit-forward flavours.

Pinot grigio is the darling of Italian wine lovers in Australia and Italy. There’s a lot to like. When unoaked, it’s super crisp and fine featured, moderate in alcohol with subtle flavours of apple, citrus and herbs. With later-picked and riper fruit, and a little oak fermentation or maturation, pinot grigio enters a different realm, one that is more textural, aromatic and spicy with stone fruits and honeysuckle.

The grape is one of the few white varieties to boast a grey/pink skin — it’s related to pinot noir, that’s why—and Aussie drinkers are now used to winemakers producing an attractive light blush to their wines, the result of skin contact.

In Italy, pinot grigio’s home is in the north around Lombardia, the Veneto and Friuli regions, which are both super cool and high in altitude, producing zesty, mineral-driven wines. In Australia, the grape (fourth most-planted white grape) is also doing well in cooler climates. The exception is that pinot grigio (picked earlier) and its alter ego, pinot gris (picked later), can be made by the same producer. In Europe, pinot gris indicates the wine is made mainly in Alsace.

Prosecco works as an apéritif, in cocktails (Bellini or Aperol spritz) or partnered with food. There are many styles, depending on the sweetness and winemaking. Prosecco Superiore must contain at least 85% of the glera grape and provides typical citrus, apple, pear and honeysuckle flavours. Growing in popularity is the metodo tradizionale col fondo style, where the yeast sediment remains in the bottle for extra flavour and savouriness. The most complex are single-vineyard expressions from subregions Conegliano Valdobbiadene and Colli Asolani. Dryness ranges from brut (the driest) to extra dry and dry (sweeter). Prosecco is lower in alcohol than many sparklings; less acidic, too.

In Australia, the grape first made its home in Victoria's King Valley in the 1990s but is now grown in most of our cooler climate regions. Prior to 2009, prosecco was the name of the grape, but that year the Italians registered "prosecco" as a regional name, protecting it from use by competitors, and changed the grape’s name to glera. In Australia, our long-term use of prosecco stands, so producers can use the name locally.

Italian red wine varieties
Italian red grapes have been refining their flavour profiles for centuries. They reach us through a high degree of clonal diversity, which explains their individuality. Many are known by more than one name, depending on their provenance. For example, sangiovese is known as Brunello di Montalcino in Tuscany and Nerello in Sicily.

Italy’s top three red grapes are sangiovese, nebbiolo and corvina. Sangiovese is widely grown but its home is Tuscany where it’s used to make chianti, among other styles. Its personality is built around bright, red berry fruits supported by firm acidity. Flavour-wise it can move from cherry-berry to lightly savoury (leather, earth, herbs) and astringent through to the riserva style, which involves extended oak maturation and bottle ageing (mushroom, smoke, herbs).

Nebbiolo is the grape of Piedmont and its fussy nature about where it grows, not to mention its legions of adoring fans, sees it compared to pinot noir. Why? When it’s very good, it’s amazing. Young nebbiolo is pretty, floral (roses, cherry) and spicy but a bit of a conundrum with all those high tannins. Age is the key.

Corvina is the grape behind one of Italy’s greatest reds, amarone. It's made by the appassimento method — grapes are partially dried on straw mats to produce a high concentration of flavour. Amarone grown in Valpolicella in the Veneto is noted for its cherry, chocolate and rich Christmas cake flavours.