Sunday, 17 June 2012

A - Z of Classical Italian White Grape Varieties

There are literally thousands of different varieties of wine grapes grown in Italy today, the majority of which are traditional, classical varieties grown only in Italy. Many varieties are only grown in the regions they have been grown for hundreds of years and often are only used in one sort of wine.

It would take far too long to tell you about every white grape variety in Italy, many of varieties have different names in different regions and many others are hybrids of other grape varieties.

Below are the more important classical white grape varieties found in Italy today and the wines with which they are made. In addition to these classical white varieties there are also the usual noble white grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Albana: comes from the south west of the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy. The home of the Albana grape expands from the coastal area of Rimini and Riccione to east of Bologna, with an area of hills between the two. There is much history associated with the Albana di Romagna area. One story from 435 AD concerns Galla Placida, the beautiful daughter of the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II. She arrived in a small village on a white donkey, and the villagers were so overcome with her beauty that they offered her some of the area's sweet wine (Albana) from a simple terracotta jug. She was so impressed she said "You should not drink this wine in such a humble container. Rather it should be drunk in gold." From that day on, the village was called Bertinoro and the wine was drunk from refined goblets at the court of Ravenna. Albana di Romagna’s claim to fame is that it was the first of the area's white wines to receive its DOCG classification. There has been much controversy surrounding this ranking, the general opinion is that this wine does not deserve such a high-quality ranking.

Arneis: is a white grape variety that is native to the north west of Italy, but is now also grown in California, Australia and New Zealand. In Piedmont, the grape’s home region, Arneis means ‘the little rascal’ in the local Piemontese dialect, this is  due to Arneis’s difficult tendencies in the vineyard where it is low yielding, susceptible to diease and often struggles to achieve good levels of acid and end quality. In Italy, the Roero Arneis DOCG was created for varietal Arneis wines and until the 1970s, Arneis was used only as a partner to Piedmont’s more popular grape variety, Nebbiolo. Nebbiolo and Arneis work well together as Arneis will soften out Nebbiolo’s tougher side and provide some more aromatic character to the final wine. Single varietal Arneis has aromas of flowers, almond and pears. On the palate it has a  medium to full body, and shows apple, pear and apricot flavors. It may be produced as a dry, passito or lightly sparkling wine.

Bombino: is an important wine grape in Puglia, but has little significance anywhere else. It is likely that the vine originated in Spain, where it is also planted. It is also known as Staccia Cambiale.

Carricante:  is an very ancient Sicilian grape variety. It is thought to have been growing on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna for at least one thousand years. The variety is known for its high acidity, intense flavours and great ageing potential. Carricante is very well-suited to the high seasonal variations in temperature around the Etna region. The best vines grow at high altitudes on sulphurous, volcanic soils and produce wines with aromas of green apple, bitter almond and mineral flavours.

Catarrato: Catarratto is a Sicilian white grape variety which is the second most planted single variety in Italy. Catarratto Bianco Lucido, is planted much less  than Catarratto Bianco Comune, but is far more superior in terms of quality. Catarrato is planted almost exclusively in the western region of Trapani and has in the past been much used in the production of Marsala. A handful of records point to the existance of a Catarratto Nero grape variety, although there is little evidence to suggest that this is still in use.

Coda di Volpe:  is light skinned white wine grape that has been used since ancient time to make medium to full-bodied white wines around Naples in the Campania region of southern Italy. The name Coda di Volpe means 'Tail of the Fox', this is due to the way its bunches of grapes hang from the vine they resemble a fox's bushy tail. Coda di Volpe has seen a revival since the 1970s, and is now used to make single varietal wines in several of Campanian DOCs such as  Irpinia and Sannio. It is also used as a blending wine in such DOCs as Solopaca and Vesuvio. The Vesuvio DOC covers wines from the lower slopes of Mount Vesuvius that are used to make the famous Lacryma Christi wines. Coda di Volpe wines have a fruity (citrus and sometimes even a touch tropical) and spicy (sweet rather than peppery) character. They are not that high in acidity, which is the reason that it grows so well in Vesuvius' volcanic soils. Volcanic soils usually give wines a higher acidity so a grape with lower than average acidity is planted to compensate for this. Coda di Volpe grapes are golden-yellow in colour, as is the wine they make. 

Cortese: is a white Italian wine grape variety mainly grown in the south eastern regions of Piedmont in the regions of Alessandria and Asti. It is the main grape of the DOC wines of Cortese dell'Alto Monferrato and Colli Tortonesi and the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) wine of Cortese di Gavi. Some plantings of Cortese can also be found in the Lombardy region and in the DOC white wine blends of the Veneto wine region of Bianco di Custoza. Cortese has a long history in Italian wine making with written documentation naming the grape among the plantings in a Piedmontese vineyard as early as 1659. The grape's light to moderate acidity and light flavors have made it a favourite in nearby Genoa where it goes great with the local seafood caught off the Ligurian coast.

Falanghina: is an ancient Italian white wine grape, believed to be of Greek origin. It is also said that Falanghina is the grape variety behind Falernian, the most famous wine of the ancient Roman empire. There has been a reveival of interest in Falanghina recently, and there is now a movement to restore this once celebrated grape back to its former glory. Campania is the region where most Falanghina is grown. The vines thrive on the volcanic soils around Mount Vesuvius. The grapes have yellow skin and are coated with a thin layer of wax. Falanghina can have a pine scent, but is better identified by its citrus blossom and bitter orange aromas. It typically has apple and pear flavours, sometimes accented, depending on where it is grown, with spicy or mineral aromas. Though it is becoming increasingly fashionable, Falanghina is rarely planted outside Campania. There is a little in Puglia and Abruzzo, but as yet no international production. Falanghina is often blended with other native Italian varieties, or produced as a sweet passito wine, but more recently the trend is towards varietal wines made from this interesting grape.

Fiano: is an ancient white grape variety that is widely used in southern Italy, mainly in the Fiano di Avellino DOCG in Campania. Fiano appears both in blends and as a single varietal wine, Fiano is often used for its strong flavors. It adds body and roundness to white wine blends, and gives its floral and honeyed aromas and spicy hints. As a single varietal wine, Fiano thrives when grown on the volcanic soils of the Apennine Mountains. Sweeter styles of Fiano are used in sparkling wines, though these are rarely seen outside of Campania. In Sicily, Fiano is gaining good reviews as a single varietal wine, and in Puglia it is allowed to be used in the Martina Franca DOC.

Garganega: is one of Italy’s most  planted light-skinned grape varieties. It’s the main white grape of the Veneto region, and dominates the blend of the Gambellara and Soave DOCs (as well as the Soave Superiore DOCG), where it can be blended with either the local Trebbiano di Soaveor or Trebbiano Toscano ( not in the DOCG wines), Pinot Bianco and Chardonnay. Garganega is suited to making appassimento wines, the sweet wines made from dried, late-harvested grapes, these wines have a separate DOCG  Recioto di Soave. Just as with Chardonnay, Garganega has the ability to adapt to the manner in which it is grown. In cooler sites it shows mineral, apple aromas, rather like  Chablis,  with good balanced yet defined acidity. In warmer regions Garganega make wines with delicate citrus aromas, but stone fruit flavours tend to take over. When made into appassimento wines, Garganega has aromas of honey, tropical fruits and exotic spices combined with a good balance of citrus flavours. Garganega is grown in many other DOCs in the Veneto region, Arcole, Bianco di Custoza, Colli Berici, Monti Lessini and Vicenza all allow the use of Garganega. It is also grown in  Friuli and Lombardy DOCs around Lake Garda. Further south in Umbria, the hills of Colli Amerini and Colli Perugini are home to a few Garganega vines whose grapes are used as a blending wine for dry-white and sparkling (spumante) wines. Supposedly the Sicilian variety Grecanico is believed to be Garganega.

Greco di Tufo: is a area of the Campania wine region in southern Italy. It is here that the region's most prestigious white wine, made mainly from the grape variety that shares its name. The Greco di Tufo grape is a clone of Greco Bianco, the name Tufo refers not only to one of the villages from which the wine comes, but also the type of rock on which the village was built. The best Greco di Tufo vines are found on the volcanic hills of the Avellino province in central Campania where the wines must contain a minimum of 85% Greco di Tufo grapes, and up to 15% of Coda di Volpe Bianca grapes is also allowed. A sparkling Greco di Tufo spumante is also made and must be aged for at least three years prior to release. Greco di Tufo wines stand out due to its unique characteristics of the sulphur and tufa rich volcanic and clay soils on which it is grown. It is believed that these give the wine a perfume and mineral flavour and aroma. These refreshing, crisp white wines are known for their hints of lemons, pears and toasted almonds. The wines are generally at their best young and drunk within three years of bottling.    

Grillo: is a Sicilian grape variety that was once widely grown on bush vines and used in the production of Marsala, the famous fortified wine. The variety is still extensively grown on Sicily, despite that fact that demand for Marsala has dramatically shrunk since the end of the 20th Century, but is believed to be now picking up slightly. It is now more common to find Grillo produced as single varietal wines, or in a blend alongside Inzolia, Catarratto or Chardonnay. Grillo can achieve very high levels of alcohol when left to hang on the vine. This is a very good trait in fortified wine grapes, but the modern preference for crisp, low alcohol Italian white wines does has knocked Grillo’s popularity. At its best, Grillo shows a range of citrus flavors, usually of lemon.

Inzolia: (Ansonica in Tuscany) is used to make a dry white wine. Inzolia is grown in Sicily where it is blended with varieties such as Grillo and Catarratto to produce Marsala, a fortified wine with high alcohol and a long life. As a table wine, Inzolia has a moderately aromatic, with a well-flavoured nutty character. In Tuscany, in the coastal Maremma, where it is known as Ansonica, the variety grows well and even in the warmer years retains good levels of acidity. In Tuscany the grape is often blended with Vermentino to produce what is considered a general purpose everyday wine, although there are producers making far more interesting wines using techniques such as fermenting the grapes on the skins for extra flavor.

Moscato: (Muscat in France, Moscatel in Spain and Portugal) is the name given to one of the oldest grape varieties in the world. The grapes Moscato grapes we know today are believed to have originated in the Middle East and have been used in wine making since the times of the ancient Greeks. This long history brings with it an equally long list of synonyms, mutations and crossings. There is no one true Moscato, but rather many incarnations, each with its own regional differences and character. We can refine the list down to six key varieties of the family, one of which stands above the rest. Moscato Bianco in Italy (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains in France) is the oldest and most highly valued of the Muscat family. It is grown throughout the Old and New Worlds in a range of styles as diverse as its synonyms. Zibibbo (Muscat of Alexandria in France and Lexia in Australia) is the second-oldest member of the Muscat clan and produces lighter wines that are usually soft and fruity. Muscat Ottonel is the most pale and ripens early, Muscat Hamburg is a black-grape variety that is often used as a table grape, Moscato Giallo is a yellow grape from northern Italy and Moscato Rosa is a pink-skinned version.


Pigato: is a white Italian wine grape planted mainly in Liguria. As a varietal wine, it's a grape found in the Riviera di Ponente zone in Italy's region of Liguria which makes strong, highly aromatic wines with plenty of fruit flavour. Many theories as to its origins, it could be Greek, or developed by the Romans in central Italy, or be related to Arneis or Vermentino. It is often confused with the Vermentino. It gets its name, which means "spotted" from its appearance when its grapes are ripe.

Pinot Grigio: (known as Pinot Gris in France) is a white-wine grape that has become extremely popular in the late 20th and 21st centuries. The variety is a direct mutation of Pinot Noir and within the Pinot family it sits midway between Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc in terms of strength, character and flavour. Pinot Grigio is most commonly produced as a varietal wine and can be very expressive of its terroir (Its flavors vary according to the region and style in which it is produced), but pears, apples, stone fruit and a hint of spiciness are frequently detected in Pinot Grigio's aroma. In the vineyard Pinot Grigio is hard to tell apart from Pinot Noir until in the late stages of ripening when the Pinot Grigio berries take on a range of autumnal colours, such as pale orange to dark gray. Pinot Grigio is a variety suited to cooler climate wine growing as in warmer environments its naturally low acidity can make the resulting wine quite strong and overly alcoholic.

Pinot Bianco: is a white grape used to make still and sparkling wines around the world. The variety is believed to be a mutation of Pinot Gris which in turn is a mutation of Pinot Noir – in other words it is part an ancient, and quite genetically unstable, family of Pinot grapes. Pinot Blanc is often regarded as Chardonnay’s understudy as like Chardonnay it produces a similar medium to full-bodied style of wine with good acidity, and copes well with oak ageing. In north eastern Italy, Pinot Blanc is known as Pinot Bianco and is used to make a crisp, dry wine that is much lighter in body than Pinot Blanc. The Italians very rarely use oak in the production of the majority of their Pinot Bianco, though some of the better producers age their wines in barrel and even some of their blended Pinot Bianco wines are barrel ages too. Varietal Pinot Bianco wines are much less common in Italy than in other parts of the world.

Prosecco: is a grape variety originally from north-eastern Italy. However, for many years Prosecco was known as Glera. The name change occurred in 2009, when the Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene region was promoted to DOCG status and the Italian authorities decided that Prosecco should only be used as a geographical indication. Glera, an old synonym of the Prosecco grape, was chosen to avoid confusion between the Prosecco region and grape variety. The grape’s origins are much debated between Friuli and Veneto, but it seems possible that the variety is named after the town of Prosecco, near Trieste on the Italian and Slovenian border. As far as the Italians (and the EU) are concerned, Prosecco may only be produced in the Prosecco DOC region and two Prosecco DOCGs (Prosecco di Conegliano–Valdobbiadene and Asolo Prosecco–Colli Asolani). Anything else made from the same variety must be referred to as Glera (similar to the Champagne/ spakling wine situation in France). Italian wine produced from Glera is almost always either slightly fizzy or sparkling (in Italian, frizzante and spumante). A few still wines are made from Glera, but on nowhere near the same scale as the sparkling wines that are so extensively exported around the world. The worldwide thirst for Prosecco is such that many imitations of the style existed in the early 21st century. In the vineyard, Glera is a highly productive grape that ripens late in the season. It has high acidity and a fairly neutral flavour, making it an ideal candidate for sparkling wine production. On the nose Glera  is characterised by the smell of peaches, with an often a soapy note. The wine is light bodied and low in alcohol (8.5% is the minimum permitted alcohol level for Prosecco), well-suited to drinking in the summer or as an aperitif.

Friulano:  (previously Tocai Friulano) is a synonym for the grape variety also known as Sauvignonasse and Sauvignon Vert. It takes it's name from the Friuli wine region of northern Italy. Limited almost entirely to the foothills of the Southern and Western Alps the variety is far less widespread than its close relative Sauvignon Blanc. Just like its French cousin, it produces fruity wines with good acidity and hints of minerality which are best drunk within a few years of harvest. In the 1990s and into the early years of 2000's, Friulano and a few other grape varieties have become the subject of a legal struggle over the use of the name ‘Tokay’ and its various permutations. For centuries Friulano has been called Tocai Friulano, but in 1995 the European Court ruled that 'Tokay' should be used only to describe the wines of Tokaj in eastern Hungary. Naturally this was disputed by various countries, but the Hungarian bid won, and as of 1st April 2007 Tocai Friulano was legally required to drop the Tocai from its name. This affectted labels and marketing materials, but it seems unlikely that the current generation of Friuli's winemakers will drop the Tocai when talking about their wines. It is helpful that the variety has managed to keep the second half of its name, as this means ‘of Friuli’, making it easier to remember which of the several 'Tocai's it is and where the grape is most widely grown. To add even more confusion to the situation, there is a white Tocai grape used in Veneto, to the east of Friuli , which has now been renamed Tai.   

Trebbiano: (Ugni Blanc) is a white grape which originated in Italy but has successfully made its way to other European wine regions such as Bulgaria, Portugal and particularly France. There are even New World plantings in Argentina and Australia, where it was most likely introduced by Italian immigrants. Despite being the most widely used white wine grape variety in the world's two most prolific wine-producing nations, France and Italy, Trebbiano still remains relatively unknown to most people. This is because in France it is used mainly in brandy production, and in Italy as a blending component and rarely named on labels. Trebbiano is still allowed to be used in many of Italy's 300-plus DOCs (usually as a blending component), the exceptions being the six Italian DOCs that cover varietal Trebbiano wines, the best known of which is Trebbiano d’Abruzzo. The grape is most successful in Tuscany, where it was once so widespread that wine authorities were forced to allow it to be used in some of the region's red blends. It is believed that Trebbiano was introduced to France during the 14th century, when the papal court was established at Avignon. (It was from this that the name Chateauneuf du-Pape comes.) In the following centuries, extensive plantings occurred all over the southern Rhone Valley, right down to the Mediterranean coast in Provence.
Verdicchio: is a yellow-green grape variety from central Italy responsible for making dry wines of the same colour. The variety is thought to be old, but not ancient, and has been documented in the Marches region since the 14th Century. Two DOC wine regions exist for varietal Verdicchio (Verdicchio Castelli dei Jesi and Verdicchio di Matelica) and several others permit the variety to be blended in Marches, Umbria and Lazio. Varietal Verdicchio is not particularly aromatic, especially from the higher yielding Castelli dei Jesi appellation. Further inland, in Verdicchio di Matelica, the altitude is higher, terroir more exposed and yields more restricted. Consequently Verdicchio di Matelica wines are more structured and concentrated than the larger, more productive Castelli dei Jesi region. Sand and limestone soils with good drainage are the favored growing conditions of the variety. The characteristic flavors of Verdicchio are citrus and nuts, specifically bitter almonds and lemony acid. The grape lends itself well to spumante (sparkling) wines, which are widely regarded as a local specialty on the Adriatic coast of central Italy. In the various DOCs where Verdicchio is allowed to be blended, Malvasia and Trebbiano are used as traditional partners. Verdicchio and Trebbiano are very similar in the vineyard and have often been confused with each other – as is evidenced in Verdicchio’s regional synonyms, Trebbiano di Soave and Trebbiano di Lugana.

Vermentino: is a Mediterranean white-wine grape mainly found around southern Europe, including south-eastern France, Italy, Corsica and Sardinia. Many people will argue that it has a Spanish origin, but Vermentino is most associated with Liguria, where it is known as Pigato in Riviera Ligure di Ponente. It is used in both blended and single varietal wines in DOCs such as Colli di Luni and Cinque Terre. Vermentino grapes produce light, attractively aromatic wines with refreshing acidity and leafy, lemon flavors. In contrast, the Vermentino wines of Bolgheri in northern Tuscany are much more regarded for their depth and complexity and are often likened to Viognier for their floral, slightly soapy characters. Not many Vermentino wines have the ability to be aged, thus they are best consumed young. Vermentino plays an important part in Sardinia and is responsible for the island’s first DOCG, Vermentino di Gallura. Here the grapes are picked early to keep their crisp and fresh flavours, but unchecked yields can produce wines that are watery on the palate. Although this variety does not easily make sweet wine styles, some DOCs in Liguria allow Vermentino grapes to be used for dried-grape passito wines. The Golfo del Tigullio is the most popular example, and to a lesser extent the Sciacchetra wines of the Cinque Terre coast.

Vernaccia: This white wine grape is found in many Italian wines but is most often associated with the Tuscan wine Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Wine experts have determined that the Vernaccia variety has many clonal varieties but is unrelated to some Italian vines known as "Vernaccia" such as the Sardinian varieties used for the Sherry like wine Vernaccia di Oristano and  the Trentino-Alto Adige / Sudtirol red wine grape used in the red sparkling wine of the Marche Vernaccia di Serrapetrona. A possible reason for this is that the root of the name Vernaccia translate to "vernacular" and can apply to many local grapes.

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