Wines of Puglia

The Heel

Italy is often described as shaped like a boot, and if that’s true then the coastal region and peninsula of Puglia (or “Apulia”, and pronounced “poo-lya”) would be considered the heel. When it comes to Agriculture and Viticulture, though, it is anything but.

Puglia, though one of the hottest and sunniest wine regions of Italy, also boasts the most miles of coastline in Italy. It is always bordered on at least one side by the Adriatic or Ionian Seas, and the cooling effects of these coasts help moderate the heat that would otherwise make wine-making a very difficult proposition. In reality, Puglia is one of the most fertile lands for growing just about anything, but it is olives and grapes that make up the bulk of their exports. In fact, nearly half the olive oil produced in Italy comes from Puglia.

Map of Puglia. Notice the flat, green Salento Peninsula.

The region can be split into two halves, culturally and wine-wise. Most of the land north of the Salento Peninsula, starting at the towns of Brindisi and Taranto, is hillier than the flats of the peninsula. The southern peninsula also tends to identify more with its Greco-Roman history than the northern half of Puglia, which is influenced more by the culture of central Italy.

Trulli, 19th century-style domed houses with layered limestone roofs

Puglia’s Mixed Legacy of Wine

A recurring theme in Italian wine regions, especially those lesser-known ones such as Puglia, is a historical reputation for quantity over quality. This was and often is still the case for Puglia.

Because of its warm, Mediterranean climate, ever-present sunshine, and fertile soils, Puglia was and still is one of the largest producing regions in Italy. Business has been good, thanks to the large amounts of red wine suitable for blending with other wines across Italy, Europe, and the world. However, since the advent of the fine wine industry in places like Argentina, Chile, and Australia, demand for Apulian “plonk” wine from local grapes Uva di Troia (“grape of Troy,” now called “Nero di Troia“) and just about any other varietal that would sell has decreased in favor of more thoughtful wine-making.

Puglia Chardonnay (available from Beviamo)

Still, international varieties such as Cabernet, Merlot, and Chardonnay abound here as varietal wines with IGT labels, and as blending grapes in wines such as Primitivo, the wine grape discovered via DNA to be Zinfandel’s likely old-world ancestor. Many areas still specialize in bulk wines to be shipped everywhere for Vermouth production and table wine. This is not a bad thing, though, as Puglia’s climate supports a vast variety of grapes, and producers’ philosophies are geared much more towards quality now.

Apulian Wines and Regions to Know

Wine from Puglia, especially of indigenous varietals, is mostly red. While plenty of international varieties are found, there are three red grapes that define the native wines of the region:

Primitivo- this very close Italian relative to Zinfandel is responsible for two of Puglia’s best wines, Primitivo di Manduria (DOC), and Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale (DOCG). The former is a red wine that gets its name not because of a “primitive” nature; rather, because it ripens early. Manduria is the only area of Italy that specializes in Primitivo, and, like parts of California with Zinfandel, its wines are inky, tannic, and intense. Primitivo has a slightly more bitter edge that can require some more time in barrel or bottle before being approachable. Primitivo is rare in Italian grape varietals in that, in Italy, it is really not cultivated outside its home region.

Conte di Campiano, Primitivo di Manduria (available from Beviamo)

Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale is one of the very few DOCG regions for which Puglia can brag. Like other unique DOCG wines around Italy, this is a sweet dessert wine made involving some kind of drying of the grapes before fermentation. In Manduria, these wines can only be made in years the climate cooperates, as the process requires drying the grapes on the vines themselves, as opposed to on racks as seen in Amarone, for example. The result is a super-concentrated primitivo grape whose wines end up with 80g/L of residual sugar and 13.5% ABV, minimum.

Nero di Troia- According to ancient myth, this grape was planted by Greek hero  Diomedes after helping defeat the city of Troy and journeying to modern-day Puglia. Whether that is true or not, the grape is deeply entrenched in Puglia’s wines.

Nero di Troia grapes

Nero di Troia, previously and sometimes still known as “Uva di Troia” (grape of Troy, as opposed to black of Troy), is a black-skinned grape that produces heady, tannic juice typically suited for blending. However, as more care has been taken to understand Puglia’s fine wine potential, producers have scaled back production and started producing Nero di Troia that is worthy of aging and 100% varietal wine. By picking grapes as they ripen instead of all at once, DOC and even DOCG level wines have been made based on Nero di Troia. These wines (as with most cultivation fo this grape) are made mainly in the hillier northern section of Puglia. The best examples actually come from three independent DOCG wines, made by Castel del Monte, all featuring Nero di Troia (as well as Bombino Nero, Negroamaro and Aglianico).

Negroamaro- The last of the local varieties to know in Puglia is Negroamaro. Like the other Apulian grapes, it is black skinned and often blended with other local grapes (like Malvasia Nero and Primitivo). It produces medium-full tannic wines with dark berry fruit flavors, earthy tones and brown spices such as clove and allspice.

Negroamaro grapes

Negroamaro does make the majority of one of Puglia’s few DOC wines created in 1976, the red Salice Salentino DOC. Here it is blended with the fruitier Malvasia Nera.

 

Sicily- Ancient Island of Wine

Sicily, the southernmost part of Italy is the largest island in the Mediterranean and an ancient wine-making mecca. Wine has been a big part of Sicilian culture for thousands of years and thanks to Marsala and everyday table wines from Nero d’Avola it remains one of the largest producing regions anywhere in the world.

Ancient Peoples, Ancient Wines

Given its position in the Mediterranean, it should come as no surprise that Sicily has experienced many different inhabitants, from the Sicels that give the island its name, to the Greeks who brought much wine-making tradition, through to today’s Sicilians– who would likely differentiate themselves culturally from the rest of Italy.

Greek Sicily

The wines and conditions under which they are grown are pretty unlike most of the rest of Italy as well. Sicily is a warm Mediterranean climate of course, but its ancient volcanic soils, hills, and Mount Etna– the highest active volcano in Europe– give the terroir great soil conditions and consistent weather to go by. Though there is very little precipitation throughout the summer, the hot but humid climate also acts as a natural agent against rot, making organic wine commonplace.

Marsala

To the casual wine fan or home cook, Sicilian wine may mean only one thing– Marsala.

The many hues of Marsala

Marsala is a fortified wine of around 20% alcohol not unlike Sherry, Madeira and Port. It has been made for hundreds of years as an aperitif, digestif, and cooking wine. Unfortunately, like much wine from Italy in the mid-20th century, large quantities over high quality led to a cheap connotation of the name Marsala, and the wine became known much more for cooking than enjoying.

That reputation is slowly shedding and the world is opening back up to well-made Marsala on par with Sherries and Ports, as it was in the past.

Marsala can come in many designations, typically falling into one of three standards: oro (golden), ambra (amber), and rubino (ruby). There are sweet and dry marsalas, and further designations based on wood aging:

=>1yr: “Fine”        => 2yrs: “Superiore”       => 4yrs: “Superiore Riserva”      => 5yrs: “Vergine”

However, beyond all these labels are countless kinds of Marsala wine that are as unique as the producer itself.

Sicilian White Wines

Sicily is one of the few regions of Italy that seems to stick to its native grape varieties over taking the route of pumping out some Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Merlot for the masses. The white grapes that have long made Sicily their home include Grillo, Inzolia, Grechetto, Malvasia, Carricante and Catarratto, many of which have also been blending grapes in Marsala. Moscato di Pantelleria (or Muscat of Alexandria) produces another sweet wine much less known than Marsala.

White wines are produced in larger quantity than reds, with the most-planted grape in Sicily being Carricante.

Grillo, normally blended with Inzolia and Moscato for Marsala, can produce its own delicious dry whites with a fresh, flinty character. It is also used exclusively by some higher-end Marsala producers to create their product free of any other grapes.

Mt. Etna pictured on a label for Etna Bianco DOC, from Catarratto and Carricante

Carricante and Catarratto come together on the rocky volcanic slopes of Mt. Etna to create delicious and in-vogue Etna Bianco and Etna Bianco Superiore, dry crisp wines with yellow fruits and minerality.

Sicilian Reds

More than any other red wine in quality or quantity, Nero d’Avola is the red grape of Sicily. It can range from soft, fruity, spicy but structured to dense and deep. It is the main grape of Cerasuolo di Vittoria, the singular DOCG wine from Sicily, where it is mixed with Frappato– a light, fruity quaffable wine grape. Nero d’Avola is not a wine to be missed if having only one Sicilian red.

Nero d’Avola on the vine

Nerello Mascalese is an interesting indigenous varietal that produces wines (often blended with Nerello Cappuccio) whose aromas are like a blend of Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir. The wines, which come almost exclusively from Etna DOC, have beautiful finesse that makes for a nice foil for the powerful volcano from which their flavor comes.

A bottle of Etna Rosso DOC from Gambino Vini

Other French varietals have shown to do well in the ample sunshine and mineral rich soils of Sicily, including Syrah, Grenache, and Cabernet Sauvignon. They would fall under the extremely prevalent “Sicilia IGT” moniker, which accounts for at least 25% of all Sicilian wine production.

The Future of Sicilian Wine

As with any agricultural venture, especially one where the land is being taken more seriously and being improved-upon, Sicilian wines as a whole will take some time and patience to reach the balance of quantity and quality of regions such as Tuscany, Veneto, and Piedmont. The work is being done (by the new generations of wine makers) and the care being given to ancient root stocks and vineyards, though, and in another decade or two Sicily and its unique indigenous wines could find themselves in the same class.

Lombardia

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Defining the Region

Lombardia (or Lombardy), is one of the largest, richest and most populous regions in all of Italy. Home to Milano (Milan), the Alps, massive lakes, and Italy’s largest National Park (Stelvio), it is a region that abounds in culture and natural beauty, as well as delicious wine.

Where is Lombardia?

Lombardia is dead in the center of Northern Italy, with Switzerland to the North, the Tre Venezie to the East, Emilia-Romagna to the South, and Piedmont to the West.

 

Like most northern Italian regions, Lombardy can be split into three terrains– mountains, hills, and plains. Unique to Lombardia, however, are massive glacial lakes such as Como, Maggiore, Lugano, and Garda (to name a few), which make their home at the base of the Italian and Swiss Alps. These lakes help moderate cold weather from the Alps, giving Lombardia an overall cool-to-continental climate capable of growing citrus and other Mediterranean produce– and of course, wine grapes. The southern portions of Lombardia are the most consistently continental, but never reach too high temperatures thanks to the Po River and its many tributaries.

What Kind of Wines are Made?

Lombardia is credited with several DOCG-level wines, including sparkling, red and even apassimento sweet reds, and there are many uniquely delicious DOC wines as well.

DOCG Wines of Note

Franciacorta is perhaps Italy’s best sparkling wine. With respect to Prosecco and Moscato d’asti, and the countless other bubbly wines made in Italy, the Champagne-styled wines of Franciacorta DOCG are stunners. Like the Champagnes of France, only Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Bianco (instead of Pinot Mineure) are used, and Franciacorta wines are fermented a second time in-bottle and not released for several years, depending on the designation.

Franciacorta bottles on the lees

Additionally, labeling of words like “Brut” follow the same g/L of residual sugar requirements of Champagne. The terroir of Franciacorta is limestone bedrock covered with mineral-rich calcareous gravel and sandy morainal soils, which lend local character to the otherwise French-wines-in-disguise.

Valtellina Superiore is another important DOCG wine. Valtellina comes from high-altitude vines in the (relatively) remote Italian Alps in the north of Lombardy. Like Barolo and Barbaresco, it is made from 100% Nebbiolo, which is locally known as Chiavennasca (the DOC “Valtellina” only requires 90%). These wines are aged for a minimum of 24 months (half in oak) and 36 months for “riserva” status, and like Barolo and Barbaresco they feature the “tar and roses” character of Nebbiolo, as well as notes of dried cherry and pencil shavings. Also like Piedmontese Nebbiolo, the grapes in Lombardy are given as much clear sunshine as possible, though the terraced mountainside vineyards cool quickly in the evening, leaving Valtellina Superiore a lighter-bodied cousin to Barolo and Barbaresco.

Oltrepo Pavese Metodo Classico is another DOCG sparkling wine of southwestern Lombardy, though it doesn’t get as much attention as Franciacorta. It is another Champagne-styled wine that comes from a minimum of 70% Pinot Noir, with the rest of the blend coming from Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, and Pinot Grigio (a grape outlawed in Franciacorta in 1990). There are many different “Oltrepo Pavese” wines of white, red, rose and so on, but keep in mind that only “Oltrepo Pavese Metodo Classico” has earned the DOCG title.

Lake Garda Wines- Lugana and Garda DOCs

Vines have been cultivated around the lakes of Lombardy since before Roman times. One of these important lakes for winemaking is Garda, Italy’s largest lake and home to Lugana and Garda DOCs. 

Lugana is a white wine DOC made from 90-100% Trebbiano di Lugana, the local variety of the ridiculously-widely planted Trebbiano grape. It is grown on the southern side of Lake Garda and can vary depending on the other included local grape(s) and the producer. The wines are pale straw colored with green reflections and range from light, crisp and delicate to significantly more complex, as seen with Provenza’s “Fabio Contato” Lugana that received a “3 Glasses” award from the Gambero Rosso (available from Beviamo).

Garda wine on the other hand, can be anything from Sparkling to White, Rose, and Red and covers a large number of grapes. Whites can come from Riesling (Garda Bianco Classico), Chardonnay, Garganega, and Pinot Grigio, to name a few. It also straddles a large area and even crosses into Veneto, making it one of the few Italian wines to cross regional borders

Garda Classico Rosso is a noteworthy style that comes from a blend of local Groppello and Marzemino with less-local Barbera and Sangiovese. It produces a red wine of mature red fruit with herbs and spices, silky tannins not without good acidity. The Groppello grape which usually takes the largest part of the blend (minimum of 30%, though often closer to 60) creates a medium-bodied wine with a slightly bitter, nutty aroma. It makes sense that it would be blended with fruity and acidic Barbera, and ever-prevalent (read: profitable) sangiovese. Like the Lugana whites, these wines can be taken to a bold, elite level, and the “Negresco” and “Fabio Contato” wines of Provenza are great examples of that as well.

Piemonte

“Foot of the Mountain”

Situated in the foothills of the Italian Alps is arguably Italy’s most prestigious wine region: Piemonte.

Not only are Piemonte (or Piedmont) wines widely regarded as some of the finest in Italy– and in some cases, the world– they are made almost exclusively with indigenous grapes known to thrive only IN Piedmont by some of the oldest and most renown wine making families in Italy. The resulting wines have as clear a sense of place as in any part of Italy and even Piedmont’s northern neighbors, France.

What Makes Piedmont, Piedmont?

Like so much of Northern Italy, Piedmont is influenced by its closest European neighbors, specifically France and Austria. It is situated with mountains always at the very least on the horizon and 75% of the region is covered in hills or more.

It’s a more educated and financially stable region compared to the rest of Italy, especially the south. And when one thinks of authentic Italian food (not American-Italian food), lighter dishes served in several courses come to mind, but Piemontese food skews heartier, meatier, and butterier. Think big cuts of roast meat with grilled polenta or creamy risotto used as a foil and white Alba truffles generously shaved on top of, well, anything.

The wines of Piedmont reflect these influences. More so than anywhere else in Italy (though not an absolute), wines are made with an single indigenous varietal attached to a small, specific area of production. These wines can range from slightly sweet, low-alcohol sparklers to be consumed immediately (like Moscato d’Asti) to big, tannic “tar and roses” Barolo, which won’t see the light of day till a minimum of three years after harvest.

Finally, while there are ancient methods and philosophies of wine making at work here, Piedmont is constantly evolving. Moscato wines are continuing to shed a reputation for quantity over quality, and Barolo and Barbaresco are being made to suit modern tastes, no longer requiring several years of tannin-mellowing cellar time before being drunk. Furthermore, continued refining of Piedmont’s classifications of single vineyard sites push the region into the discussion of world class terroir alongside Bordeaux and Burgundy in France.

The Wines of Piemonte

Sparkling and White

Moscato and Asti

Any discussion of Italian sparkling wine would be invalid without talking about Asti. Coming in two forms, Asti Spumante (often simply, “Asti”) and Moscato d’Asti, these sparkling and semi-sparkling (respectively) off-dry wines are very low in alcohol, big on fruit, and always high in popularity. Made exclusively from the Moscato grape, these wines are perfect as a light aperitivo with fatty cured meats and cheese or as a dessert pairing with fruit and nutty pastries.

While Asti itself has had to overcome a couple of generations whose idea of the wine was the badly made, cheap commercial fizz exported en masse immediately following World War II. Moscato d’Asti, a DOCG wine region since the 70s, has always been the more prestigious cousin. Both, however, have seen a huge growth in popularity in the United States among young drinkers, in part thanks to Moscato’s price compared to Champagne. Another interesting factor has been the fallout from the managing director of the Louis Roederer Champagne house taking an elitist (and public) stance on rappers promoting their product in songs. After declaring “we forbid people from buying it” regarding Cristal’s place in club culture, rapper Jay-Z called for a boycott and now “Moscato” is the sparkling wine of choice in the American hip-hop community.

Brachetto d’Acqui

One of the more unique DOCG wines of Northern Italy is Brachetto d’Acqui. It is a semi-sweet, semi-sparkling (or “frizzante”) red wine from Acqui Terme, southeast of Asti. It is made from 100% Brachetto, which is naturally sweet, and after 2 days of maceration with the must produces a uniquely aromatic, low alcohol (5.5% ABV) wine reminiscent of roses and red berry fruit with a slight foam. This wine is great as an aperitivo or with fruit desserts and chocolate.

Arneis and Gavi

Apart from Moscato, Piedmont is always thought of for its reds. However, some of the best whites in Italy are made here as well. Before the rise in quality of Friulian whites in the 1980s, Gavi, a crisp bone-dry wine made from Cortese around the village of the same name, was considered by many to be the finest white wine in all of Italy. It has a citrusy minerally taste with a hint of almond on the finish that pairs well with seafood, which is appropriate given its relatively close proximity to the Ligurian border and Italian riviera to the south.

Further into Piedmont near the hub of wine making activity around the towns of Alba and Asti, the Arneis grape is made into a dry white that is also popular for seafood but is fuller bodied, with notable flavors of pear and apricot. Arneis is planted in a few places, but is a DOC and DOCG wine in the Langhe and Roero areas, respectively. The word Arneis will typically be on the label alongside Langhe or Roero, as both sub-regions also make Nebbiolo wines that are labeled simply “Roero” at times.

The Reds of Piemonte

The Everyday Wines of Piedmont

While Piedmont is rightfully known for Barolo and Barbaresco, the Piemontese don’t drink these wines on daily basis. The honor of accompanying most locals’ dinners goes to wines from Barbera, Dolcetto, and the less expensive and labor-intensive cousin of Barolo and Barbaresco– Nebbiolo D’Alba.

Dolcetto: The name for the “Dolcetto” grape is something of a misnomer, as it translates to “little sweet one.” In reality, Dolcetto, though light-bodied and easy-to-drink, is dry and can have a lightly tannic, bitter edge. More fruit-forward varieties are made, as well as DOCG sub-regions (Dogliani, Diano d’Alba) and several “Superiore” DOC designations for one year of aging. For the Italian palate, which is used to some bitterness, it makes a perfect aperitivo red wine for pizza and pasta, with flavors of black cherry and licorice. Dolcetto is meant to be drunk young, which makes it a perfect “cash flow” wine for Barolo and Barbaresco producers aging their Nebbiolo juice for at least another year or two.

Barbera: In terms of value, especially for the average wine drinker in Piedmont, there may be no better wine in Piedmont than those of the Barbera grape. Like Dolcetto, Barbera is a grape that is easier to grow than Nebbiolo that produces dry, light-bodied wine to be drunk young in most cases. Unlike Dolcetto, and despite its light body, Barbera is a juicy, fruit-forward wine with very little tannin and mouthwatering acidity, which make it a perfect compliment to almost any meal.

Barbera is the most widely planted grape in Piedmont, and the wines could be considered the Northern equivalent of what Chianti is to Tuscany.

Barbera grapes on the vine

The two Barbera wines that are typically seen in the United States are from an Asti DOCG and Alba DOC. If there was such a thing as “Barbera Classico,” it would be from the one of the warmest areas of Asti around the town of Nizza where Barbera can sufficiently ripen to match its levels of acidity. On the other hand, Barbera from Alba tends to play second fiddle to plantings of Nebbiolo (intended for Barolo), leaving it lower on the totem pole in terms of quality and quantity, but nonetheless a solid everyday wine.

Nebbiolo d’Alba: While not known to come close to rivaling Barolo and Barbaresco, Nebbiolo d’Alba is a DOC red also made from Nebbiolo which can be enjoyed on a daily basis. Like its royal family members, Nebbiolo d’Alba possesses some of the tannic, tar and roses attributes, but comes from areas with sandy soil that ultimately produces a softer expression of the grape. According to DOC rules, the wine must be aged for one year, so it’s not as quick to market as Dolcetto and Barbera.

Barolo and Barbaresco: “King and Queen of Italian Wine”

Barolo

Eventually, all discussions of Piedmont wine have to arrive at Barolo and Barbaresco. When four top wine regions were first registered as DOCG in 1980, Barolo and Barbaresco were two (along with Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino, from Tuscany). Both wines are made from 100% Nebbiolo that must be aged several years before release, with 38 and 24 months aging required for Barolo and Barbaresco, respectively (half that time must be spent in oak barrels for both), and both wines have significant aging potential thanks to lots of tannin from the grapes and wood. Though only 3% of Piedmont’s annual production are labeled Barolo and Barbaresco, the region would be infinitely less renowned without them.

Barolo, or the King of Wines as it’s sometimes called, is rusty tinted dry red wine with a big body, notorious tannins, and a famous aroma of tar and roses. It’s also the name of a small part of Piedmont where tricky Nebbiolo has the best conditions of anywhere in the world to grow. The history the wine is a long one. Prior to the mid-1800s, “Barolo” was a sweet wine, thanks to the late-ripening nature of Nebbiolo and less-than-advanced wine making techniques at the time. The cold of fall and winter would set in and halt fermentation with too much leftover residual sugar. Eventually, wine making in Piedmont caught up and the Nebbiolo was able to be made into the dry we know today. It immediately became a favorite of the local nobility in Torino (or Turin), giving rise to Barolo being called “the wine of kings, the king of wines.”

Rusty red Barolo

Barolo remained a traditional wine made with traditional methods for 100 years, until tastes changed in favor of less tannic wines consumable at a younger age. Barolo had been considered too young to drink until at least ten years after being made. Obviously, this leads to a lot of waiting and not a lot of drinking, which no one likes. Thankfully, famous Barolo producers came up with faster, more effective ways of extracting flavors from fully ripe Nebbiolo without as many harsh tannins, and the use of small oak barriques helped to soften the wines. Today’s Barolos can be aged with the best of the Premiere Cru wines of France but can also be drunk in their youth much  more than in decades past.

Cru’s, Communes, and Single-Vineyard Prestige

All those decades of working with Nebbiolo, a finicky, thin-skinned, and slow-ripening grape, led to producers identifying which areas of Barolo were best for growing. There are 11 communes (or villages) within Barolo, but five are particularly important to modern interpretations of the wine: La Morra, Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, and Monforte d’Alba. Before the 1970s, Barolo was mostly made by blending Nebbiolo grapes from these communes based on the attributes that had come to be known from each. Now, wine makers in Barolo make many more single-vineyard wines from one of these communes, which provides an expression of that area of Barolo, much like the French do in the Crus of Bordeaux and Burgundy.

It would take a long time to break down the even these five “Crus” of Barolo, but they are generally separated into two groups based broadly on their terroir. The Tortonian soil of La Morra and Barolo is comprised of calcarous marl mixed with sand, is fertile and produces rounder, elegant and perfumed Barolos that are quicker to mature. On the other hand, Serralunga and Monforte d’Alba and Castiglione Falletto come from Helvetian soil that is less fertile with more sandstone and limestone, which produces bold, intense Barolos that are more age-worthy.

In the late 1970s, famed Barolo producer Renato Ratti completed an extensive study of the soils of Barolo and identified 10 vineyards to be considered “grand crus.” Though not officially recognized by any governing body, the classifications have been respected by winemakers (and BUYERS) and have helped to further detail the unique environments of Barolo. These vineyards include “Cannubi,” “Rocche,” “Monprivato,” and “Brunate,” among others.

Of course none of these descriptions are absolutes, and there are plenty of Barolos that are still blended with Nebbiolo from multiple regions.

Barbaresco: the Queen to Barolo’s King

Barolo and Barbaresco are very similar wines in a lot of ways. They are tannic but retain a lot of acidity, have ruby, brick, and rust colors, and have complex flavors that always come back to the “tar and roses” reputation.

However, Barbaresco will always be the more “feminine” wine. Made from Nebbiolo in an area Northeast of Barolo on the other side of Alba, the weather is slightly warmer and the soil a little softer, leading to faster-ripening Nebbiolo and less tannins in the resulting wine. The adage in Piedmont is “softer soil, softer wine,” which is especially true when differentiating Barolo and Barbaresco, as well as within the various communes of both.

Additionally, Barolo requires 38 months of aging (18 of those in oak), while Barbaresco only requires 24 total and 12 in oak. Both can earn a “Riserva” designation with an extra two years in oak.

Wines of the Veneto

Triveneto Part III: VENETO

The largest and most famous wine region of the Tre Venezie is the Veneto. Located between the Adriatic Sea and the southern border of the Italian Alps and Austria, and dotted with culturally iconic cities such as Venice (Venezia, for which the “Tre Venezie” is named) and Verona (think Shakespeare), it is truly one of the iconic areas of Italy. As well-known as it is for historical significance, tourism and natural beauty, wines of the Veneto are every bit as worthy of their international renown. From Prosecco and Pinot Grigio to the complex, time-intensive Amarones of Valpolicella.

No Moscato, Thanks– I’m Pro-Secco

Prosecco has always been a quality export from this region, but it has grown in popularity in the United States especially in the last few years. With the economic downturn, Prosecco sales saw a significant rise as a cheaper alternative to Champagne. In fact, the wine gained 24% from 2012 to 2013 alone. Those who give Prosecco a try tend to stick with it!

It’s easy to see why. Prosecco is usually dry, but even a “Secco” (the Italian equivalent of “Brut,” the word associated with labeling dry Champagne) wine will have notes of flowers and peaches and other fruit flavors that can make this bubbly very appealing to a variety of palates. There are “Extra Brut” examples that contain 0-6g/L of residual sugar (twice as dry as is required for “Secco” or “Brut” designation), but if you come across a bottle of Prosecco (or any Italian sparkling) named “Extra Dry” or “Dry,” those are actually the sweetest. “Extra Dry” is the label for 12-17g/L and “Dry” goes for anything between 17 and 32 grams. Obviously, the more grams per liter of sugar, the sweeter the wine in the bottle! The main takeaway is that there is a Prosecco for every type of wine drinker!

The Prosecco DOC zone, including DOCG landmarks of Valdobbiadene and Conegliano

Prosecco is often confused as the name of the wine AND the name of the grape that makes it. Until 2009, that would have been correct, too. Before 2009, the definition of what “Prosecco” had been was a little muddied by other countries (like the United States) making “Prosecco” wine, but obviously not that had been grown in Italy. Partially as a result, the Glera grape, which was casually known as the “Prosecco” grape, became the official name and no one could call their wine “Prosecco” unless it came from either a Prosecco DOC or DOCG region.

Valdobbiadene DOCG Prosecco from Casalini

In 2009, the area between Valdobbiadene and Canegliano became home to 15 small hillside communes, elevating the previous D.O.C.s established in 1969 to D.O.C.G. level, and promoting all previous Prosecco IGTs to D.O.C. status. In this way, Italian producers ensured the future value of their wine by rendering null and void all other Prosecco pretenders around the world.

Looking for another use for Prosecco? It makes a great champagne substitute in classic cocktails, as well as in Aperol or Campari Spritzes, Bellinis, and Mimosas!

Famous White Wines

Like the rest of the Tre Venezie, the Veneto is home to one of the most well-identified Italian wines in terms of American consumers: Pinot Grigio. When the casual American drinker thinks of Italian white wine, there is no question that this international variety is the first to come to mind. Pinot Grigio offers a light, crisp, option that is not so strong in acidity and fruit as Sauvignon Blanc, but is also different from Chardonnay. The Veneto style of Pinot Grigio follows with the old world style of dry and minerally common in Austria and Trentino-Alto Adige (which is practically half-German), as opposed to the dry but fruitier styles found in Friuli-Venezia Giulia and New World regions like Australia and Oregon.

But Pinot Grigio isn’t the only renown Italian white from Veneto; just the one most known by Americans. Soave has also been produced and exported in massive quantities over the last half-century, and Pinot Grigio is really the only other white wine that can compare.

Soave is a crisp, dry, fruity white wine made from mainly Garganega grapes in a small area east of Verona. It was part of a massive explosion of Italian wine imports in the United States following World War II, and many millions of barrels are still produced today. However, like Chianti and other highly-exported Italian wines, the massive quantity led to a dilution of quality which had to be remedied in the last couple of decades. As with many other high-quantity Italian wine styles, the DOC/DOCG system was a big help in re-defining higher standards for producers and clarifying quality through labeling for consumers.

Garganega grapes on the vine

Prior to modern times, “Soave Classico” wines were made of no less than 70% Garganega, with the remaining 30% coming from Pinot Bianco, Trebbiano Toscano (aka Ugni Blanc in Cognac, France), Chardonnay, and Trebbiano di Soave (also known as Verdicchio). To provide a truer sense of place in Soave wines, DOC regulations dropped the Pinot Bianco and Trebbiano Toscano and required that only the latter two be included in the official blend. To further distinguish the newly re-focused Soave product from the bulk wines of the past, a DOCG designation was created, including some hillside vineyards not included in the original Soave DOC (as the alluvial plains were seen as more beneficial for vineyards). The new DOCG also required 3 months aging in the bottle and for the wine not to be released before September 1st of the year following the harvest.

The Five Tiers of Valpolicella

The Veneto is home to one of the most fascinating and prestigious red wine regions in Italy: Valpolicella. Located in the foothills just north of Verona and east of Lake Garda and the Lobardia border, Valpolicella is a mild-to-cool region between the Alps and Adriatic Sea. The region produces more wine than any other DOC in Italy aside from the famous Chianti. Five different DOC and DOCG wines are made here from the base grapes of Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara, but it’s the way in which these wines are made that sets them apart.

A common practice in world-class regions such as Piemonte (home of Barolo and Barbaresco) is to have “cash flow” wines– styles that can be sold and drank young while other time-intensive wines are maturing. In Piemonte, while the tannic Nebbiolo-based wines of Barolo and Barbaresco spend a few years in oak, they make Barbera and Dolcetto wines that can be consumed much sooner after the harvest. Valpolicella is different. Instead of harvesting entirely different grapes for entirely different wine, the same grapes are used but processed much less. The amount of time and resources that go into said grapes determine the finished product.

Tier I and II: Everyday Valpolicella Wines

Tier I: Valpolicella Classico DOC- This is the basic tier of Valpolicella and definitely the “cash flow” wine of the region. It is the basic blend of mostly Corvina, plus Rondinella, and Molinara with an ABV of around 11%, light-bodied and is often served slightly chilled. The base level of Valpolicella has a lot in common with Beaujolais. It is drank young, fruit-forward with a noticeable sour cherry note at times, with the acidity appropriate of a cool climate region like Valpolicella.

Tier II: Valpolicella Superiore DOC- Take Valpolicella Classico, age it one year in wood, bring it to a minimum of 12% ABV and you have Vapolicella Superiore, a darker and more concentrated wine. This is a good value wine that shouldn’t cost more than $20, but with a year of aging it’s not quite the “Nouveau” style of Valpo Classico.

Tiers III, IV, and V: Value-Added Passito and “Nose to Tail” Ripasso Wines

Tier IV: Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG- To understand the third tier of Valpolicella wines, it’s often easier to explain the fourth. Amarone is made from Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara grapes that have been hung to dry indoors for up to four months, which evaporates 30-40% of the juice and creates a super-concentrated raisin-like grape for wine making. The concentrated grapes, increased skin contact, and extended aging for a minimum of 2 years (up to 5) create a very robust, dry red wine of about 14-16% ABV that will have a deceptive raisin-like “sweetness” and flavors of stewed fruit.

Shriveled grapes ready to be made into Amarone

These wines have plenty of tannins and acidity and as such can easily be aged for 10 to 20 years to bring out more complexity. Amarone della Valpolicella became a DOC in 1990 and (along with Recioto della Valpolicella– Tier 5) became a DOCG region in 2009, cementing its place as one of Italy’s finest wines. Of course, because of the extra time and labor that goes into their production, you can expect to pay extra for Amarone. A bottle will likely set you back at least $60-80 to start.

Tier III: Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso DOC- There are “cash flow” wines and then there are what I’d like to call “nose to tail” wines. Ripasso della Valpolicella (as it’s also called) is a wine that takes the leftover pomace (grape skins and seeds) from the bottoms of barrels of Amarone and enters them into an extended maceration of their own in a new wine.

Adding these “leftovers” to Valpolicella Superiore adds to the alcohol level and complexity of these wines, creating a medium-to-full bodied wine of great depth somewhere between Valpolicella Superiore and Amarone, with less time and labor and a much friendlier price to match ($20-40). These are probably some of the best values in Italian wine!

Grape pomace from Amarone barrels to be used to make Ripasso (“re-passed”) wine

 Tier V: Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG-  Normally, “passito” wines have a tendency towards the sweet, from Vin Santo in Tuscany to Recioto di Soave (also from Veneto of course), so it’s only natural that the final form of Valpolicella is a dessert wine. Recioto della Valpolicella uses the same process as Amarone, but fermentation is halted before all the sugars can be converted to alcohol. This produces an extremely concentrated and complex wine with a dried fruit sweetness, lots of tannin and bright acidity. These wines must be aged a minimum of two years in wood, often Slavonian barriques which do not impart much oak flavor, and can be laid down for 20 or more years with the proper care. Expect, like Amarone, to pay for all that special treatment though. A standard half-bottle (375ml) will probably set you back at least $40!

Trentino-Alto Adige


If you were walking through the Italian section of a big wine shop and you started seeing words like “Lagrein,” “Riesling,” “Müller Thurgau,” and “Gewürtztraminer,” as well as methode champenoise sparkling wines of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, you might initially think to notify a clerk that some clearly German and French wines had been misplaced. However, you’d be in the right place after all—and that place is in the culturally complex world of Trentino-Alto Adige wines, which are 100% Italian after all—but it depends on who you ask.

Like other parts of the Triveneto such as Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol is a part of Italy that was not part of Italy a mere 100 years ago. Almost perfectly bisected into northern and southern halves, Alto Adige/Südtirol and Trentino (respectively) are two autonomous provinces of Italy, but 100 years ago, Alto Adige (Italian for “Upper Adige” or “High Adige”) was officially part of Germany.

In the end of World War I, Italy occupied the “South Tyrol” (as Alto Adige is otherwise known) and with the exception of a short takeover by Hitler in WWII (returned to Italy in 1945) has been part of Italy ever since. However, the vast majority of the Alto Adige population speaks German as their first language, and even those who speak Italian would likely be very hard to understand for someone from further south on the “boot.”

This is where we once again find certain wine grapes following the cultural identity of its makers and less so of its geographic nationality. Chardonnay, Pinot Gris (or Pinot Grigio to Italians and most Americans), Cabernet, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc add their names to the aforementioned list of varietals not typically associated with Italy but which are heavily grown—and to world class quality—in Trentino-Alto Adige. No other part of Italy has a higher percentage of DOC quality wines than Alto Adige and Trentino, which are ranked one and two for that distinction, respectively. Between modern consumer preferences and the grapes that are already known to the area, it’s no wonder this is the only Italian wine region that grew in planted area in the last quarter century.

It’s not only the shared cultural heritage that makes Trentino-Alto Adige such a good place for whites such as Sauvignon Blanc, Müller Thurgao, and Pinot Noir; the steep mountains that dot this region make you think of acidic, cool climate whites and delicate reds (T/A-A shares the 46th parallel with central Burgundy after all). But warm valley air rises up in the summer and couples with clear alpine sun to produce surprisingly rich, ripe styles and definitely give a good excuse to plant Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet and Merlot.

Trentino on its own is pretty similar to Alto Adige in soil, but is around 500ft lower in elevation and is on the southern side of the Adige river valley. The same valley, coupled with many peaks and ridges, casts a rain shadow over the valley and channels a warm mountain breeze that helps naturally defend fungi and other bad rot for vineyards. As mentioned before, the wines here are almost all DOC-certified with Trentino DOC (1971) making up a large portion of the region with classic grapes such as Schiava (maybe the most local varietal), Lagrein, and Teroldego, as well as lots of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The standard “Trentino Rosso” is made of primarily Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot blended in, making it a purely Italian version of a Bordeaux wine. “Trentino Bianco” is a little more out-there with Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco as a base, but also allowing Sauvignon Blanc, Muller-Thurgau, and Manzoni Bianco.

 

Trentino is otherwise made of smaller regions that have more specific styles, and 75% of them qualify for DOC status—a much higher proportion than the rest of Italy. Some examples are Teroldego Rotaliano (a red wine DOC), Caldaro (or Kalderer in German—the first Trentino DOC from 1970), Casteller, and Valdadige. A couple of these smaller DOCs even share territory with Alto Adige.

Alto Adige as a wine region is a little more complicated due to its shared German culture. Most labeling on these wines will have either German text or a German version of Italian labeling.
Notice the dual Italian and German labeling, “Sudtiroler Lagrein” instead of “Lagrein” Alto Adige. Though the DOC mark is still there, as well as a label in Italian about sulfites.Alto Adige DOC covers most of the region, but when you look at the communes and sub-regions, there are 30 different provinces that all have their German versions as well. Luckily, many of these international varietals are just that and can be easily identified by their names, with some exceptions like Schiava (known as Trollinger and/or Vernatsch in Germany), Traminer (Gewürtztraminer), and Riesling Renano (though I think you can figure that one out).

 

The Trentino-Alto Adige region is definitely one of contrasts, but it’s also a wine region to watch going into the future. It’s overall one of the most economically prolific areas of the “Old World” of wine and shows no sign of slowing down, especially considering its ability to produce such a wide variety of styles. The next time you’re in your local wine retailer or a fine restaurant, check out some wines from this region. They’re typically made in stainless steel, so it’s a great opportunity to try some familiar varietal wines while getting to experience a wholly unique terrain and part of the world. Cheers!

 

 

Understanding Italian Wine Labels

Even for the most experienced American wine drinker, deciphering Italian wine labels can be especially difficult. A little bit of information goes a long way, however, and with a little understanding of the laws surrounding Italian wine, anyone can make an informed selection when browsing Italian wines. In this post, we’ll break down Italian wine labels and what you can learn from them, so you can identify and remember good wine selections in the future.

Italian Label Basics

The front label of a bottle of wine is typically the winemaker’s opportunity to inform and advertise to the consumer what their wine is all about.

In “old world” regions like Spain, France, and Italy where wine is produced, both high in quality AND quantity, government regulations require much more information to be displayed to represent what is in the bottle and from where its contents originated.  In Italy, you will typically find the wine’s producer, vintage, denomination (more on this in a moment), and even a name for the wine itself, if denomination and other clues do not distinguish it enough.  Here’s an example of an imported Italian wine label (front and back):

negresco front label 2                          negresco back label

The front label is straight from the producer and features the name of the wine “Negresco,” the producer “Provenza,” and the denomination of Garda Classico, as well as some other important words and phrases. For now, we know or have reasonably inferred some basic things about the wine, like who made it and what they named it, but we don’t really know these things in any kind of context or detail.  So what do those other Italian words and phrases tell us about this wine?  Let’s assume for a minute that we are in Italy and don’t have the English words provided on the American importer’s label on the back to help us:

negresco edited In this example, the wine known as “Negresco,” can be further identified by the words below as one of a company called “Provenza,” which is an Azienda Agricola.  It also lets the consumer know that Provenza is located in the municipality of Desenzano del Garda (D/G) in the province of Brescia (BS).

There are many different phrases like “Azienda Agricola” that designate the type of business producing the wine.  Here are a few more you are likely to see:

  • Azienda- “business,” “landed property” or “estate.” Azienda Agricola has a connotation of a commercial farm, and can also mean that it is a business (in this case a winery) that is producing the actual product (grapes) and is selling that product under its own label.  An Azienda Vinicola, however, does not need to own land and can simply be a wine-maker. This term is used as long as 51% of the grapes being used to make wine were purchased from other sources.  These bottles will also read “imbottigliato da” or some version of “bottled by” on the label.
  • Ca’ or Casa- “Casa” (literally a building, house, or habitation– sometimes abbreviated as Ca’) is a term used around Italy, with Casa Vinicola taking on a specific meaning as a winery/negociant for others’ grapes.
  • Cascina- “farm house,” or other structure that also stores cheese and other dairy products.  Used in Piedmont as either farmhouse, winery, or dairy farm by definition.
  • Cantina- “cellar” or “tavern”- It could mean a few things, but likely indicates a winery with some sort of a food/beverage service component, like a wine bar or restaurant.
  • Fattoria- “farm,” used often in Tuscany to denote that the winery is also a farm for other products such as olives and olive oil
  • Podere- “country estate with farm house”  This term has actually historically denoted the seat of agricultural power in the area and carried a certain powerful connotation
  • Poggio- “hill”- Often used in Tuscany as part of winery names.  Sometimes labeled “il poggio” on some wines to denote being made from grapes ripened by sun available only on hilltop plots.
  • Produttore- “producer”
  • Tenuta- “estate,” or more specifically a “land holding” or “property.”  Many weighty producers like Tenuta San Guido and Tenuta dell’Ornellaia carry this designation.
(Thanks to dobianchi.com for first collectively defining most of these terms, partially paraphrased in this entry)

These words are important in helping identify who makes the wine you’re holding, as the producer (like Provenza in the picture above) will not necessarily present their name as the biggest words on the label.

The other circled area of the picture is equally as important as who produced the wine, and that’s the denomination of the wine itself.  The denomination, also known as “classification,” or “style” appears on the label and will always be adjacent to one of the following phrases: “Denominazione di Origine Controllata” (or “DOC”), “Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (“DOCG”), Indicazione Geografica Tipica (“IGT”).  These phrases are government labels that let the consumer know that these wines come from a specific area, follow certain rules for production, and are of a certain degree of quality.  Without following exact rules regarding things like vineyard maximum yields in a season, percentage of certain grape(s) in an established style of wine, strict adherence to a relatively small geographic growing area, and literally countless other regulations, wines cannot legally be sold bearing these specific words.  This is especially true of “DOC” and “DOCG”-marked wines, as those two denominations are given only to styles and regions that have established a consistency of quality and tradition in the way the style is made.

In other words, DOC and DOCG wines have some degree of a good reputation and therefore standards to keep it that way.  It’s no guarantee of actual quality from wine-to-wine, but an indicator of following the practices that gave the best examples of the style their reputation.

DOCG is the highest mark that can be given to a style of wine, and is typically reserved for extremely well-established wines such as Barolo, Barbaresco, many varieties of Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Amarone and other world-class examples.  IGT is something of a foil to DOC and DOCG wines.  It is a classification that came into being as a somewhat rebellious reaction to the creation of strictly-regulated DOC and DOCG denominations, whereas IGT wines can refer to a more general growing region and an almost completely blank slate of regulations for producing wines.  Ever see a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot made in Tuscany– or even a 100% Tempranillo?  An all-French or Spanish grape combination isn’t likely to ever garner an Italian DOC or DOCG mark (though it’s not impossible– think of Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris!), but Italians have the freedom to make such creative foreign blends on their native soil under the IGT denomination.

negresco front label 2     negresco back label

Back to the labels.  

In this wine’s case, Provenza’s “Negresco” is considered a “Garda Classico Rosso,” a red (“rosso”) wine style that comes from a fixed growing area around Garda, is a traditional style for the area (“classico”), and has followed the rules to earn the title of “Garda Classico DOC” on its label.  To an American, Garda Classico may be an unfamiliar blend, but the DOC designation lets you know it has some significance in Italy and that there is likely plenty of information readily available if more research is required before purchased.

There are still things we’d really like to know about this wine, and if not displayed on the front label, the back label of a wine should contribute the rest of the required information, whether supplied by the Italian winery or its American importer.  Sometimes Italian wines don’t have labels for English-speaking countries, so it’s helpful for the importer to do a little translation or simply list the pertinent information in English, as in the picture below.

negresco back label

The two most important things the consumer should know here which aren’t provided on the front label are the vintage (the year during which the grapes in the wine were grown) and the percentage of alcohol in the wine. Over time, the vintage of the wine can become known as an indicator of quality with or simply as a footnote briefly observed (or not) by the buyer. Either way, it must be present on the bottle. The alcohol content (usually rounded to .0 or .5% in Italy) is also important for the consumer. It can indicate to some extent what the consumer can expect to taste and also how much to consume in one period.

Misrepresenting the type or blend of grapes used to create a wine, or using grapes grown in an area different from the one on the label (among other things) is considered “wine fraud” and can result in jailtime for the offender, not to mention the deathblow dealt to their business and reputation.

Wines of Friuli-Venezia Giulia

Cultural Crossroads

Wine is almost always heavily influenced by the the history and culture of the lands from which it is created. This is particularly true in Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia, which not only makes up part of the current border with Slovenia and Austria but has strategically changed hands between ancient Rome, Byzantines, Franks, Austrio-Hungarians, and the Catholic Church for over 2000 years.

To understand the wines of the region, a little knowledge of its shared history goes a long way.

The “Triveneto”

In 1863, during the early years of independent and united Italy, Friulian linguist Graziadio Isaia Ascoli coined the term “Tre Venezie,” today more commonly known as “Triveneto,” to describe the three Northeastern provinces of Italy comprising the modern borders of Alto Adige, Veneto, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia.  

triveneto friuli            Original borders described by "Tre Venezie," wherein Veneto and Friuli shared some of the same lands.

The first map shown above displays the “Triveneto” with its modern borders; the map on the right shows the original borders of the provinces of the “Tre Venezie” as they were in the 1860s.

At the inception of this term, Italy was at once ancient and brand new.  The vast majority of the Italian Peninsula had gained its independence from Austria (in the north) and Spain (in the south) in 1860 and had been united into one sovereign country.  Friuli-Venezia Giulia in particular had been at the center of international conflict and changed hands many times throughout the previous 2000 years, and the small province of Gorizia would not return to Italian control from Austria-Hungary until the empire fell at the end of The Great War.

Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1913.  Trieste in yellow.

Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1913. Trieste in yellow.

Prior to this, Friuli and its all-important port at Trieste had been crucial assets to whoever wished to wield geopolitical power in Central and Western Europe.  Trieste, more so than even Venice (since Venice was its own independent Republic), was the port responsible for Central and Northern Europe’s trade with Asia.  

The general area of Friuli-Venezia Giulia was part of the Roman Empire until its decline in the mid-5th century, giving way to brief Byzantine rule (after Attila the Hun sacked the area in 452 AD).  The Lombards, a Germanic tribe from the North, conquered Friuli and much of the peninsula in the 560s but ruled the area loosely, leading much of Northern Italy to practically rule itself.  The Catholic Church had the Lombards ousted with help from the Franks in the 700s and gave way to the rule by the Frankish Empire in exchange for territories, the Papal States, which would form a border between the Northern and Southern parts of the Italian Peninsula.  Loose rule of the southern portion of the Frankish Empire continued until German King Otto I conquered the area as the first Holy Roman Emperor.  Friuli would be a part of the Holy Roman Empire until its decline when it was annexed by an expansion of the Republic of Venice in the first decade of the 1500s.  It would stay as part of Venice (which also controlled much of the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea) until Napoleon‘s conquest of the Italian Peninsula in 1797.  In 1815, Friuli, with the rest of Northern Italy down through Tuscany, again became part of Austria, until decades of revolution finally yielded an independent, united Italy in 1860.  At the end of World War I, the small province of Gorizia along the modern Slovenia-Italy border (which changed hands during the war a couple times) was yielded by the soon-to-be-former Austro-Hungarian empire.  At that point, the modern borders of Italy and Friuli-Venezia Giulia became what they are today.

All this to say, Friuli has had a LOT of influences other than Italian!  The Italian dialects, food, and number of people speaking neighboring languages are as diverse as anywhere else in the country.  Many residents of Friuli even speak “Friulian,” a language all their own, in addition to Italian and perhaps even German and/or Slovenian.  In addition to cultural wealth, the pivotal position between all these countries and empires and the important Trieste port have given Friuli one of the stronger economies in Italy for many years.

So How About the Wine??

Most Italian wines are indelibly Italian in style.  There are hundreds if not over 1000 unique Italian wine grapes that, with some exceptions, are only grown in Italy.  Many of the wines of Friuli, however, are as internationally diverse as its shared cultural heritage.  The juxtaposition of the Austrian and Julian Alps to the North and East, with sunny, south-facing hillsides and cool plains giving way to the Adriatic Sea in the South make Friuli-Venezia Giulia a world-class wine region for all types of grapes.

friuli vineyard 1colli orientale  

World-Renowned Whites…

Friuli is famous for its diverse, high-quality white wines.  Friulian Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris), Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Pinot Blanc are well-known international styles made here, and indigenous whites made with Glera (for Prosecco), Friulano (formerly “Tocai Friulano” or “Tai” and sometimes known as “sauvignon vert”), Malvasia Istriana, Verduzzo, Picolit, and Ribolla Gialla fil out Friuli’s sense of place and reputation.  Thanks to German, Austrian and French influences and proximity to high-altitude, cool-climate terroir, Friuli is an appropriate region to represent other old-world grapes like (Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc) and Italian originals alike.

Native Friulian whites are generally dry, fresh, acidic, but with good weight and texture.  Pinot Grigio is probably its best known product internationally, but the following local grapes also deserve your attention:

Friulano- a medium-to-full-bodied dry white wine with mouth-watering acidity, delicate fruit flavors with light saline minerality and a common note of almonds.  This grape was formerly known as “Tocai Friulano” or “Tai” until European regulations took away the “Tocai” to avoid confusion with the noble “Tokaji” wines of Hungary, which are pronounced the same way but are not related grapes.  Friulano is also known as “Sauvignon Vert” in some parts of the world, including Chile, where it was often confused for Sauvignon Blanc, which is also not directly related to Friulano.

Malvasia Istriana- Malvasia is an ancient family of grape varieties that has made its way into six different regions of Italy as far south as Sicily, to Croatia and as far as Portugal, and is used to make everything from high quality white and dessert wines (such as Madeira) to table reds and as part of white blends.  Malvasia Istriana is grown in Friuli but gets its name from the Istrian Peninsula spanning over Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy (it is also grown in those countries).  In Friuli, Malvasia Istriana is crisp, lightly floral and acidic with tropical fruit flavors.  Good examples can be found in Collio DOC, Isonzo DOC, and as Venezie Giulia and “delle Venezie” IGT wines.

Ribolla Gialla- (Ree-boh-la Jyah-la) Another ancient indigenous grape grown in the eastern portion Friuli around Gorizia and the border with Slovenia.  It produces a light-bodied, deeply colored wine with high acidity and floral notes.

All three of Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s DOCG wine-growing regions are white wines: Colli Orientali del Friuli Picolit, Ramandolo, and Lison.  The first two are late-harvest, sweet dessert wines from Picolit and Verduzzo grapes, respectively.  Lison has the unique honor of being the only DOCG region in Italy that shares land with another region– in Lison’s case, Veneto (where it is also known as Lison).

There are also eleven DOC designations in Friuli: Carso, Colli Orientali del Friuli/Frili Cialla/Friuli Rosazzo (3 sub-regions), Collio Goriziano (or Collio), Friuli Annia, Friuli Aquileia, Friuli Grave (the highest quantity producer), Friuli Isonzo, Friuli Latisana, and Lison Pramaggiore (also known as Lison, the shared DOCG with Veneto).

Finally, three IGT denominations exist for white, sparkling, rosé, and red wines that can come from almost anywhere in Friuli and sometimes other parts of the Triveneto:  “Alto Livenza,” “delle Venezie,” and “Venezie Giulia.”  The latter two are actually quite well-known internationally and are good examples of an IGT wine rising above the strict hierarchy placing it between everyday table wine and DOC designation.  These whites and reds represent the positive modern connotation of IGT wines of high quality with a combination of traditional and modern techniques applied to indigenous and immigrant grape varietals and blends.

A blend of Friulano and Malvasia Istriana under Venezia Giulia IGT

A blend of Friulano and Malvasia Istriana under Venezia Giulia IGT

delle Venezie IGT is not strictly “Friulian” in that “delle Venezie” refers to the “Tre Venezie” (or “Triveneto”) and can come from any appellation among Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino (but not the Alto-Adige area), and Veneto.  The list of grapes allowed to be grown under this designation is very long, but more than half of delle Venezie wine is varietal Pinot Grigio, with other popular varietals Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Nero making up a good part of the rest.

…But Don’t Sleep on the Reds

Without question, the white wines of Friuli put them on the map, but the climate of the region is diverse enough to provide quality reds as well.  The sub-Mediterranean climate in the plains coupled with the sunny hillsides rising above the coastal fog make an ideal area to grow a great variety of reds.  Many French grapes were brought here with Napoleon’s armies, and Merlot is one of the most commonly grown grapes here.  Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are also typical of the region.  It’s a good thing these international varietals do well in Friuli, because one of the common attributes of the local red grapes such as Refosco, Schioppettino, and Pignolo is that they all tend to be fussy or difficult in some way to grow.

Refosco from Friuli Latisana DOC

Refosco from Friuli Latisana DOC

Refosco is a grape that requires a lot of warmth and sunlight to fully ripen.  It is actually a family of grapes under the name “Refosco” that can be found in different areas of Friuli, Croatia and Slovenia.  Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso is the most internationally recognized variety, some of the best examples of which come from the Colli Orientali and Latisana DOCs.  Refosco has suffered from mass production from being sold off in bulk in the past, but when carefully cultivated the grape produces structured, acidic and gripping reds with dark fruit and herbal undertones not unlike some Cabernet Franc.

Schioppettino is another local red grape with a high ceiling for aging and quality.  It is a vigorous grape variety whose bunches grow so large that the bottom half is often sliced off the allow the rest of the bunch reach full ripeness.  When properly cultivated, the highly aromatic Schioppettino has been compared to Northern-Rhône Syrah.  It is acidic and structured with some peppery, floral and ripe fruit notes and is drinkable in its youth as well as after some years of cellaring.

Pignolo is yet another difficult grape with a high ceiling for patient growers.  Pignolo literally translates to “fussy,” and is an extremely low-yielding, uneven-ripening grape to grow, but when it fully ripens creates a wine of high acidity and tannins with very dark fruit and a lot of intensity.

Orange Wine(!)

As winemakers continue advancing Friuli wines with modern techniques, many are taking a trip down memory lane to the old styles of oxidative, white wines left in contact with the skins for a longer period.  These delicious and unique wines take on a hue ranging from dark gold to copper to rusty orange, depending on the days, weeks, or even months the must is left in contact with the grape skins.  These methods also involve more oak and clay container aging, which connect the style to ancient Roman times and other Slavic influences.  Time will tell if the orange wine trend is back to stay, but for those always interested in something new, give them a try!

Negresco

Region: Garda Classico, Italy
Grapes: 40% Groppello, 20% Marzemino, 20% Sangiovesse, 20% Barbera

Negresco is a modern, “New World” style blending. It is full bodied and rich in fruit and spices. With one year in french barriques it posseses a fine and rare balance. Pair this wine with roasted meats and pastas with red sauce.

Beviamo!

“Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.”  — Benjamin Franklin

This famous thought never ceases to bring a smile to my face. It makes me feel that my devotion to discovering and enjoying the fine wines of one of the most revolutionary destinations in this world is somehow sanctioned by a higher power. Perhaps that’s my way of justifying my love for the grape? In any case … Beviamo vino!