Last: Italy’s unsung grapes are ripe for the picking

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I thought about calling this column The Grapes of Wrath, a rant about all the wines in the world that bore me, but it turns out that title has been taken so I chose a less hostile path by championing some of the cool grapes from Italy that I have been enjoying lately. It’s estimated that Italy has roughly 500 different varietals growing in the country (for the record, France has 60), although 350 of them are recognized officially.

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The last time I was in Campania I tasted white wines made from grapes I had never heard of, and the wines were delicious and brimming with character. Most wine drinkers are familiar with grapes like sangiovese, pinot grigio and glera (the grape responsible for Prosecco) but that’s just the tip of the wineberg.

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I think the wines of Campania are highly underappreciated, and I expect part of that’s because tourists tend to avoid the city of Naples, opting for the charm (and crowds) of Tuscany or heading further south down to the stunning Amalfi coast. Naples has a reputation for crime, some of it organized, and the outskirts are decidedly on the rough side, but the old part of the city is quite cool and the pizza, omg, the pizza. Venture past the outer posts of urban decay and poverty, however, and you will find the rolling vineyards of Avellino to the west, and Salerno to the south.

This is where you can drink fresh, minerally whites from grapes like fiano di avellino, falanghina, and greco di tufo, and gutsy reds from aglianico, taurasi, and piedirosso. The latter is a specialty of Naples as it’s mostly grown on the volcanic slopes of Mount Vesuvius, the active volcano that famously levelled Pompei. The red wine made from this grape is called Lacryma Christi (literally, the tears of Christ), and they produce a sparkling version as well.

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Aglianico has been called the Barolo of the south for its ability to produce powerful, age-worthy wines, but the grape can be tamed to deliver more approachable versions as well. If these grapes have a unifying characteristic, it is acidity and it allows them to work with high-acid foods, most notably tomatoes, a key ingredient in southern Italy.

The region of Piedmont, where barbera is starting to more equally share the stage with nebbiolo. Files cal

Tomatoes were introduced to Italy in the mid-1500s and thrived in the warm climes of the south, becoming so beloved that the famous Romas of San Marzano have their own designation (D.O.P.). The whites pair well with seafood dishes, especially if tomatoes are involved, or a simple piece of fish cooked with a little butter, lemon, and capers. Aglianico will keep meat and game dishes happy; think beef braised slowly for hours in a mixture of wine, tomatoes, and herbs, or a simple pizza with fresh tomato sauce (tip: don’t cook the sauce, simply roughly puree a can of San Marzano tomatoes and let most of the liquid drain out in a fine sieve. The juice, btw, makes for an excellent Bloody Mary) and prosciutto.

Northern Italy has its share of unsung viniferous heroes as well, many of which reside in the foothills of the Alps. Boca is situated at the edge of northern Piedmont, and it’s famous for being the birthplace of nebbiolo (locally known as spanna) the grape of Barolo fame. Unlike Barolo, the aggressive tannic nature of the grape softens much sooner here than its famous counterpart but still retains the intriguing floral and fruit components the wine is famous for.

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Fields of fiano growing at Mastroberardino in the southern Italian appellation of Campania. Courtesy, Mastroberardino cal

Vespolina is another local variety that finds its way into many of the blends, typically found in the wines from the DOC of Colline Novaresi. It’s likely related to nebbiolo, but the tannins are much softer with a juicier fruit profile. Venture into the Valle d’Osta, the mountainous region that borders France and Switzerland, and you will find such local specialties as petite arvine (an aromatic white), fumin (a dark red grape) and prie blanc, a mineral-driven white planted in the DO of Morgex et de la Salle, home to the highest vineyards in Europe. You can find many of these grapes growing on the Swiss side as well, and the French influence is apparent in their names.

Recommended producers: A tale of two families who didn’t like each other; Mastroberadino was and is a famous name in Campania’s wine world. Founded by Antonio Mastroberadino in the late 1800s, it went on to almost single-handedly raise the quality in the region, eventually proving that Campania could produce world-class wines. Fast forward to the 20th century when heirs Antonio and Walter have a bitter feud and decide to split the company, with Antonio getting the winery and Walter acquiring the best vineyard sites. The result is two excellent wineries, Mastroberadino and Terradora di Paolo, and both producers are available in our market.

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The Terredora vineyard in Italy. cal

In northern Italy try the wines of Mont Blanc from the Valle d’Osta, or the fumin and petite arvine from Gros Jean. In Boca, Davide Carlone makes excellent reds from spanna and vespalino, and from Friuli, try the ribolla gialla from Marco Felluga, a terrific white wine packing lots of minerality alongside a basket of tropical fruits, grapefruit, and apples. There’s a lot to explore in Italy’s wine world and as much as I love a great bottle of Chianti, it’s well worth venturing into the regions less travelled. Cheers!

Geoff Last is a long-time Calgary wine merchant writer, instructor, and broadcaster. He can be heard every Friday on CJSW’s Road Pops program between 4 -6 p.m. He was awarded a fellowship at Napa Valley’s Symposium of Professional Wine Writers for articles that have appeared in this column.  [email protected]

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