Italy’s eclectic grape varieties are schmoozing Australia’s wine drinkers. So pull up a bar stool and let us decipher what it is you’re quaffing.
Walk into a good Italian restaurant and chances are you’ll be handed a wine list that’s divided into regions. Given that Italy has 20 wine regions (and, at last count, some 350 grape varieties), it can be slightly overwhelming, even for wine buffs. “People are intimidated by wine lists,” says Nino Zoccali, the owner of Italian fine diner The Restaurant Pendolino in Sydney, which features some 200 Italian wines. In an effort to make his list as accessible as possible, Zoccali includes descriptors on each wine. “It may seem like ABC but it helps people navigate what they are. There are so many different varieties from all around the world now.”
Australian winegrowers only began dabbling in Italian varieties 30 years ago. Italy’s warm, temperate climate mirrors many sites in Australia so you can expect to see more of these savoury, food-friendly varieties in the future. And if that’s the case, you’ll need to be an expert on all wines Italian. Here, then, is a dossier of some of the more common varieties.
Arneis is an aromatic from the Piedmont region with flavours of nashi pear and white peach. Like a sauvignon blanc semillon without the herbs. Fiano enjoys the warm climes of Campania and features subtle lemon and spice flavours and an intriguingly rich texture. Similar to a semillon (it ages much the same way) but with more oomph. Moscato bianco – or white muscat – appears in Italy as a low-alcohol (5-6%) fresh fruity moscato or sparkling Asti. Best at 11am with a platter of fresh fruit. Tastes like freshly squeezed grapes. Pinot grigio hails from the cool mountainous regions of Trentino, Friuli and Alto Adige. Crisp and clean with a lemony acidity. Shares the same DNA as pinot gris in France. Similar to sauvignon blanc, minus the capsicum. Vermentino hails from Sardinia and thrives in its warm climate. Think honeydew melon flavours and a rich textural palate. Tastes a bit like chardonnay without the oak.
Barbera is a variety of Piedmontese origin with blueberry flavours and a zing of acidity. Its mild tannins make it ideal with spicy food. Tastes like a fresh, zesty merlot. Nebbiolo can be found in Piedmont’s Barbaresco and Barolo regions and is often referred to as nebbiolo d’Alba or Langhe nebbiolo. Featuring perfumes of rose petals and tar with a tannin bite, it’s the new “darling grape” that can be compared to pinot noir. Nero d’Avola is the most popular red variety in Sicily, famed for bold, dark cherry flavours and spicy tannins that add power but not weight. Like grenache with punch. Primitivo is known as zinfandel in California but it also flourishes in Puglia. It has red berry flavours, dried herb overtones and rustic tannins. Similar to mourvèdre but with extra grunt. Sangiovese is the key grape in Tuscany, appearing in the guise of Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti and Montepulciano. Sour cherry flavours and hints of dried herbs are prevalent. It’s like shiraz with savoury overtones.
Image: Edward Urrutia