Beginning an Exploration of Modern-Day Italian Grapes

The wines of Italy have been popular in the United States for decades. Until a few years ago, however, a select number of offerings dominated these wines. Many Americans are familiar with the “Italian Big Four” table wines, as I refer to them: Chianti, Pinot Grigio, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Prosecco. These wines are perennially the best-selling Italian wines. In the last twenty years, a new wave of wines has reached our shores and is beginning to gain a following. Primitivo and Nero d’Avola are increasingly popular reds, while Vernaccia, Verdicchio and Falanghina are the rising whites. 

Over the last ten years, however, additional Italian wines – ones you’ve likely never heard of – have become available in your local wine shop. These wines come from producers who have farmed their land for generations, growing indigenous grapes that, historically, were sold and consumed locally. These winemakers tend to be small, multi-generational producers who farm organically. It is the current generation who has transformed the Italian wine industry from its mass-production, low-quality reputation of the 1960s and 1970s to its current low-yield, high-quality reputation across the globe.

Older grapes that had fallen from popularity have been re-introduced; traditional wines have been improved and are competing more favorably in the world wine markets. Underscoring this movement is the marketing savvy young Italians have introduced to their elders: prices have declined and quality and diversity have increased – a perfect combination for the American market. These young winemakers, many of whose families have been producing wine for hundreds of years, are being afforded the opportunity for a sophisticated, formal wine education and are able to avail themselves of cutting edge techniques and the latest in technological equipment – all available through European Union subsidies that didn’t exist twenty years ago.

As a result, Italy is undergoing a winemaking revolution that is enhancing the reputation of its traditional wines and creating an international stir with its “new” indigenous wines.

There are over one thousand indigenous varietals cultivated in Italy. Slowly, but surely, the wines of these grapes are becoming available on the shelves of your local wine shop.

If you’ve travelled to Italy in the past and enjoyed wines at local trattorias in the hills of Tuscany or at the numerous enotecas in Piedmont or the Veneto, only to find that these wines were unheard of when you returned home, take heart. Be prepared to relive those special moments from your trip to the medieval hilltop town of San Gimignano through a glass of Vernaccia. Or your afternoon basking in the sun at a sidewalk café in Positano through a glass of Falanghina.

Haven’t been to Italy? Not sure when you’ll be able (and comfortable enough) to travel there after the heavy cloud of these continuing pandemic times lifts?

You now have the opportunity to gain a narrow insight into La Dolce Vita and a new perspective to understand Italian history and culture.

Allow me to introduce you to an expansive – but not expensive – array of little known Italian wines. My goal is to broaden your awareness and appreciation of these wines and perhaps find your new “favorite” wine.

Next week I’ll reprise a multi-part series on these unknown grape varietals. I’ll focus on select regions and offer profiles of the history of specific grapes as well as aroma and flavor profiles of each. Recommendations from local wine merchants will be provided to introduce you to praiseworthy producers.

Here are several of the grape varietals I’ll be focusing on: whites – Fiano, Inzolia, Grillo, Pecorino; reds – Aglianico, Teroldego, Uva di Troia, Lagrein.

Soon, these grapes-you’ve-never-heard-of may be embedded in your glossary of favorite wines. I’m sure you’ll enjoy seeking them out when you once again browse the aisles of your favorite wine shop. Following the recommended COVID protocols won’t seem so bothersome.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted numerous wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and Program Director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at nantonaccio@theexaminernews.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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