Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Wines and Spirits Course - Italian Grape Varieties

On Monday evening, I felt like something was missing, something just was not right. It was only then that I realised how much my weekly Wine and Spirits Course lessons have been helping me avoid Monday-itis. Unfortunately, this week's session had to be postponed due to a double-booking.  

So, to make myself feel a little bit better about missing out, I thought I would share some of what has been my favourite lesson thus far (from the week before). The topic:  Italian and Spanish Grape Varieties. As there is just so much to tell you about, I will focus on Italian varieties today and leave Spain until next time.

There are two ways to summarise Italian wines - by region or by colour (white or red).  I decided it would be more exciting to go by region, especially for any of you who might be lucky enough to be travelling to Italy and need a quick reference guide as to what to drink where.
Map of Italian Wine Regions (source: Basic Wine Knowledge)

I will start in the north, in the Veneto Region.  A region that has a special place in my heart, as my mother's Italian ancestors migrated from here to Australia. Everywhere, you will find dry, light Pinot Grigio, with its delicate green and citrus fruit flavours.  The variety was originally from Alto Adige and can now be found throughout Fruili also.  

Pinot Grigio

We tasted one of the best Pinot Grigios I had ever tried at the course. Some cheaper wines of this style are known to lack complexity, but this was definitely not the case for this example.  From a producer called Tiefenbrunner, the wine was lemon in colour and displayed aromas of pear, citrus and white flowers. It was medium bodied, not too high in acidity, and the lemon, ginger and pear flavours were rounded out by a slight creaminess, which suggested some lees stirring had occurred.

Some of you may be aware that Pinot Gris is the French name for the same grape variety. It is not only the name that is different though, Pinot Gris, with its heartland in Alsace, is made in a much fuller-bodied and richer format, displaying tropical fruit and spicy flavours.  Also, unlike Pinot Grigio, it is made in dry, medium and sweet versions (you will not likely find a sweet Italian example).

Soave is essentially a sub-region within Veneto, a tiny patch where the hero grape is garganega (although the wines will be labelled Soave or Soave Classico DOC). The garganega grape is a late-ripening white grape that produces a light-bodied wine expressing beautiful floral aromas such as chamomile and iris.

If it is red wine you are after, Valpolicella will delight your senses with its light, sour cherry flavours.  For those who do not enjoy the sensation of grippy, mouth-puckering tannins, this is likely to be one of your best option in regards to Italian reds.  

Although a typical Valpolicella is often light in body, there is a special example which is exactly the opposite:  Amarone della Valpolicella.  Wines with this title are produced using some grapes which are partially dried to concentrate the flavour.  The result is a full bodied and complex wine, with rich, baked fruit aromas - sounds tempting!


The cortese grape is responsible for the Gavi white wines of Piedmont.  I have never tried one myself, but the lesson definitely piqued my interest when I learnt that these light, high acid wines express notes of candied fruit and citrus. I will let you know once I have had the opportunity to taste an example.

Of course, who could go past the big, bold Barolos and Barbarescos of the Piedmont region? It is these wines that have made the Nebbiolo grape world renowned.  The long-lived wines are often described by the term 'Tar and Roses' which can be explained as a descriptor to summarise the floral nose and leathery, aniseed flavours that develop with maturity.  You are not likely to get this expression in the first few years of the wine's life, more likely you will experience a massive hit of tannin, alcohol and acid with red fruit flavours.

For lovers of finer flavours, another excellent variety from the region is Barbera. It is often aged in oak to make up for the low tannin from the grape and balance out the high acidity.  The result is a wine which typically has red cherry flavours, backed by toasty vanilla from the oak.


Many have heard of the famous Tuscan wine Chianti, but fewer know that the dominant grape variety in this wine is Sangiovese. The wines are high in acid and tannins (are you noticing the same pattern I am here?) and show red cherry, red plum and savoury, herbal flavours.  I have heard the term 'tomato leaf' used on a few occasions lately.  
Chianti Classico

The finest Sangiovese comes from the Chianti Classico DOCG and you would also do pretty well if you chose one from Italy's first DOCG wine region - Brunello di Montalcino - where a wine must contain 100% Sangiovese to be labelled Chianti.

A Chianti Classico was poured for us during our lesson.  I found raspberries, violets, sweet vanillin and pepper on the nose. There was a tart currant flavour to this medium bodied wine and the tannins hit middle-ground.


I was very excited to try an Aglianico, as it was my first time experiencing this red wine which is sometimes called 'The Barolo of the South'. It was clear as soon as the wine hit the glass that it was aged, due to its tawny colour.  The bottle stated that it was from the 2006 vintage at Corte Normana, meaning that it was eight years old. 

As soon as I took a whiff, I was blown away by an intense licorice/allspice smell.  When I could calm my nose down to look past this, I found some pink musk, rose and sundried tomatoes. Similar sentiments on the palate, with lingering aniseed or fennel, some leafiness and fresh tobacco. The lack of fruit suggests that the wine is heading towards the end of its life, however I really enjoyed being sent back to childhood memories of licorice allsorts, just in an adult setting!

Aglianico - 'The Barolo of the South'
Clearly there is so much to learn about Italian wine, and I have barely scratched the surface of the delights that can be found in this romantic country. If I were to make a huge generalisation,  would summarise that the majority of Italian white wines are crisp, dry and light bodied and Italian reds are high in acid, tannin and often body. 

Even if you are not jetting off to Italy anytime soon, hopefully this information will assist you in choosing a bottle of wine that suits your taste to accompany your next home-cooked pizza or pasta dish.