You probably don’t even remember a time when sangiovese seemed exotic. It, along with nebbiolo, vermentino and a few other grapes, went from uncommon varieties to mainstream ones a generation ago or more. Now, Italian winemakers are delving ever deeper into their viticultural past, creating wines from grapes that are grown only in their particular region or sometimes only in their vineyard. They’re driving a return to the country’s winemaking roots.
Italy began making wine thousands of years ago—there’s evidence Italians have been at it for some 6,000 years—and over time, the country began producing some of the most interesting and food-friendly wines on the planet. For centuries, Italy has produced beautifully made wine from a diverse range of grapes. Unfortunately, a double whammy of phylloxera and economic challenges in the 19th century forced the vast majority of Italian wine producers and regions to prioritize quantity and market desire over quality and their own preferences.
Out went small-scale plantings of grapes you’ve never heard of; in came industrialization and the widespread planting of international varieties. By the 1960s, Italian wine was at a crossroads. While some producers doubled down on better-known French varietals, originally planted decades earlier, which would now command premium prices (surely you’re familiar with so-called Super Tuscans), others knew the value of the grapes they’d been growing for many generations. The DOC appellation system was introduced, and many individual producers, fed up with merlot and cabernet, began experimenting with grapes indigenous to their regions but ignored and mostly forgotten for much of the 20th century.
“Growing native grapes is an important way to preserve the cultural heritage of our wine region,” says winemaker Benedutto Alessandro of Alessandro di Camporeale in Sicily. The wine estate grows native grapes like catarratto, grillo and nero d’avola, which its team believes reflect and express the terroir best. “Of all the major winemaking countries, Italy boasts the largest number of native vine varieties,” says Alessandro. “This incredibly rich biodiversity is something unique that must be preserved. The conservation is crucial not only for maintaining nature conservation but also to preserve our biological heritage.”
Currently, Italy has approximately 1.8 million acres of grapes under vine and produces more wine than any other country except for China, according to the 2019 Statistical Report on World Vitiviniculture. In fact, the country grows more than one-quarter of the world’s commercial wine grapes, according to Ian D’Agata’s book, “Native Wine Grapes of Italy.”
Wine production, for Italians, is more than a mere agricultural product, however, and much more than just a pleasurable beverage. The country takes its wine seriously: Italy has 20 distinct wine-growing regions, each with its own ruling body, set of production rules and unique cultural paradigm. And according to Italian wine experts and producers, the relatively recent return to creating wine from indigenous grapes is a matter of cultural pride, environmental concern and, to a lesser extent, market desire.
In Sardinia, Sella e Mosca has 1,200 acres of grapes under vine, with a diverse mix of international varieties (cabernet sauvignon), more familiar native grapes (cannonau) and rarities specific to their region (torbato).
“Sardinia is a very unusual place from a geological perspective, with a very particular terroir,” says Sella e Mosca’s winemaker, Giovanni Pinna. “All of the wines we make and the grapes we grow are connected to the distinct religious and gastronomic history of Sardinia. Our cannonau, a red variety, traditionally is paired with our suckling pig, a special dish in Sardinia. Our torbato is just grown here, and we produce a still and sparkling version of it.”
Torbato produces fresh, dry white wines with a racy minerality and floral elements. The white grape was once grown much more widely across coastal areas in the Mediterranean but was abandoned because it’s “not easy in the vineyard,” says Pinna. “If you want the grape to provide structure, you have to wait. We often pick in the first week of October. Because the skin is delicate, it’s challenging in the cellar and difficult to clarify. But we love the results, which are very distinctive.”
Others have also been surprised by the incredible pleasure that can be found in wines made from unusual native grapes. Winemaker Giovanni Aiello became interested in native grapes originally from a pure point of cultural pride, then discovered later that the rare regional varieties he was working with actually produced better wine, too.
“I started to cultivate the most ancient native grapes because they have an important historical value,” Aiollo says of his small Puglia label, Giovanni Aiello. “I modified my project based on the quality of the grapes. Maruggio and marchione create a sparkling wine with an ancestral type, because they give a great acidity compared to the classic varieties grown in Puglia.
In the Veneto, a recantina renaissance has been under way for the past decade. While the region is best known for its DOCG prosecco, producers in the hilly region of Asolo decided to propagate this fresh, perfumed and spicy red grape when they realized that fewer than 10 vines remained.
“I believe in recantina, and I love to work with rare native varieties,” says Graziana Grassini, the winemaker at well-known wine estate Tenuta San Guido, which produces the benchmark Super Tuscan Sassicaia, and a consultant on a recantina project with Ermenegildo Giusti. “For me, it’s a pleasure to help enhance these abandoned grapes, which have been rediscovered because of their value. I discovered recantina last September when I started my collaboration with Giusti Wine and the quality, polyphenolic richness and color, the tannins and the aromas allow us to imagine an important wine with a great potential.”
Addressing the Future
Producers are also exploring ancient, rare grape varieties in a bid to ensure their region’s wine-growing future amid rapid and accelerating climate change. The 20 warmest years on record have been within the past 22; grapes, which are notoriously delicate and need steady temperatures within certain temperature perimeters to thrive, may not be able to take it. One study led by a team of climate scientists at Harvard University and Columbia University, estimates that more than half of winegrowing regions across the world are threatened by climate change. Another estimated that by 2050, two-thirds of major wine-growing regions will no longer be suitable for growing grapes.
At Etna’s Barone Beneventano della Corte winery, established in 2015, the team took over “vineyards that were semi-abandoned,” says Pierluca Beneventano della Corte, the winery’s co-owner. Those vineyards were planted with native varieties such as nerello mascalese and carricante, and also lesser-known natives like minnella nera, and a percentage of endangered autochthones varieties. Now, the winery has four additional parcels teeming with rarities.
“We’re working in collaboration with the Agricultural University of Catania to cultivate a dozen relic varieties,” says della Corte. “We want to understand the peculiarities and potential of each variety so that all Etna producers can have one more chance to express their concept of wine in Etna’s incredible pedoclimate. It will bring us a competitive advantage and preserve a cultural heritage of biodiversity, and it will also help in responding to climate change as we learn which varieties are more disease-resistant and able to perform in a changing environment.”
Other producers are concerned about the loss of biodiversity. At La Sincette, resting on the hilly western shores of Lake Garda, almost every decision the winery’s founder, Andrea Salvetti, makes is based on the pursuit of deliciousness, of course, but also environmental responsibility, biodiversity and the propagation of rarities in danger of being lost.
The estate, which has 10 acres under vine, also has 5 acres of olive groves and arable land with wheat and barley planted. All of the grapes are farmed biodynamically and organically, and Salvetti is dedicated to cultivating a rare red grape called gropello, which only grows in this region.
“Our decision to produce wine with the groppello grape is linked to culture and tradition,” says Salvetti. “We believe the potential of groppello has not been totally expressed. We also believe that if we don’t show what it is capable of, it will be in danger of being lost. The loss of a traditional variety is similar to a loss of identity.”
Finding a Market
The motivations for cultivating native varietals and cultural pride, as well as environmental concern, are clear. But what has the payoff been? “For the American markets, we have focused on three native Sardinian varietals: cannonau, torbato and vermentino,” says Sella & Mosca’s North America export manager, Alfonso Gagliano. “We began our efforts 15 years ago alongside our importer, Taub Family Selections, and we’ve had very good results, both in terms of sales and varietal awareness. There’s nowadays an immediate recognition, both by on- and off-premise operators and buyers, as well as an immediate connection to the island of Sardinia.”
Sales of Italian wine were up last year by about 23.3%, according to global consumer data research firm Nielsen. While data on which varietals are garnering the most interest in the U.S. are hard to come by, anecdotally, sommeliers say that they’ve seen a serious uptick in recent years.
Kathleen Thomas, a sommelier at Ada’s Wine in Las Vegas, which specializes in Meditteranean wines and bites, says that interest in native grapes from Italy has been surging. “We’re crushing them right now,” she says. “They’re fun, and people are a lot more open to grapes they aren’t familiar with.”
Ada’s doesn’t even classify wines by regions or varietals on its menu, instead offering them by the glass ($10 to $18) and bottle range ($30 to $250) with flavor and textural descriptions like “crunchy, juicy and elegant” or “zesty, bright and aromatic.”
Sommeliers in Italy are also seeing, and actively encouraging, interest in autochthonous grapes through sometimes-surprising means. “I launched a journey into unknown native varieties in January with other passionate wine lovers in Italy,” says Stefano Franzoni, a sommelier and an official taster for Associazione Italiana Sommeliers. “I decided to focus on Campania because it probably has more native grape varieties than anywhere in Europe—more than 110. Except for the usual four—aglianico, falanghina, fiano and greco—the other 106 are completely unknown.”
Franzoni says that even within Italy, there’s a “big gap” in understanding and exchange between regions. “I live in the north, in Reggio Emilia, and Campania is in the south,” he says. “When I began exploring some of these wines from Campania, like the La Masserie Oblivium Casavecchia, with a velvety texture that reminded me of merlot and the perfect mix of jammy fruity aromas and darker ones but also gentle tertiary sensations that come from long aging, I thought they were wonderful. Wow! But when I asked the winery for a price and they told me 15€ ($18), I became sad. If that wine was made in Northern Italy, it would be sold for a minimum of 30€ ($37).”
When Franzoni asked why the price was so low, he says its producer said, “No one wants pallagrello nero, because they don’t know it.” Franzoni, who has more than 20,000 followers on Instagram, posts several times a week about wines made from obscure grapes no one has ever heard of. So do his friends. (Look for some of the posts via the hashtag #autonocampano.)
In Italy, about 2,000 native grape varieties are grown, but only around 400 are used to make wine that’s sold on the broad market. Perhaps, if this trend continues, more of the 2,000 will eventually be cultivated.
Still, 400 is a lot of grape varieties. How many have you tried?