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From Aglianico to Zinfandel: an a-z of Italian grapes

Known as Enotria – the land of wines – by the Greeks, Italy boasts over 3,000 registered grape varieties, as many as 15,000 varieties, over 2,000 growers of wine and a wealth of different regions, each with their own culture, soil type and micro-climates. Italy produces more wine than any other country and its diversity brings a vibrance to the Italian wine scene that is unmatched by any other place in the world.

Given this richness and bounty, Italy has for far too long been the unsung hero of the wine world, existing under the shadow of the great French chateaux and the exuberance of New World wines. Italy’s past has been steeped in producing wines as an alternative to water: as characterful, yet unrefined companions to the country’s diverse local food dishes. They have been drunk and enjoyed for centuries, forming a thread through the country’s eating and drink culture with scant regard of further nurturing for the outside market. But, this situation is changing rapidly.

There has been a complete revolution in the wine scene in Italy over the past 30 years, with the arrival of a new generation of producers. Many of the new players are sons of the traditional growers, bursting with enthusiasm and passion for wine derived from their travels in the New World and the study of modern viticultural techniques. This explosion of knowledge and commitment has brought finesse and quality to the wines and paved the way to greater acceptance and an embracing of Italy on the international wine stage. Italy is adopting more modern practices, is improving the quality of its wines and is beginning to emulate many of the popular New World wine styles that prevail in Europe. Such developments have brought even greater choice and variety, which can create confusion for the uninitiated, yet inevitably this complexity forms part of the fun of selecting Italian wines. It is a challenge and an adventure.

Italy’s regions traditionally draw on their own unique grape varieties, and many have more than just one grape that is produced solely in that area. Nebiolo grapes used to produce the bold Barolo and its lesser known neighbour, Brunello Montelcino, predominate in the Piedmont region; while Sagrantino holds court in Umbria; and the unusual Negroamaro grape is a springboard for the clean and fresh new wines, which are currently emerging from Puglia.

Such companies as Antiniori, one of the largest wine producers in Italy, are now taking their know-how into regions such as Puglia, Sicily and Campagna, where the wine culture is less developed than elsewhere. They are exploring the combination of the country’s traditional and historical grapes with international varieties such as chardonnay and merlot to produce the fresh, fruity wines so loved by international consumers.

Other growers are experimenting with traditional grape varieties such as Aglianico, which dates back to the Greeks who colonised the country in around 735 BC and were credited with bringing the very first wines to Italy. Producing a wine that is firm in tannin, rich in structure and with great perfume and great fruit, Aglianico grapes are now being extensively planted throughout Campagna, Basilicata, Puglia and Molise in the Central South of the country. Producers are drawing on modern technology to mark the renaissance of the Aglianico grape in wines with a rich and fruity contemporary appeal. Modern techniques have also prevailed in tracing Italy as the possible source of the well-known but not indigenous Zinfandel grape from California, USA. The Primitivo varietal from Puglia has been found to have the same genetic fingerprint as the successful Zinfandel and is now the focus of intense scrutiny and curiosity in the wine making world.


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