Native Uprising

My book-writing days are probably behind me, but if I were to write a new wine book, I know what I’d call it – Native Uprising – and it would focus on the ascent of indigenous Italian grape varieties. Italian winemaking has made fantastic progress in the past 50 years (yes, my memory goes back that far, more’s the pity), and, while that progress may have been turbocharged by the phenomenon of the so-called supertuscans and the brief prominence of “international” (meaning grown in France and California and Australia) grape varieties, the real motor that has propelled it all along has been the native grapes of the many Italian wine regions.

Nebbiolo

Nebbiolo

It’s probably a clear indication of the deeply ingrained chauvinism of the wine world that we continue to speak of “indigenous” or “native” Italian grapes, with often enough an implication of quaintness and lesser standing and quality, while no one – myself included – ever speaks of Cabernet and Merlot and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, or even Syrah or Sauvignon, as indigenous French grapes – which, of course, they are. The fact that Nebbiolo and Sangiovese – not to mention Barbera – are now grown around the world hasn’t made them “international” varieties: they remain humble, indigenous – to Italy – grapes.

Sangiovese

Sangiovese

So a good part of my reason for once again taking pen (keyboard?) in hand would be counter that notion of inferiority. It shouldn’t be too difficult. The strides that Piemontese and Tuscan winemakers in particular have made, and especially their success in drawing publicity, have certainly raised the visibility and the status of Nebbiolo and Sangiovese for any wine drinker who has gotten beyond an introductory level of wine knowledge. Other noble Italian red wines lag that level of recognition, but Aglianico and Amarone (not a grape variety, I know, but bear with me) are not far behind.

White wines may be a little trickier, because so many of the fine whites of northern Italy are vinified from “international” varieties that have been cultivated in Friuli and Alto Adige for almost two centuries. (Which raises the interesting question, how long must a variety be grown in an area before it becomes native? And where did the ancestors of those “indigenous” French varieties originate?) The excellence of many other Italian white varieties is only beginning to be discerned. The process is slow because so many of them are in the south, which for many wine lovers, and even for many Italians, is terra incognita.

Which brings me to what would be the second purpose of the book I’ll probably never write: to call attention to the cornucopia of interesting-to-distinguished varieties awaiting their moment in the south of Italy. In a rather haphazard way, I’ve spent a lot of time in the past two or three years in southern Italy, and every visit has been a revelation. Maybe a learning experience is a better way to put it: not only have I been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the wines, but I have each time encountered grape varieties previously unknown to me. Even more important, these varieties have not been simply quaint survivors of another age, but grapes with real wine-making interest and potential.

Susumaniello

Susumaniello

For example, let’s consider Puglia, which I’ve written about recently both here and in Decanter. Almost everybody knows about Primitivo, the cousin of Zinfandel. There are some excellent ones, but in my opinion Primitivo is far less interesting than either Negroamaro or Uva di Troia, or even Susumaniello. These are red grapes of distinctive character, and in the hands of careful producers they are already capable of making long-lived, high-quality wines. With more clonal research and more attention from more producers, their future is wide open.

z-bombino bianco

Bombino bianco

Puglia shows less impressively with white grapes, but even there some bright spots appear: Bombino Bianco, Verdeca, and local clones of Greco have promise. And of course, throughout the rest of the south, white grapes shine: In Campania, Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino lead the way, but those two varieties do quite well on volcanic soils all through the south. (The Soave zone in the Veneto is the northernmost of Italy’s volcanic regions, and its prized Garganega, which makes Soave Classico, is probably a descendant of, if not the same as, Greco.)

Nerello mascalese

Nerello mascalese

And in Sicily, the hyper-volcanic slopes of Etna already yield world-class wines, whites from the native Carricante and reds from Nerello mascalese, which also forms a major portion of what is probably Sicily’s most distinguished red wine, Palari, from the nearby Faro DOC.

That’s far from the whole story even for the south: The white Falanghina is fine and getting better all the time, and the red Piedirosso, a long-time blending companion of Aglianico, is undergoing a significant revival. Even the once lightly regarded Coda di Volpe is rewarding serious attention from winemakers.

Timorasso

Timorasso

Nor is the north of Italy exempt from this growing wave of attention to each region’s viticultural heritage. In Piedmont, Rucché and Timorasso – red and white respectively – lead the contingent of reviving varieties, with the whites Favorita and Nascetta getting more attention every year.

Colorino

Colorino

.In Tuscany, Merlot is losing ground to Colorino and Mammolo as the blending grapes of choice in Chianti, with several experimental bottlings of monovarietal wines – especially of Colorino – already available.

z-schioppettino

Schioppettino

In the Veneto, the once-scorned local clone of Trebbiano is achieving real importance in the Soave zone. And Friuli is a minestrone of local varieties, especially of red grapes: Schiopettino, Tazzelenghe, and Pignolo, to name only the currently most important. This is by no means exhaustive: there are many, many more potentially noble varieties out there.

So there is definitely a book to be written, and a lot of fascinating – and delicious – research to be done. I’m not feeling overly ambitious these days – grey winter weather always has that effect on me – but maybe I’ll do it yet.

8 Responses to “Native Uprising”

  1. Magda Says:

    Tom, I think you have just written the opening of your new book! Beautiful piece. The poetic sweep reminds me of Dante’s description of the flow of the Po and Forster’s description of England in Howards End. Now your grape panorama of Italy. Nice reading. Magda

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Wow, Magda, that’s quite a compliment! Now you’ve really given me something to live up to. Thank you.

  2. Joe Calandrino Says:

    Tom:

    You are that book.

    Some of your lament on great varietals of Italy is in the name: the naming of grapes is a difficult matter; it’s not just one of your holiday games.

    Perhaps the Italian varietals suffer from the Anna Maria Louisa Italiano and Al Capone syndrome. Not having the cache of the francophone, some Italian grapes sound like characters in a Mario Puzo novel: Nerello Mascalese sleeps with the fishes.

    Some prejudices die hard, I’m afraid, and the world is just not ready for Schiopettino on a label. When Anna Maria played the unforgettable Mrs. Robinson, we only remember her as Ann Bancroft. Elitist francophiles might fear a Chicago gangster lurks in in a bottle of bombino, or perhaps they think of a home-run hitter (I’m thinking of a number of Aussie wines labels).

    It’s marketing driving what’s in the vineyard. As the ‘aias’ give way to other Italian wines of character and grace, we can only hope that the wine press remains as hopeful as you, as the names of Italian grapes roll off your pen into the matter-of-factness of good wine-talk.

    I’m going to listen to some Dino Crocetti albums now.

    Ciao.

  3. Alfonso Cevola (@italianwineguy) Says:

    Great idea Tom…go for it

    Happy New Year

  4. Nevin Murtha Says:

    You made me want to read the book. If the cold grey days are getting you down, its time for research in sunny Italy.

  5. Ernest J DeSalvo Says:

    Great article Tom. Can’t wait to read your next one when you tell us where we can get these clone wines in the NYC area.

    Ernie

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Ernie;

      I’m assuming that by clones you mean these different regional varieties. If that’s right, more of them are available than you might think: try shops that make a point of Italian wines — in Manhattan, Chambers Street and DiPalo, and some larger shops like Astor and Garnet. Or try using one of the wine search sites, such as Wine Surf: there are several pretty good ones. Happy hunting!

  6. the winegetter Says:

    Thanks for sharing. Great piece!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s