A-Z of Classical Red Italian Grape Varieties
There are literally thousands of different varieties of wine grapes grown in Italy today, the majority of which are traditional, classical varieties grown only in Italy. Many varieties are only grown in the regions they have been grown for hundreds of years and often are only used in one sort of wine.
It would take far too long to tell you about every red grape variety in Italy, many of varieties have different names in different regions and many others are hybrids of other grape varieties.
Below are the more important classical red grape varieties found around Italy today and the wines with which they are made. In addition to these classical red varieties there are also the usual noble red grape varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Aglianico: Classical grape variety of the Campania and Basilicata regions of Italy. Aglianico is the main variety used to make Taurasi in Campania and Aglianico del Vulture in Basilicata. It is mainly grown in the southern regions of Italy due to it's ability to do well in hot climates and on volcanic soil. At their best Aglianico grapes ripen late and produce a thick dark, almost inky black, full bodied wine with high, but well balanced, tannins. Other classic Aglianico characteristics include a smooth rich texture, with aromas and flavours of black fruits, dark chocolate, coffee, leather and other mineral aromas. Aglianico wines benefit from barrel-ageing as they are often quite harsh when young. Aglianico is also know as Vitis Helenica.
Aleatico: This little known grape variety is grown around Elba and in the regions of Abbruzzo, Puglia, Tuscany, Lazio, Le Marche and Sicily. The Aleatico variety is mainly made into dessert wine, such as Aleatico dell'Elaba Passito, one of Italy's only DOCG designated dessert wines. Aleatico also grows in the small region of Bolsena, near Lazio. Aleatico di Gradoli has been famous for hundreds of years, but is only made by a handful of producers. Whether made in Puglia, Elba or Gradoli, the wines are usually made using dry grapes which tend to spend a certain portion of time drying in the sun before being crushed and pressed. The resulting wine is quite high in alcohol,with rich, concentrated sweet flavours and can keep for many years thanks to good acidity.
Barbera: This is the classic grape variety of Piedmont, so much so that half the total plantings in Piedmont are Barbera. Barbera is the third most planted variety in Italy, second to Sangiovese and Montepulciano. It is grown in the area around Asti (Barbera d'Asti DOCG) and has more limited plantings around Alba (Barbera d'Alba DOCG) and can often be found planted on the slopes below Nebbiolo, due to both varieties performing well in the same climates. When young, the wines offer a very intense aroma of fresh red and blackberries. In the lightest versions notes of cherries, raspberries and blueberries and with notes of blackberry and black cherries in wines made of more ripe grapes. Many producers employ the use of toasted (seared over a fire) oak barrels, which provides for increased complexity, aging potential, and hints of vanilla.
Bonarda: Bonarda is the name used for three distinct grape varieties in Italy. The oldest is Bonarda Piedmontese, a light, aromatic variety, now close to extinction around the vineyards of western Piedmont. The other two Bonarda vines are also from northern Italy, known as croatina in the Po Valley and bonarda in southern Lombardy. Bonarda Piemontese is grown in Piedmont, around Turin, and makes a light, fruity wine. It may be labelled as Bonarda dell'Astigiano, Bonarda di Chieri, Bonarda di Gattinara or Bonarda del Monferrato. Croatina grown in Lombardy, around Pavia, is known as Bonarda dell'Oltrepo Pavese, making a mildly tannic wine similar in style to Dolcetto.
Bovale: This classical Sardinian grape variety is believed to have come from Spain. Bovale has two distinctive clones, the most widely planted clone is the Bovale Grande which has larger berries and the Bovale Sardo which has slightly smaller berries and tends to produce a more austere wine. Both clones of Bovale are found primarily on the island of Sardinia where they are used mainly for blending.
Cannonau: Shares it's story with Bovale as a classical Sardinian grape believed to be of Spanish origin. Cannonau is mainly grown on the eastern side of the island, where it produces Cannonau di Sardegna, which under Sardinian law must have a minimum of 13% alcohol and be aged for a minimum of two years (from December 1st the year of harvest). Cannonau is subject of much debate as many people believe it is infact a direct clone of the classic French variety Grenache, others ,however , believe it to be a completely different variety. As with many Sardinian wines there is also a fortified verdion known as Cannonau di Sardegna Liquouroso, which is a sweeter, more alcoholic version, around 17.5 - 20 % (17.5% legal minimum).
Cesanese: This rather rare variety is mainly found in the Lazio region, where there are infact two cesanese, both of which have their own claim to fame. Cesanese commune is the variety behin the Cesanese del Piglio DOCG wines and is found predominantly in the province of Fosinone, in the central Apennines. The second variety, Cesanese di Afile, is generally considered the superior of the two varieties, however it is not used in any DOCG wines. It actually has it's own dedicated DOC, Cesanese di Afile DOC, created back in 1973. Wines made Cesanese are light-bodied and soft, and generally must be drunk young. Wines from the Cesanese di Affile DOC may have a slight bitter aftertaste. Traditionally Cesanese was used to make sweet red wines that ranged from slightly to fully sparkling. More recently winemakers have begun making dry still wines. Under DOC regulations, any wine labeled as Cesanese must contain at least 90% of the grape variety in the wine. Other grape varieties permitted to fill in the remaining 10% of the blend are both red and white grapes-Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Barbera, Trebbiano Toscano and Bambino Bianco.
Corvina: Corvina is mainly grown around the Veneto region of Italy, where it plays a major part in many of the regions best loved wines. It is used to make Valpolicella, Bardolino and Recioto Classico and it is also used for the regions Amarone wines. Corvina produces light to medium body wines with a light crimson coloring. The grapes are naturally high in acidity which can make the wine tart with a slight, bitter almond note. The aroma of good corvina wines is often marked with sour cherry aroma. In some regions of Valpolicella, producers are using barrel aging to add more structure and complexity to the wine, aswell as a second pressing for the Valpolicella Ripasso wines. The small berries of Corvina are low in tannins and color extract but have thick skins that are ideal for drying on straw to produce Amarone, a sweet red wine, famous both in Italy and around the world.
Dolcetto: Dolcetto is widely grown in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy. The name Dolcetto translates to " the little sweet one", which is somewhat confussing as most Dolcetto wines are produced in a dry style. Most Dolcetto is found in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy, where many of the top estates produce Dolcetto on less favored sites as an "early to market wine" to generate some income for the winery while the Nebbiolo and Barbera are being matured. It is particularly associated with the towns of Dogliani and Diano d'Alba in the province of Cuneo, although the greatest volumes come from around Alba and Ovada. The grape is also found in Liguria under the name Ormeasco, and in the Oltrepo Pavese where it is called Nebbiolo or Nibieu.
Frappato: This Sicilian grape grown widely along the islands west coast. The Cerasuolo di Vittoria region became Sicily’s first and only DOCG. Cerasuolo di Vittoria wines are a blend of Frappato and the region’s main grape, Nero d’Avola. Many people believe Frappato wines resemble Beaujolais due to their light cherry colour, aromatic flavour and low tannins. But Frappato is mainly used in blends nowadays, but a few good single-varietal Frappato wines can be found. Frappato is mainly blended with Nero d'Avola due it's similar style and characteristics. However, excellent Frappato blends can be found with Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio and Nocera.
Freisa: There are two known kinds of Freisa grape found in Italy, the small-berried Freisa Piccolo and the larger berried Freisa Grossa. It is used to make red wines in varying styles, from sweet and still to dry and sparkling (both frizzante and spumante). Freisa is grown widely around the Monferrato, particularly the Monferrato Casalese. It has two DOCs, in the form of the single varietal wine, Freisa d'Asti and the blended wine Freisa di Chieri (10% other varieties) and is also used as a part of the blended wine Gabiano.
Fumin: is grown primarily in the Valle d'Aosta region of northwest Italy. The grape is tough and rather unpleasant as a single varietal wine but whan used as a blending grape in the DOCs of the region.
Gaglioppo: Gaglioppo is grown in southern Italy, mainly around Calabria. The grape is to be believed of Greek origins and is thought to have been introduced to southern Italy with the spice traders. The vine performs well in dry conditions but is susceptible disease which makes it difficult to grow. Gaglioppo produces full-bodied, high alcohol wines with good tannins which often need considerable time in bottle to soften in character. It is sometimes blended with up to 10% white wine to help soften it's tannins.
Grignolino: is a red wine grape from the Monferrato hills in Piedmont, northern Italy. The rather pale red wine that Grignolino grapes produce mainly drunk in eastern Piedmont, as its lack of depth and character have left it with very few fans outside the region. Grignolino's high levels of tannin and acidity could have led Grignolino to rank alongside Piedmont's most successful red varieties Nebbiolo and Barbera, but this was never the case. Despite the current lack of demand for Grignolino wines in general, there are two DOC's given to the grape: Grignolino d'Asti and Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese. Grignolino d'Asti covers wines from the east of the Asti province, around Asti town itself, Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese covers the western half of the Alessandria province.
Lambrusco: Is a dark red skinned variety used for the sparkling red wines made in Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy. To be totally accurate, it is the name for a group of grape varieties, there are more than sixty Lambrusco sub-varieties that have been identified so far. Lambrusco vines are found beyond the Apennines, where Emilia-Romagna, intercepts with several other Italian wine regions, including Emilia-Romagna’s neighbouring region Piedmont and as far as Basilicata to the south. Lambrusco wines had a high profile in the early 21st century, mainly due to mass production for the United States and northern Europe, in the 1980s. Today, most wines bearing the Lambrusco name are made in bulk, and go through their secondary fermentation in large steel tanks. The popularity of Lambrusco grew so rapidly in the 1980s that this was the only way of producing the required volumes quickly enough to satisfy the demand and cheaply enough to keep the wines affordable. A number of Lambrusco wines have their own DOC, these are Lambrusco di Sorbara, Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce, the Modena DOC and Reggiano, formerly Lambrusco di Reggiano. These five DOCs state that their wines must be made from at least 85% Lambrusco grapes (some specify which sub-variety, some do not).
Malvasia Nera: Is the darker-skinned member of the Malvasia family. It is grown all over Italy and is more frequently blended with other grapes. Malvasia Nera an aromatic, thin-skinned variety that is used for dry, sparkling and sweet wines, as well as specialty passito and rosé styles. Malvasia Nera wines range in color from light to deep ruby red and light to medium-bodied with flavors of cherries and plums. The best examples of varietal Malvasia Nera are the two Piedmont DOCs, Malvasia di Casorzo and Malvasia di Castelnuovo Don Bosco. Further south, in Puglia, Malvasia Nera is blended with Negroamaro, most notably in Salice Salentino.
Molinara: Is a light-bodied grape that is used as a minor blending grape in Valpolicella, Bardolino and IGT Veneto wines. On its own, Molinara is rather poor and as a consequence it is made into a single varietal wine. It is much more commonly used to add high acidity to other red wines, or to flesh out rich blends. Molinara has fallen from favor in modern winemaking and plantings in Italy are on the decline. It is still one of the mainstays in Valpolicella.
Montepulciano d´Abruzzo: is a thick black-skinned grape variety widely grown in central and southern Italy. Appreciated for its soft flavors, strong color and gentle tannins, Montepulciano wines are typically best consumed in yound and with food. At the turn of the century, Monepulciano was Italy’s second most planted red grape variety behind Sangiovese, and marginally ahead of Barbera. Due to the ever changing nature of Italy’s wine industry, it is impossible to say exactly how much Montepulciano is grown, but it is one of Italy's mainstay varieties. The most famous region for Montepulciano is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC. Here, vast volumes of Montepulciano are produced around the Adriatic coast. Wines of this region must contain at least 85% Montepulciano. Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo is one of the newer Montepulciano DOCs and shows the variety’s ability to produce varying styles of wine. Less skin contact and stainless steel winemaking creates bright and fresh-tasting, light and fruity wines.
Nebbiolo: is a black-skinned variety most famous for creating the "tar" aroma of Piedmonts Barolo wines. The very name captures its home among the misty foothills of the western Alps. Nebbiolo ( Nebbia is Italian for fog) is named the mists that arrives in early October mornings, when the Nebbiolo is being harvested. Nebbiolo grapes are the principle variety of four Piedmonts DOCGs and eight DOCs, of which Barolo is probably the most famous. Just ten miles north-east of Barolo, Nebbiolo is made into Barbaresco, a slightly more elegant, perfumed style of wine. Barbaresco lies only a little lower in the hills than Barolo, yet the wines are very different.
Negrara: is a dark-skinned grape that is sometimes used as a minor blending component in the wines of Valpolicella and Bardolino. It is mainly grown in Veneto and Trentino-Alto Adige. Negrara has many sub-varieties, the most common of which is Negrara Trentina.
Negroamaro: Is a dark-skinned grape variety that has been grown in the Puglia region for around 1500 years. It is usually blended with Malvasia Nera, Sangiovese or Montepulciano due to its deep color, medium-full tannins and dark-berry flavors. Salice Salentino DOC is the most famous region for producing Negroamaro wines. There are two schools of thought on where Negroamaro’s name comes from. The first is that it is a modern Italian translation (where negro means black and amaro means bitter) referring to the variety’s dark coloring and savoury flavors. The second is a Latin-Greek interpretation and says it means ‘dark black’, a reference to Negroamaro’s intense color.
Nero d´Avola: Is the most important and widely planted red-wine grape variety in Sicily. Large volumes of Nero d’Avola are produced on the island and have been for centuries. The grape is of great historical importance to Sicily and takes its name from the town of Avola on the south-east coast. Translated, Nero d’Avola means ‘Black of Avola’, a reference to the grape’s distinctive dark coloring. The region of Calabria lay claim to the variety under its synonym Calabrese (meaning ‘of Calabria’. Nero d’Avola mainly used as a blending grape the grape’s fortunes have changed and it is now common to find Nero d’Avola produced as a single varietal wine. Depending on it's production methods, Nero d’Avola can be made into thick, dark wine that is suitable for ageing, or young and fresh wines. Nero d’Avola typically has high tannins and a strong body. Nero d’Avola is sometimes produced as rose wine.
Piedirosso: Is a red grape variety from Campania but can be found on the island of Capri. It is mainly used as a blending wine in the Naples area with Aglianico where the wine is known as Lachryma Christi del Vesuvio.
Primitivo: This dark-skinned grape variety is used mainly in the tannic wines from the Puglia. It is perhaps better known under its synonym Zinfandel, which has become one of the most widely planted varieties in the United States. Due to the popularity of Zinfandel, Primitivo has seen a rebirth in popularity over recent years. Quality DOCs such as Primitivo di Manduria and its naturally sweet style Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale, which was Puglia's very first DOCG. Classic Primitivo wines are high in both alcohol and tannins, deeply flavored and deeply colored. A certain bitterness is often found in Primitivo which, combined with its tannins, means it needs a few years either in bottle or cask. This faint bitterness is a trait that characterises many Italian wines, and a quality that is being used to mark Primitivo as a truly Italian grape, quite distinct from Zinfandel style wine.
Prugnolo Gentile: One of the many synonyms for Sangiovese.
Raboso: This red grape variety is grown in the Veneto region of northern Italy. It is usually used in blends, but also made into single varietal wines. The name Raboso is thought to be derived from the Italian word rabbioso, which means angry, this could be due to classic Raboso's wines aggressive tannins and acidity. However, it's more likely the grape takes its name from the Raboso river which flows through the eastern Treviso province of Veneto. The variety is the key ingredient in Piave Malanotte and Bagnoli Friularo wines, where it is known as Raboso Friularo. The variety is also used as a minor mandatory component in the light reds of Bagnoli di Sopra and can be found in the Corti Benedettine del Padovano wines as well as in several other reds from the Veneto province.
Refosco: The origins of Refosco are believed to be northern Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Simple table wines were produced from Refosco, but changing attitudes have led to the production of finer, more age worthy wines and a general improvement in quality. Refosco wines have high acidity and are densely colored. Flavours of spices and plums and the wine often displays a slightly astringent, almond-skin like finish. When harvested too early (Refosco is a very late ripening variety) can produce harsh tannins. Some believe Refosco wine has been made for two millennia. It is widely accepted that Friuli’s Colli Orientali is the best example of Refosco.
Rondinella: Most commonly appears in the blended wines of Valpolicella and Bardolino. It is rarely grown outside Veneto. It is used to add herbal flavors to Corvina based blended wines. Corvina is a parent variety to Rondinella. Rondinella has thick skin that is resistant to rot and well suited to the appassimento method of drying grapes. Consequently, Rondinella is often used in Recioto and Amarone wines.
Sagrantino: This deeply colored variety produces one of Italy’s most tannic red wines. Though Sagrantinos origins are disputed, the region of Umbria, and in particular the area around Montefalco, has been the variety’s home for centuries. In the Sagrantino di Montefalco region, wines must be produced from at least 95% Sagrantino. Blends are permitted in the greater Montefalco DOC region. Single varietal Sagrantino wines are dark and dense and unique to Umbria. Flavours of black cherries, ripe blackberries and spice are classic characteristics of Sgrantino. A smokiness is sometimes found in certain wines and pine flavours have been found in others. High tannins and the it's affinity with oak mean that it matures very well, which is reflected in the local wine law that it must be aged for at least 30 months. Sagrantino’s tannins are more sweet and modern wines can be drinkable when young.
Sangiovese: is Italy's most widely planted grape variety and is responsible for most of the red wines of Tuscany. At the beginning of the 21st century, Sangiovese equated to roughly one in every ten vines planted in Italy. Unfortuantely the wine can be very variable in quality, but improved winemaking techniques have seen a significant shift towards more quality oriented wines been produced. Sangiovese has many clones and is known by many different names in Italy. Good-quality Sangiovese has high acidity, firm tannins and well balanced flavours. Dark cherries and berry fruit aromas are backed by lighter aromas of tomato leaf and herbs. The use of oak barrels has become more popular and gives richer flavours of plum and wild raspberry. In Tuscany, Sangiovese is the main grape variety permitted in the prestigious Brunello di Montalcino DOCG and provides the body to Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Chianti. Sangiovese’s more modern wines are the ‘Super Tuscans’ which allow winemakers more freedom to blend native Italian grapes, like Sangiovese, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah (Shiraz).