Geographically, the country runs from the Alps in the north to the rocky, arid regions of Puglia and Calabria in the south, surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, not forgetting the large islands of Sardinia and Sicily.
An ancient wine culture, going back possibly 6,000 years, there have been strong influences from the Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans. With flat plains and high mountains, there are a multitude of different soils and microclimates, all adding to diversity.
A major factor in this diversity is also attributed to more than 370 indigenous grape varieties, the greatest number anywhere on the planet, accounting for some 25 per cent of commercial wine grape varieties. There are some arguments among vine experts as to the exact origins of certain grape varieties, some having originated in the Middle East, brought back to Italy by Greeks or Romans after overseas conquests. However, whether they are truly indigenous or not, these hundreds of varieties can certainly be designated as ‘native’ varieties, having grown in specific locations for many centuries and changed over time to fit their environment.
Over the past 150 years, the phenomenon of International Grape Varieties has arisen, where highly adaptable French varieties such as chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, have been planted all over the world, in the hope of replicating great French wines. To be sure, this has met with considerable success, but it is both interesting and refreshing to discover wines from far less known grape varieties. This also fits the current trend towards local production and authenticity in both foods and drinks.
For a voyage of discovery of Italy’s native grape varieties, there is no better place to start than The Wine Society. Here are three recommendations which are fabulous, inexpensive drinking and are prefect for spring and summer.
Fast becoming one of my ‘go-to’ dry whites, is Vescovado Guardavalle Bianco 2020 from Calabria, the toe of Italy. Fabulously characterful yet not overpowering, the rare indigenous guardavalle grape grown organically, gives comice pear and citrus flavours, with a long spicy finish (£13.50 a bottle).
From the opposite side in Puglia, the heel of Italy, comes another of my favourites Verdeca San Moro 2020. Verdeca is another rare white grape variety, which excels in the far south climate, once used mainly for vermouth production, now largely out of favour. A bright, fresh wine with citrus and white peach flavours, medium body and refreshing finish (£9.75).
Moving up to the north of Italy, Verduno Pelaverga 2020 from Cascina Massara, comes from the Piedmont region in the north-west, known for high-quality reds, such as Barolo and Barbaresco. The rare Pelaverga piccolo grape is grown almost exclusively around the small town of Verduno. Beautifully balanced, with a bright, pale, cherry-red colour, this is a real find in the mid-weight Italian red category.
Very different from the surrounding wines made from Nebbiolo, Dolcetto and Barbera, the tannins are light, with red berry and herb flavours, with distinct aromas of violets, wild strawberries and white pepper. On offer at £12.95, it is fabulous, versatile, summer red.
Richard Esling is a wine consultant, agent, writer and educator. He runs agency and consultancy WineWyse, is founder and principal of Sussex Wine Academy and is chairman of Arundel Wine Society