Italy is, without a doubt, one of the world’s most premier places for wine. Where amazing grapes like Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Corvina, and Glera grow. Becoming Brunello, Barolo, Amarone and Prosecco. These wines have captivated palates across the globe, but unlike their French counterparts, that are cultivated around the world, Italian grapes and wine styles have not gained the same world traveller status. Go anywhere in the world, and you will find vineyards with Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as wineries making Champagne style and French oak-aged wines. Harder to find are vineyards with native Italian grapes, at wineries using classic Italian winemaking styles. The good news is, that’s changing!
Italy’s influences in wine are popping up more and more. Wine regions with Mediterranean climates, outside of the Mediterranean, are growing Italian grapes. Cool climate regions are using the Italian winemaking technique of appassimento, drying grapes to create bolder wines. America, Australia, Chile, South Africa and Canada have brought more Italian influences into their wine industries. Although Italians were some of the first immigrants to set up commercial wineries in these countries, it is only now that the grapes and styles from the homeland have gained popularity. The top regions showcasing Italian grapes and winemaking techniques worldwide are California, Victoria and South Australia in Australia and Ontario.
The mark of Italian winemakers and wineries is ubiquitous in California. Large brands like Gallo, Seghesio, Robert Mondavi, and Sutter Home were all created by Italians. Italians left a significant mark on the region from creating family wineries that have turned into legacies, to increasing the plantings of Zinfandel (a grape that is identical to Italian Primitivo). Small vineyards of other indigenous Italian grapes have been planted in the region. However, the first wines made for the market by them didn’t sell well. America was not ready to pay top dollar for a Sangiovese from California when they could buy a Napa Cab or a bottle of Brunello instead. The funny about California is that it has a climate, terrain and culture that is incredibly suited for Italian varietals. Characterized by Mediterranean temperatures, rocky hillsides, and higher elevations. These are all characteristics that can be found in Italy’s wine-growing regions as well. Italian grapes are resilient, hold up well in hot temperatures and can keep their acidity. No wonder why Italian grapes are on the rise in California!
Wineries small and large have put in the investment to grow Italian grapes across the state’s AVAs. Red Italian varietals that can be found in California include Sangiovese, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Montepulciano, Lagrein, Sagrantino. Teroldego, Dolcetto, Refosco and Aglianico. As for white wine grapes, the classic Pinot Grigio is often made Romato style, other top white varietals include Vermentino, Fiano, Arneis, Gerco, Ribolla Gialla, Tocai Friulano, Falanghina and Malvasia. These grapes can be found growing all over the state from the North Coast to the Central Valley. The Sierra Foothills El Dorado and Shenandoah Valley produce fantastic Barbera and Sangiovese. From the Central Coast Santa Yenz, Monterey and Paso Robles make great Malvasia, Nebbiolo and Lagrein. Montepulciano has some stellar productions in the Central Valley area of Lodi. Not to be forgotten, Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino in the North Coast make noteworthy Ribolla Gialla, Refosco and Aglianico.
Get to know the Italian grape productions of California more by diving into the wines from these producers. Massican and their Annia, a blend of Tocai Friulano, Ribolla Gialla, and Chardonnay, made in Napa Valley. Birichino’s Malvasia Bianca made in Monterey County. Matthaisson Vineyard’s Refosco made in Napa Valley, and Seghesio’s Barbera made in Sonoma County.
Australia has a robust Italian community, coming to the country in large numbers for the first time during the gold rush era in the 1850s. The next largest influx of Italians came after World War 2, bringing with them all the culture and skills Italy is best known for, one of which being winemaking. Australia’s wine industry benefited greatly from the presence of Italians. Italian immigrants helped shape winemaking with traditional practises learned in the homeland and established legacy brands. Large wineries today like De Bortoli and Casella Wines (the people behind Yellow Tail) were created by Italians. However, it wasn’t until the 1990’s when Italian grapes-started making their way into commercial bottlings. Key producers like Pizzini Wines, Dal Zotto, and Crittenden became trailblazers making wines from Italian grapes.
There are many different winemaking climates across Australia’s wine regions, not all of which are suited for French varietals. While winemakers can strive to make wines that harken back to the productions of the old country, it is becoming more of a fact than ever that Italian grapes are just better suited in hot, dry, Mediterranean climates. These grapes don’t get bogged down by heat the same way French grapes do. Tending to produce wines that bringing good structure and savoury notes to the glass. Red Italian grapes like Nebbiolo, Barbera, Sangiovese, Dolcetto, Nero D’Avola, Aglianico, Sagrantino, and Montepulciano are grown and made into full varietal wines. Not to be forgotten, white grapes like Glera, Fiano, Vermentino, Garganega, Arneis and Pinot Grigio are also grown and sold. Top regions making wines with these grapes are in South Australia and Victoria. Riverland, McLaren Vale, Clare Valley, and the Adelaide Hills in South Australia are areas making delicious wines. King Valley, Yarra Valley and Heathcote in Victoria make top wines, as well as Australian Prosecco in both classic and Cal Fondo (Pet Nat-like) styles.
Get to know the Italian grape productions of Australia more by diving into the wines from these producers. Serafino Wines and their Bellisima Series from McLaren Vale, which includes Lagrein, Primitivo, and Fiano’s productions. Alpha Box & Dice’s Dead Winemaker’s Society Dolcetto from the Adelaide Hills and their Zaptung Glera sparkler from McLaren Vale. Koerner makes an amazing Pigato Vermentino from Clare Valley. Finally, you will have to try Soumah’s single-vineyard, Nebbiolo, from Yara Valley.
Like in Australia and California, Italians have made their mark on Ontario. There was a massive wave of Italian immigrants that came to the Canadian province in the 1960s. Italians have set up wineries in many of Ontario’s VQA wine growing regions, including the Niagara Peninsula and Prince Edward County. Wineries like Colenari, Vieni, Casa Dea, Gallucci and Two Sisters Winery are all created by Italians.
A newer region than the two above, Ontario is a cool climate wine region; Italian grapes don’t perform particularly well. However, Italian grapes are growing in Ontario. Pecorino is grown and bottled at Casa Dea Estate and Winery in Prince Edward County. Nebbiolo, grown in Niagara, has been produced by Karlo Estates, and Pillitteri grows Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. The reason why Ontario has made the cut is because of Appasimento winemaking.
Most famously used in Valpolicella, Italy, for making Amarone appassimento is the process of drying grapes before they are put through fermentation. This winemaking technique increases sugar content and concentrates flavours in grapes, creating a bolder, bigger, and more focused wine. Appassimento has proven to be a useful tool for winemaking in Ontario. This cool-climate region struggles to produce ripe grapes in tricky vintages. This technique is key to creating consistency but also for making noteworthy wines that can be truly unforgettable. The most significant difference between the appassimento wines of Amarone and the production in Ontario is the grapes used. French varietals are mainly used in the dried grape wines made in Ontario. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot are commonly found in the bottle.
Get to know the Italian grape and appassimento productions of Ontario more by diving into the wines from these producers. Pillitteri Estates and Winery Riserva Famiglia Fruttaio only made in a great vintage. This is the only appassimento in Ontario made with 100% Italian grapes. The wines of Andrzej Lipinski, winemaker at Big Head and Colaneri specials in dried grape reds, incorporating dried grapes into many of his wines. Reif Estate’s The Magician Shiraz and Pinot Noir dried grape blend. Finally, if you can get your hands on a bottle of Karlo Estates, Nebbiolo, never let it go!
Tasting the influences of Italian grapes and winemaking styles worldwide brings Italy’s wine culture closer to global traveller status. The wines are delicious, and it is a treat to experience Italy outside of its homeland.
Cheers till next time, drink good wine!