Italy is home to over 1000 grape varieties so it would be impossible to profile them all here. Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Primitivo make some of Italy’s best-loved tipples, and if you are unfamiliar with the wines of this lovely country, then these are a good place to start.
This beautiful grape makes medium bodied high acid wines, with mouth-watering sour cherry flavours and a dusty earthiness. If you find it too acidic on it’s own, try it with the tomato-based signature dishes of Italy – a perfect match.
Brunello di Montalcino
These are prestige, long lived wines and are made with only Sangiovese from around Montalcino. These are very high priced, very robust wines, which need aging to soften them up. These wines must be at least 4 years old before they are released, 2 of these must be in oak casks. Brunello di Montalcino wines should be decanted before they are drank.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
Made from Sangiovese around the town of Montepulciano, not to be confused with the grape Montepulciano di Abruzzi, these wines are full and rich, but pricy.
For better value alternatives to both these wines, try Rosso di Montalcino and Rosso di Montepulciano. Made from the same grapes but shorter aging is required so the wine is cheaper.
This Tuscan wine is the classic wine of Italy, known and loved by people worldwide, and it has Sangiovese as it’s main ingredient. Chianti has improved in quality since the days of the basket-covered bottles so common in restaurants and there are several different styles. These are Basic Chianti, which should be drunk young, and Chianti Riserva, which is oak-aged and at least 2 years old. Classico on a bottle of Chianti means it’s from the heart of the Chianti region and the wines will have a premium price to match the quality. Look to the surrounding regions for less pricey but very tasty Chianti wines.
Other wines made from Sangiovese include Sangiovese di Romagna, from the region of Lambrusco. These are ruby red wines, full of delicious fruit, and punch way above the weight of this region.
Sangiovese is a principle ingredient in Super-Tuscan wines. These are wines which fall outside any classification but which are premium quality and price.
- For extra value, try wines made from Barbera, also from Piedmont. They are also packed full of the sour cherry flavours and high acidity typified by Sangiovese, but they are best drank young, and are much better value. Their reputation is increasing however, so prices may rise in years to come.
Nebbiolo is a grape stuffed full of flavour, tannin and acid. It vies with Sangiovese in terms of premium wine production, and although Nebbiolo wines may be less familiar than Chianti, they are well worth exploring.
Wines made from Nebbiolo are tannic, alcoholic dusky and tart. The top wines have cherry liquorice and violet flavours. They are rich and deep wines with a full, long lasting flavour. They match very well with rich food as well as the dry strong cheeses of this region of Italy.
Mention Barolo to fans of Italian wine and watch their eyes glaze over with appreciation. Named after the village of Barolo south west of Alba, it is oak aged, and must be a minimum of two years old and made from 100% Nebbiolo. These are concentrated wines, which because of their high tannin and alcohol should be aged further in the bottle. If you have a youngish Barolo on your rack, don’t be tempted to drink it straight away, save it until it’s reached maturity and you’ll be drinking a complex rich beauty, with strawberry, autumnal and violet flavours. Well worth the wait, and the price
Barbaresco is Barolo’s little sister. It has similar flavours to Barolo but is generally aged less, and may not be as full bodied. Despite this, prices are similar. Some producers release several wines of different quality from the same vintage so it’s worth trying the lower end ones if you want to know what Barbaresco tastes like, but can’t justify paying top end prices for them.
- The name Nebbiolo comes from the Italian for Fog, referring to the whitish bloom the grapes develop on the skins.
- The name Sangiovese is derived from the Latin Sanguis Jovis, Jupiter’s Blood!
Perfect Primitivo and Friends
Way down in the hot heel of Italy, in Puglia, wines are richer, spicier, and much fuller in body and alcohol compared to wines from the North, due to the extra heat and sunshine. There are some fabulous bargains to be had from here, as you are not paying for the big famous names.
Look out for wines made from Primitivo, called Zinfandel in North America, where it is used in semi-sweet Rose wines as well as rich Reds. Also try the black and rich wines made from Negroamaro, especially from Salice Salentio, which can be so rich, you’d think they’d been fortified.
If you like what you’ve read, stock up on Italian red wines now. Buy Sangiovese here.