You simply cannot talk about Italian wine without giving credit to the all-star of Italian grapes: Sangiovese. Literally translated as the ‘Blood of Jove,’ Sangiovese it the most widely planted grape in all of Italy. It is a high yielding, late ripening grape that performs best on well-drained limestone soils on south-facing hillsides. The hot, dry climate in Tuscany provides this grape an excellent home to thrive – although it’s grown all over Italy. It is not just the sole grape variety permitted for Brunello di Montalcino, but also the base for the blends of Chianti, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, and the ever growing “Super-Tuscan” category which breaks from tradition by adding Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot into the mix.
Because Sangiovese is very thin skinned, the juice produces a rich, alcoholic and long-standing wine. The wine itself is known for being fruity and naturally acidic. The aroma is non-aggressive and it is best enjoyed with the excellent cuisine of Italy. As Fernande Garvin once said, “Wine makes a symphony of a good meal.” When paired with food, Chianti and other Sangiovese blends shine!
Sangiovese’s natural acidity matches up with foods like tomatoes and citrus and cuts through rich dishes like rabbit, duck, or tomato based pastas.
Although Cabernet Sauvignon is best known in the wines coming from Bordeaux, France, it plays a large part as a blending agent in Italy – especially in Tuscany. You will find Cabernet Sauvignon blended in very small amounts with Sangiovese to make the contemporary “Super Tuscan” style wine. You also find Merlot in those blends, although Cabernet Sauvignon is often the sole grape variety, because it is arguably the greatest of dark-skinned grape of them all.
The grape has a very distinct blue skin which contributes to the heavy pigment found in the wine and the lush, elegant burgundy color. Because of the thick skins, the wines are highly tannic and can deal with great amounts of aging and oak – and once in bottle, they have great longevity.
The wines are highly aromatic and have violet and cedar characteristics, and distinct flavors of chocolate, mint, and tobacco.
As with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot is used as blending agent in the “Super Tuscan” style wines out of Italy and also in some modern Chianti’s. Merlot has been used for hundreds of years because of it easy-drinking ‘calming’ quality. The grape itself buds, flowers, and ripens early. Because of this, Merlot has a full body with lots of bright, black fruit, and aromas and flavors of chocolate and violet – similar to Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Canaiolo grape was once absolutely critical to the success of the Chianti region, as it was used in most every Chianti blend – sometimes amounting for 30-50% of the wine. It is still used in Chianti wine today, but definitely takes second fiddle to Sangiovese. The flavors are soft and neutral and slightly bitter and can produce a rather bland wine if not blended correctly. Chianti’s reformed DOCG laws today allow for only 10 percent in a Chianti blend. The best Canaiolo’s can be a nice combination of very ripe strawberries and leather in taste and smell, but the worst are used to soften the Chianti and not much else. Its future in Italy is unknown.
Trebbiano is the most common white grape variety in Italy, accounting for around a third of all Italy’s white wine. Some of the sub-varieties found in Italy include Trebbiano Toscano, Trebbiano Romagnolo, Trebbiano Gallo and Trebbiano d’Abruzzo. The wine itself is crisp and very neutral. It is sometimes called ‘bland’ because of this and the wine can be somewhat overly acidic and flavorless. It requires great skill to make it into a desirable table wine. The high acidity does make it useful in making brandy and is therefore widely used in the Cognac and Armagnac regions.
It is best paired with meats like chicken, turkey, pork and light and delicate tasting fish like sole and catfish.
Pinot Grigio is probably is the best-known ‘white’ variant-clone of Pinot Noir grown in the northeastern corner of Italy known as Friuli. Although the wine is consumed all around Italy, it is not widely planted outside this region, as it enjoys the cool breeze of the Adriatic Sea and elevation of the mountains. You can find some plants cropping up in Tuscany, but not many.
Pinot Grigio is usually delicately crisp and fragrant with mild floral notes and hints of citrus. Depending upon ripeness at harvest and winemaking technique, Pinot Grigio can be tangy and light, or quite rich, round and full bodied. Made in an appropriate style, it is one dry white wine that can even age well.
Moscato is seen almost exclusively in the northern parts of Italy, and famously in Piedmont where Moscato d’Asti is one of the most well known leisure wines in the area. Moscato is the same grape as the French muscat blanc, petits grains, and is an ancient grape with many flavors and aromas. It produces a fresh, fragrant, and sweet wine which often carbonated, as in the cases of sparkling Asti and moscato d’Asti wines. The flavors are very fruit driven, often with notes of peach and orange zest.
Because of it’s sweet and sparkling nature, Moscato based wines are phenomenal desert pairings and highly enjoyable with semi-sweet chocolates with fruit flavors.
Malvasia is the name widely used for a multifaceted set of grapes. It mainly produces white table, desert, and fortified wines, but also is found in red blends such as Vin Santo. Thought to be of Greek origin, it produces high alcohol wines with residual sugar. Malvasia was extremely popular in the Venetian Republic to the point that wine shops in Venice were called ‘Malvasie.’
White Malvasia Bianca is the largest piece of the production and is widely used in Tuscany, Latium, and Umbria. The grape produces round, lushly fruity flavors and a plush texture. Most have a clean, crisp finish, and those aged in small barrels have light tannin flavors and hints of vanilla.
Malvasia typically pairs with seafood antipastos like scallops, shrimp, and calamari dressed with oil and lemon.
Vernaccia is one of the finest white wines produced in Italy and was the first wine to get the appellation D.O.C. It is the only white wine in Tuscany today to be D.O.C.G.
Its fame is rooted in history and goes back to the end of 1200 when it fueled the imaginations of Renaissance poets, artists and Popes. It is produced predominately inside the territory of the commune of San Gimignano (Siena) and is a light, fragrant white wine which is easy to drink and herbal in aroma and taste. It sometimes can come off as bitter, although when well paired with the right foods, can open it.
It is excellent with seafood, herbal salads, and pairs very well with parmesan cheese.