In life, most of us tend to stick to our comfort zone. The same route home. Our favorite coffee mug in the morning. Cozy sweats and re-runs of a show we’ve already binge watched a few times (I’m certain that I’ve seen every episode of Sex & the City at least four times). And the same varietals in our glass of wine. Even when ordering at a restaurant we’ve never been to before, or visiting a new wine store with endless options, we’ll probably choose something we know – rather than something we don’t.
Since I started studying for the Italian Wine Scholar exam a few months ago, I’ve come to realize how many grape varieties there are that I’ve never even heard of – let alone tried. (Italy itself has at least 350 different native grapes!) Hubs and I have gradually started working through some of these grapes – mostly to positive results! Proving that when I allow myself to branch out beyond what I’m comfortable with – my frequent Pinot Noir or Washington state Syrah – I expand my palate and my mind, but also my wine cellar. 😉
So, I’m encouraging you to “drink outside the box” and try something new as well. Next time you’re at a restaurant or wine store with a carefully curated Italian section (particularly from the North!) – nix the Nebbiolos, pass on the Pinot Grigios and Proseccos, and give one of the following wines a shot instead. You just might be pleasantly surprised at what you discover. 🙂
Cortese/Gavi. Cortese is the grape and Gavi the location in Southeast Piemonte where it’s been grown since at least the early 1600s. Cortese performs particularly well in Gavi and throughout the 1960s and 1970s enjoyed immense success. However, in the same manner that other popular things have been WAY overdone – the Real Housewives series (did we really need DC?), the zombie apocalypse, “Keep Calm and [fill in the blank]” – lots of producers jumped on the Gavi bandwagon and tons of meh wines were the result of this massive overproduction. Thankfully, Gavi has recovered and was elevated to DOCG status in 1998 – Happy 20 year Anniversary Gavi! Same year as me and Hubs. 🙂
Gavi DOCG wines must be made from 100% Cortese. These wines are usually crisp and refreshing with minerality and a striking lemon zest character. And while it’s best known for still wines, Gavi is also produced in a variety of sparkling styles as well.
The Gavi we had recently was from Broglia. Impressively, the estate has records of its vineyards going back to 972! The wine was slightly riper on the palate than I expected – with flavors of ripe apple and Meyer lemon along with Cortese’s trademark minerality. Some wines from this region can be nice little porch pounders for the summertime (or 10 months out of the year down here in SoCal), but this one definitely had more complexity and depth.
Arneis. This white grape is native to the Roero hills in Piemonte and was saved from near extinction in the 1960s by two prominent producers in the area: Vietti and Bruno Giacosa. Today, in large part thanks to these two, plantings of Arneis are around 2,400 acres. Arneis is a challenging grape to grow – it’s prone to poor and irregular yields and tends to drop acidity rapidly when approaching full ripeness – which often isn’t until late September. So, it’s no surprise that “Arneis” in local dialect translates to “difficult personality.”
When in the right hands, Arneis produces fuller bodied wines that are subtly perfumed and complex with aromas/flavors of white flowers, stone fruit and pear. The wines are typically fresh and floral and should be consumed within a few years of release.
We had an Arneis produced by one of its rescuers – Bruno Giacosa. The wine was definitely delicate in the aromatic department, I was getting yellow fruit (apples, pears) and some floral notes. On the palate it was zesty with a slightly bitter, but not unpleasantly so, finish. This would pair amazingly with grilled fish or lighter/herbed pasta dishes. Or a big ol’ pile of prosciutto.
Ruché. This will undoubtedly be the most challenging of the five wines to find. Ruché is a rare, aromatic red grape likely native to the town of Castagnole in Piemonte, where it has been grown for centuries. Today, there are only around 250 total acres planted to this grape in Italy and it is rarely found elsewhere.
In 2010, Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato DOCG became the first (and only!) delimited area dedicated entirely to the Ruché grape. Wines from this DOCG must be made from at least 90% Ruché (with Barbera or Brachetto making up the balance). Ruché based wines are typically intensely perfumed with aromas of roses, red fruit and spice.
I recently sampled a Ruché from Montalbera – an Italian producer hugely supportive of and dedicated to the grape. The wine was one of the most unique wines I’ve ever had. Incredibly pale in the glass, it looked like it should be delicate and subtle – yet it was anything but. The wine was full of aromas of cherries, tea leaves, orange peel and spices with very prevalent acidity and tannins and a lengthy, bitter finish. If you want to try something truly different, Ruché is your wine.
Lagrein. (rhymes with “wine” – easy to remember!) This red grape is can be found predominantly in the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Northeast Italy. Lagrein is late ripening and needs significant warmth and sun to ripen fully – so it seems somewhat counterintuitive that it would be grown in an area that’s bumping up against the Italian Alps. However, this region has 300 days of sunshine per year and a warm growing season, so Lagrein thrives – and it’s delicious!
Lagrein makes up about only 8% of total grape plantings in Alto Adige and around 1,200 total acres. There are also a few California wineries that produce a Lagrein (although I haven’t run across any of these yet). Lagrein produces fuller bodied, rich, darkly colored wines with higher tannins and acidity and often a bitter finish. The wines are frequently packed with aromas of berry fruit, violets and a savory/meaty component.
We had a Lagrein from Castelfeder, which is located in Alto Adige. This wine was somewhat reminiscent of a Northern Rhône Syrah for me – violets, charred black fruits, smoked meat. This was Hubs favorite of the two reds, probably because he’s obsessed with smoky anything since he recently purchased a new smoker. 🙂
Lambrusco. Lambrusco hails from the Emilia-Romagna region and is essentially an umbrella term covering several distinct varieties all within the Lambrusco family. Some of the more common ones you’re likely to see on a wine label are:
- Lambrusco di Sorbara – produces the lightest version of Lambrusco and is considered to be the benchmark style
- Lambrusco Salamino – the most widely planted of the Lambrusco varieties
- Lambrusco Grasparossa – produces fuller bodied and more tannic wines
Unfortunately, most of the Lambrusco that is exported is sweet, characterless and mass-produced (kind of like my old college standby Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill – yes, dear reader, my introductory “wine” was Boone’s, please don’t judge me). Classic Lambrusco wines are dry (or very slightly off-dry) with refreshing acidity, fizziness and flavors of bright red berries and spice. To find this style of Lambrusco, your best bet is to look for DOC or DOP on the label – indicating that the wine was made according to stricter production standards and that the grapes come from a specific geographical area. Other terms to look for include:
- Secco, Amabile or Dolce – these mean dry, medium-sweet and sweet
- Frizzante – lightly sparkling
- Spumante – fully sparkling
Hubs and I sampled a few different styles of Lambrusco, ranging from a rather flat and nondescript juicy red wine, to a delicately effervescent wine with black cherries and spice, to an incredibly aromatic sparkler full of dried black fruits. My favorite by far was the 3rd (the Medici Ermete) and it was incredibly delicious with our barbequed burgers!
So, let’s see . . . that’s 5 native Italian grapes down, only around 345 left to go! 😉
Oh – and I purchased the majority of these wines at Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, CA (which I will be frequenting frequently because it’s the most awesome wine store EVER!!) But if you’re having problems finding any of these, Hi-Time ships!
3 thoughts on “Drinking Outside the Box: 5 Northern Italian Wines to Check Out”
Great reminder to stretch out of our comfort zones – there are so many delicious wines to try! I’ve never tasted Ruché but the others are all delightful. Thanks for the nudge to dig a little deeper on my next shopping trip!
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One of the (many!) reasons I love studying wine is that I’m encouraged to drink what I’m reading about. Best way to learn!
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I am looking forward following your journey in trying out the rest of the 345 grapes! 🍷😍
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