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Guide to native Italian Grapes

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Italy is a paradise for the wine lover obsessed with vinous diversity. At the root of the way Italian wines taste of their place is the proliferation of grape varieties, and the way those grapes are linked to provinces, regions and sub-regions.

Nowhere else has so many native grapes as Italy, nor the tight connections between those varieties, the wines, the land and the people. This is why it was necessary for Ian D’Agata to publish “Native Wine Grapes of Italy” (University of California Press, hardcover RRP$50), released recently in Australia.

D’Agata profiles more than 500 native grapes from aglianico to zibibbo. Not every grape can lay watertight claim to being a native, and what is native anyway? Greco probably came from Greece originally, and carignano from Spain. Suffice it to say the more obvious imports, the ‘international’ varieties such as chardonnay, cabernet, merlot and sauvignon blanc, are not included.

D’Agata’s superbly written, and very detailed tome is the result of 13 years of work. It is comprehensive and richly informative. His writing is excellent: his prose is flowing and easy-to-read, which is an indispensible gift when presenting such dense and detailed information. Many lay readers will find the complexities of clones and biotypes, history and nomenclature way more than they want to read, but it’s easy to bypass the arcane information and cut to the chase as you scan the pages.

Each entry follows a similar format which you quickly get used to: he starts with the history and geographical stuff, then moves in to ‘Which wines to choose, and why” – in which he actually tells you what the wine tastes like – and finally “Wines to try”: an abbreviated guide to the best examples, including star ratings for some. D’Agata often refers to Australia, indicating that he has done his homework here as in other countries outside Italy which grow some of these varieties.

The book is an excellent reference work, although if you start reading it from the beginning you run the risk of being put off by the scientific detail in the introductory chapters on ampelology (as distinct from ampelography!), DNA profiling, clones and biotypes, etc. My suggestion is to start by dipping into an entry on one of your favourite grapes, and go from there.

Why are grape varieties so important? (And this is the second comprehensive tome on the topic in recent times, following Jancis Robinson, Jose Vouillamoz and Julia Harding’s seminal book “Wine Grapes”.) It’s because, as Robinson and D’Agata agree, some 90% of the character of a wine comes from the grape variety, as distinct from the terroir or the winemaker’s thumbprint.

The author is a writer and educator based in Rome. He writes for Stephen Tanzer’s ‘International Wine Cellar’ newsletter and for Decanter magazine. He is also author of ‘The Ecco Guide to the Best Wines of Italy’. I highly recommend ‘Native Wine Grapes of Italy’. It’s US$38.66 on Amazon; A$38.09 at bookworld.com.au. 

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