As the Italian wine industry is largely defined by indigenous varietals, the country’s most important wines are all about distinctiveness. Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany is 100% Sangiovese, Barolo and Barbaresco are produced exclusively from Nebbiolo in Piedmont, while Soave, the famed Venetian white, is crafted primarily from Garganega.
These are some of the best-known Italian wines, but there are hundreds of others that are as singular, yet rarely receive much attention. Here are four wines and one wine zone – that are particularly special, ranging from the Friuli Venezia Giulia (often referred to simply as Friuli) region in the far northeast to Campania in the southwestern reaches of the country.
Carso – Carso – known as Karst in local dialect – is a small wine district in Friuli that breaks the mold, so to speak, as there are three principal wines – two white, one red – produced here that are among the most distinctive in all of Italy. If you haven’t heard of Carso or don’t know where it is, don’t feel bad, as even some Italians aren’t familiar with this area. This is the southeastern section of Friuli that juts out into the Gulf of Trieste; it’s easy to see on a map of Italy, as this looks somewhat like a little pinky finger emerging from Friuli.
Carso is actually a plateau; the name Karst describes a specific topography of a dissolution of soluble rocks such as dolomite and limestone. Thus Carso is known for its underground caves, and wine producers here typically mature their wines in deep underground cellars that are quite cold; on one summertime visit several years ago, I had to wear a jacket to ward off the chill deep inside the winery.
Carso is a wine zone that is ideal for cool climate varieties; here producers specialize in Malvasia and Vitovska for white, with Terrano being the primary red varietal. Both Malvasia and Vitovska have naturally high acidity, meaning these wines can age for many years, anywhere from ten to twenty, depending on the quality of the vintage. Local producers tend to give these two wines long skin contact to extract not only more complexity, but also a deeper color; many examples have an orange hue. The finest are dry, and display beautiful texture and complexity, and while these are fascinating to enjoy on their own, they also pair well with sushi, Thai and Chinese foods or any fusion cuisine.
Terrano, the leading red in Carso, is a delight, with bright, juicy plum flavors and moderate tannins; this is a red that is often enjoyed slightly chilled; pair Terrano with a variety of foods from prosciutto to lighter game birds; it is best enjoyed within four to five years after the vintage.
Top producers include Skerlj (their 2018 Malvasia is outstanding, and a great example of this wine type), Zidarich, Vodopivec and Skerk.
Lacrima di Morro d’Alba – If you think the wines from Carso are not well known, consider Lacrima di Morro d’Alba. First, there is probably some confusion with the name of the wine. Lacrima, the name of the grape, which means “tears,” is also the name of a three different wines – red, white and rosato – from Campania; these wines are known as Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio. Then the word Alba might be confused with the town of Alba in Piedmont; however this wine is from the town of Morro d’Alba in Marche, some 15 miles west of Ancona.
Now that we have this straight, let’s discuss the wine, which is a charming, medium-bodied red with bright cherry and strawberry fruit; in many examples, there is an appealing note of nutmeg along with other tantalizing spices. Tannins are moderate and there is good natural acidity; pair this with many types of pasta, while eggplant or even pizza would be an excellent pairing; enjoy Lacrima di Morro d’Alba no more than four to five years after the vintage date in most cases.
Leading producers include: Velenosi, Mario Luchetti, Vicari and Umani Ronchi.
Coda di Volpe – Irpinia in the Campania region is home to two of the most famous white wines in all of Italy, namely Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino. But another white in Irpinia, Coda di Volpe, that is also very intriguing. The wine and the name of the grape, Coda di Volpe, are the same; the term means “tail of the fox,” as the clusters of the grape bunches resemble that shape. While Coda di Volpe does not generally have the complexity and texture of Greco di Tufo or Fiano di Avellino, a handful of producers do craft excellent versions. Medium-full, Coda di Volpe wines typically offer citrus, melon and yellow flower aromas, while the finest offerings such as the “Torama” from Vadiaperti or the Terredora di Paolo “Le Starse” display perfumes of jasmine, quince and chamomile, and are structured for longer aging potential than the typical offering. Enjoy Coda di Volpe with most seafood; the wine tends to be at its best within four to five years of the vintage; the best examples can be enjoyed for a decade or more.
Leading producers include: Vadiaperti (also known as Traerte), Terredora di Paolo, Tenuta Cavalier Pepe and Fiorentino.
Grignolino – The region of Piedmont is famous for its powerful reds such as Barolo and Barbaresco, as well as Barbera, the most widely planted red varietal in the region, as well as Dolcetto, a charming, fruit-driven red meant for early consumption in most instances. But there are other individualistic reds as well in the region; one of my favorites is Grignolino.
Grignolino (pronounced green-nyo-leen-o) is named for the seeds (grignole); the grapes contains about three times as many seeds as Barbera, Dolcetto or Nebbiolo. While the grape is rather tannic, producers make sure to give the wine minimum skin contact to mitigate the tannins; this in turn yields a red wine with a very light red color, almost pink, in some ways resembling a rosé.
That gives the wine an instant appeal, and often the wine is served chilled. Yet there are examples that can drink well after five or seven years, or even later. Two of the finest are the “Limonte” from Braida and the Accornero “Bricco del Bosco Vigne Vecchie;” these two wines are ideal when pairing with white meats, soups and vegetables; the latter is especially rich for Grignolino and would work beautifully with game birds or heartier pastas.
“It’s not the first wine people ask for when they visit Piemonte,” says Raffaella Bologna, co-proprietor of Braida, located in the province of Asti, “but it’s part of our culture, especially in Monferrato.”
Leading producers include: Braida, Tenuta Garetto, Accornero and Castello di Neive.
Cacc’e Mmitte di Lucera – This may be the most obscure red wine in all of Italy. First, contemplate the name – does it even sound Italian? The wine is made in the Lucera area in Puglia, not far from the iconic Castel del Monte. Cacc’e Mmitte di Lucera is a blend of Nero di Troia (the varietal that is the source of the region’s finest wines, in the opinion of many, including myself), Montepulciano and the white varietal Bombino Bianco; other varietals that are permitted include Malvasia, Malvasia Nera and Trebbiano Toscano. Consider also that fewer than ten producers make this, and you have a red wine that is largely unknown, as it is difficult to find outside its territory.
Medium-full, the wine combines the tangy, forward fruit of a Dolcetto with the spice and earthiness of a French Côtes du Rhône; it is generally best enjoyed within four to five years of the vintage and is excellent paired with spicier pastas as well as lighter red meats.
Leading producers include: Alberto Longo, Cantina La Marchesa and Agricola Paglione.