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Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs – Book Review

This article reviews a new wine book by Ian D’Agata, entitled Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs. It follows on from his indispensable previous book, Native Wine Grapes of Italy. Here D’Agata continues his focus on Italian native grape varieties. This time he shows how these can communicate a unique “somewhereness” in the wines made from them. This aspect is known as terroir; the sum of environmental and human factors that can endow a wine with a sense of place. In so doing the wine in your glass becomes a unique expression of this, thus creating its own identity.

This new book about Terroirs builds on the story about Italy’s native wine grapes. Hence it makes an excellent companion volume, though it isn’t necessary to have read the older book.

A book of two halves

This 371-page book divides into two main parts. The first is a relatively short 26 pages that concerns itself with discussing terroirs in general and how this manifests in Italy compared to the French experience.

What’s particularly interesting here is that D’Agata suggests that the idea of terroirs became embedded into the French winegrowing mentality over many centuries of Nationhood. In contrast, despite Italy having every conceivable habitat for winegrowing, it has only existed as a single country since Unification in 1861.  Hence, though both countries now have geographical Appellation systems, the understanding of terroir in Italy is much more recent and still developing. Consequently, though Italian wine should eloquently speak of its place, too often it doesn’t or it’s only now becoming established.

After this, the remainder of the book features examples of native grape varieties and where they grow best.

The relationship between grape variety and terroir

Each native grape variety has specific DNA that defines what it is. That’s why, for example, a Nebbiolo isn’t a Sangiovese. That DNA, in turn, determines the chemical content of the wine made with it and thus it’s tasting profile. There is a recognisable varietal signature if you will.

Over time, the grape variety becomes more and more adapted to the specific conditions of its environment. In so doing, its taste becomes gradually modified and more expressive of its origins.

For example, Nebbiolo from Valtellina (Lombardy) is recognisably Nebbiolo, yet tastes differently from those in Barolo or Barbaresco (Piemonte). It’s even different according to each subzone or single cru vineyard. Why this is the case is the central theme this book addresses.

We are used to evaluating many French wines by terroir, especially the likes of Burgundy, Champagne and Alsace. However, it’s still less common to find this focus in Italy.

What’s inside?

There are 52 Italian native grape varieties included, chosen as representative examples and listed alphabetically. The number is deliberately selective and not exhaustive. As D’Agata acknowledges, there could be entire books devoted to the Veneto, Tuscany and Piemonte terroirs. Or thick tomes solely about Nebbiolo or Sangiovese.

By providing more of a snapshot, more of Italy gets more overall coverage. However, it’s particularly impressive when a variety is grown in several great but contrasting terroirs.  Hence the Nebbiolo entry alone has 42 pages, while Sangiovese has 30. Some of the most obscure grapes occupy just a page or two. Most often, these seem to be rarities from the well-endowed Aosta Valley.

Indispensable entries are the likes of Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Barbera, Garganega/Soave,  Verdicchio/Marche and Sardinian Vermentino. Elsewhere, there’s Nerello Macalese on Etna (but strangely, omitting nearby Faro), and Sagrantino/Montefalco in Umbria. Particularly welcome entries include Lessini Durello in the Veneto and Erbamat in Franciacorta.

The format for each one is to discuss the grape variety, then its terroirs. Each ends with a shortlist of benchmark wines and producers, rated using a three-star system.

What’s not?

The selection of grape varieties in the book is deliberately not exhaustive, so inevitably some candidates have been left out. The most unfortunate of those is Lagrein from the Alto Adige. Carignano del Sulcis from Sardinia should be there too, as should the upcoming Trebbiano Spoletino of Umbria. Meanwhile, while the extensive entry on Glera rightly concentrates on DOCG Prosecco Conegliano-Valdobbiadene and discusses its 43 Rive (cru), it barely mentions the nearby DOCG Asolo that’s of equal stature.

Understandably, the example wines and producers listed for each entry are also not exhaustive, rather illustrative; hence some of my favourite wines are MIA. However, it’s also somehow reassuring to find other familiar bottles and producers. Most excitingly, some still await discovery!

A picture paints a thousand words.

However, the most significant omission in this book is the fact that it has no maps or illustrations. While this was true of the earlier book, it’s much less forgivable here. After all, we’re talking about specific places. Not everyone knows where Negrar, Greve or Castiglione Faletto is, though these are all famous wine towns!

Indeed,  a search for maps was the first thing looked for while initially riffling through the pages.  This writer has the privilege of having geographical knowledge about most Italian wine regions, but many others will not. Hence the detailed geographical references and placenames are far more opaque than need be.

So if you intend to use this book, you’ll need to cross-reference with other books and maps. That’s irritating and inconvenient. The hardback is expensive, so readers rightfully expect illustrations despite the extra cost and production time.

Moreover, D’Agata rightly reminds us of the complexity of this topic in his introduction. “Of course, this being Italy, where if something is complicated, it’s good and if it is more complicated, it’s even better, you just know it will be intricate going.”  Surely the authors’ job is to make those intricate nuances of place more easily digestible with maps? Intricate going needn’t be tough going. An analogy; giving a presentation on a complex subject without visuals risks losing your audience quickly.

And finally

Fortunately, D’Agata is engaging as well as erudite, so the writing is consistently excellent. All the way through, D’Agata demonstrates his encyclopedic knowledge of Italian wines gained over 30 years or so. And yes, his warm and engaging style leavens some of the intricacies. The bibliography also demonstrates diligent research, often with source material of Italian origin.

Classification of wine quality by a focus on terroir is where Italian wine should be heading. In recent years there has been all manner of projects identifying the best sites. They are from the likes of Soave, Lessini, Chianti Classico, Barolo, Prosecco, Brunello, and Montefalco Sagrantino. Hence this book is long overdue.

Overall then, the included content in the book is five-star. Deduct one star because of what isn’t. And deduct another star for the lack of illustrations. Sounds a little harsh because those shortcomings aside, it’s still a book that’s necessary reading for Italian wine lovers.

Ian D’Agata hints at a further book on this subject. Let’s hope so. Maybe some of those missing native varieties will then get their turn for a place in the sun. Possibly there will be maps.

Regardless, there will be a space on my shelf for it.

D’Agata, I. (2019) Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs. University of California Press. 392 pp., ISBN 978-0-520-29075-4. Hardcover £40 or less (Hardcover or Kindle).


For more about the concept of terroir, see my short article here.


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