Off the beaten track – some lesser-known Italian wines
Despite the smaller harvests reported this year, Italy remains the biggest wine-producing country in the world. Many readers will know that this massive volume of wine is also incredibly diverse, whether in quality, price, style, terroir, business or winegrowing philosophies. The last time I looked, there were 569 grape varieties registered, with 377 of them being autochthonous, i.e. native to Italy. Now add in the chaos of 75 DOCGs, 333 DOCs and 118 IGPs, all with different rules and perhaps there’s no surprise to find that every one of Italy’s twenty regions makes wine. The most famous and prestigious regions are Piemonte, Tuscany and Veneto. You’ve only to think of Barolo, Brunello and Amarone, respectively, world-class wines with prices to match. So what about going off the beaten track for some lesser-known wines?
By doing this, you’ll find adventure, excitement and excellence galore. Whether by upholding traditions or pioneering innovations, there are great value Italian wines that deserve your attention, and they come at wallet-friendly prices.
Below are nine carefully chosen favourites to illustrate these points, with four whites and five reds priced between £8.50 and £14.99. Moreover, they are all easily found in the UK, just hidden in plain sight. So why not road-test one or two and find some new favourites? The Interactive Map below shows their locations and details.
1. Adria Vini, Casalotta, Lessini Durello DOC, Brut Spumante, Veneto, NV. 11.5%
Grape Variety: Durella, 100%. Off the beaten track: Lessini.
Lessini Durello from the Veneto is a sparkling wine made by the Charmat/Martinotti method similar to Prosecco, which takes around three months. The Durella grape makes Durello. It grows in the Lessini mountains around Castelvero, between Verona and Vicenza. It’s an ancient variety thriving on volcanic basalt soils, the columns of which resemble the Devil’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
Adria Vini makes this wine, a joint venture between UK importers Boutinot and Araldica, a co-op in Piemonte. It’s aimed squarely at the UK market.
Unlike most Prosecco, it’s in a dry Brut style. Relatively light, it’s crisp and zesty, featuring green apple fruit and a mineral finish. Some “serious” Lessini Durello sparkling wines made using the Traditional Method with lees ageing can show what Durello can do. While this version doesn’t try to match those in complexity (or in cost), it offers vibrant, fun, and satisfying drinking, either on its own or with nibbles. Try a glass or two with a dish of smoked almonds. Check out my previous article dedicated to Durello here.
2. Cavit, Bottega Vinai, Nosiola DOC, Trentino, 2018. 12.5%
Grape Variety: Nosiola, 100%. Off the beaten track: Trentino.
Nosiola is Trentino’s only native grape, grown in the Dolomites in northern Italy, where Mediterannean and Alpine conditions collide. Bottega Vinai is a brand of the vast CAVIT co-operative near Trentino, with 4,500 growers, and its 7,000 hectares of vines represent 60% of all Trentino’s vineyard area! Their Nosiola comes from the heartland near Lago Toblino and is sustainably grown, while the winery now features solar power and wastewater recycling.
Nosiola used to be confused with Durella because they look similar. However, DNA tests show them to be unrelated, and they certainly don’t taste the same. Most Nosiola wines are dry and still. Lightly floral, with orchard fruit (apples and pears), it’s a delicate wine. Nosiola develops well in the bottle, showing the hallmark of hazelnuts on the finish, which in Italian are called Nocciola.
You can drink this on its own, or it comes alive with equally delicate food flavours – so Trout or Arctic Char would be ideal, or try a Pea Risotto.
As for high quality – this wine was awarded the Trophy in the Best 100 Independent Retailer wine awards held annually in the UK.
3. Contesa, Abruzzo Pecorino DOC, Abruzzo, 2018. 13%
Grape Variety: Pecorino, 100%. Off the beaten track: Abruzzo.
As a real contrast with the delicate Nosiola, this wine made from the Pecorino grape variety is altogether more robust. Unfortunately, Pecorino (the grape, not the cheese) was on the way to extinction before being rescued, initially by the Cocci Grifoni winery in the Marche. Twenty years on, it’s been one of Italy’s fastest-expanding grape varieties, with Pecorino vineyards occupying rolling limestone hills on the Marche/Abruzzo border. The story of why it’s called Pecorino may be apocryphal, but in times of sheep droving, the sheep would always stop to eat Pecorino grapes in preference to all others.
Contesa, meanwhile, has become a much-respected brand owned by the Pasetti family. They have 50 ha of vines, and their Pecorino is from a single vineyard of 1.7 hectares at around 200 metres altitude, farmed organically. Fermentation is in stainless steel, with three months on the lees. After that, there’s another six months rest in the bottle before release.
This yellowish wine has peach, citrus and Hawthorne aromatics. Then there are hints of sage and thyme underpinning the fruit on the palate and a mineral finish.
Try pairing with fresh Crab. Also good with harder, aged cheeses. Pecorino with Pecorino? Why not.
Wine Society £9.95
4. Scacciadiavoli, Montefalco Bianco DOC, Umbria, 2017. 13%
Blend of Trebbiano Spoletino 50%, Grechetto di Orvieto 30%, and Chardonnay 20%. Off the beaten track: Montefalco.
Scacciadiavoli dates back to 1884, so it is one of the oldest wineries in Montefalco, one of the gems of Umbria. Before then, this place was a home for local priests and acquired its name from the Italian words for banishing and devils. So yes, it’s where you went to request an Exorcism.
The Pambuffetti family bought the estate in 1954, and there was a refurbishment in 2000, all paving the way for their excellent Montefalco Rosso and Bianco wines. Four hundred metres up on sandy soils bring conditions ideal for a range of white grape varieties.
Montefalco Bianco is a blend; there’s Chardonnay (once the great improver), Grechetto (a mainstay of the famous Orvieto white wine) and Spoletino (another rescued grape variety that must now make up at least 50% of the blend, and whose story is here). It’s capable of a decade of ageing and development, so consider decanting or swirling your glass vigorously to get the most from it.
The blend generates complexity; you’ll find peach, apricot, nuts and a fuller, broad body. It’s a wine of exceptional balance between the fruit and acidity, and it’s robust enough to pair with stronger food flavours and textures. So fried food works well, think fish and chips, while pasta dishes without tomatoes (try lockdown linguini) and Sunday roast white meats such as chicken and pork hit the spot. Good Omens?
Wine Society £13.95
5. Palladino (Camillo de Lellis), Biferno Rosso Riserva DOC, Molise, 2016. 13%
Blend of Montepulciano 70%, Aglianico 15%, Trebbiano Toscana 15%. Off the beaten track: Molise.
Molise is a marvellous mountainous region unknown even to some Italians. A Papal State in Medieval times, Molise was part of Abruzzo until the sixties, when it became a region in its own right. Sandwiched between Abruzzo and Puglia, it’s wild and sparsely populated.
Winemaking goes back to Roman times, yet Molise only gained DOC status in 1980. One of those is Biferno, named after the main river. Most wines are traditional, usually made by families in harsh conditions requiring much manual work. There is no big city nearby to form a ready market; the main town of Campobasso has less than 50,000 inhabitants. You can read more about Molise here.
Camillo de Lellis is a group of wine producers in San Bonifacio making Biferno. It’s a blend, of Montepulciano from the coast, with Aglianico from warmer climes inland, and Trebbiano Toscana. So a white grape is used in a red wine blend – a highly traditional practice. And while Trebbiano Toscana is no great shakes on its own, its freshness and acidity leaven the two powerful and tannic reds.
In addition, this Biferno is also a Riserva, so it has had 18 months in oak, then 18 months in stainless steel and is then only released when ready to drink at five years old! There is no need to age further; this is a mellow wine in the glass, with cherries and blueberry, damson, some cake spices, and well-integrated vanilla notes from the oak. Food-wise, Barbecues are perfect, and so, delightfully, is Shepherd’s Pie.
6. Santa Venere, Cirò Rosso DOC, Calabria, 2017. 13.5%
Grape Variety: Gaglioppo, 100%. Off the beaten track: Calabria.
While there are excellent Calabrian producers, there are no DOCGs, and the nine mostly obscure DOCs produce only 10% of the total wine output, 75% of which is red. Arguably, the most well-known DOC is Cirò, a DOC of 490 hectares. Here, the native Gaglioppo grape variety makes the red and rosé wines (with Greco for the whites).
Gaglioppo is one of Italy’s oldest varieties. Prone to oxidation and with high acidity and tannin, wines can be astringent. Consequently, a little Merlot, Cabernet, Barbera, or Sangiovese can compensate.
The Scala family are pioneers of the Calabrian wine renaissance, running a mixed organic farm called Santa Venere. And while they have been there since 1600, they use modern techniques and have also employed Italian wine consultant Riccardo Cotarella. The result is that they produce terrific Cirò, made only with Gaglioppo. This wine sees no oak. Instead, it’s fermented in stainless steel then left to mature for nine months. After bottling, it gets another two months to settle down before release.
It’s a deep garnet coloured wine characterised by a mass of small red berries on the nose and palate, while the citrus acidity makes it unusually refreshing too. As it opens up, underbrush and leather notes appear. The tannins are well managed, leaving this wine surprisingly elegant.
Food-wise, try it with sausages and meatballs, while any pasta with tomato sauce is a natural bedfellow. Or how about lamb chops in a redcurrant sauce?
Wine Society £10.50
7. Nero Oro, Nero d’Avola Appassimento, Sicilia DOC, Sicily. 2018. 14%
Grape Variety: Nero d’Avola, 100%. Off the beaten track: Appassimento in Sicily.
Turning from the traditional, here’s an über-modern innovative wine. Sicily and Nero d’Avola hardly seem unusual these days, but this wine is a remarkable interpretation that quickly achieved colossal popularity. It’s a joint venture between a distributor and marketer in Trentino and a winery near Agrigento in Sicily. The common link between them is Stefano Girelli, who owns both.
Dried grape wines like Amarone are hugely popular but expensive. What about using similar techniques to make a plush wine in a similar style but without a high price tag? Aimed at the UK Instagram generation (check out the label and the screwcap), this organic wine has been wildly successful ever since being featured on TVs Saturday Kitchen. Best read my full review of it here.
Suffice to say that the appassimento drying process concentrates the wine and transforms it; witness the amount of glycerine, which helps give it that richness and plush mouthfeel. There’s damson, blackcurrant and black cherry fruit. It’s not overly aromatic, but there is an attractive cherry note. While it’s dry in style, there’s a slight sweetness from residual sugar. However, it finishes cleanly and without cloying. You get a lot of bang for your buck with this crowd-pleasing wine.
This wine is for hugely enjoyable drinking straight after purchase, with or without food. So settle down in the armchair for an episode of Inspector Montalbano, set where this wine originates. Food-wise, try the local Spaghetti all Norma. Salvo would approve!
8. Cantina Santadi, Grotta Rossa, Carignano del Sulcis DOC, Sardinia. 2017. 14%
Grape Variety: Carignano, 100%. Off the beaten track: Sulcis, Sardinia.
Is there a more traditional wine than Carignano del Sulcis? Sulcis is the southwest coastal tip of Sardinia, where it’s hot, harsh, salty and windy; only the hardiest vines can survive. Carignano is a grape variety that probably came from Spain, known as Mazuelo (in Rioja), and the Carignan of France (and Lebanon). Spain ruled Sardinia for nearly 400 years, so there is still a palpable influence, though the Carignano in Sulcis has long since adapted to the local conditions.
Indeed, Sulcis is also one of the few areas in the world where you can find ancient ungrafted vines because they are often grown on almost pure sand, which phylloxera cannot spread through. Such vines are bush trained centurions, and while they lack grape quantity, they more than compensate with grape quality. Indeed, this is one of the world’s unique terroirs!
Meanwhile, Santadi is one of the island’s best co-operatives. Set-up in 1960, it turned to quality in 1980 and hasn’t looked back. They make a range of Carignano wines, of which this is the unoaked entry-level wine. Making it in cement tanks allows the complexity of the grape to shine.
Grotta Rossa is an intense ruby red with red fruit and liquorice scents. It’s sensual and fleshy, even creamy, with a good level of acidity and discreet tannins. A long mellow finish has Dundee-cake spices. This wine is brilliant with food. Game birds ranging from goose to grouse would be the first choice. Or try it with Turkey on Christmas Day.
Valvona & Crolla, £14.99
9. Cantina Orsogna, “Lunaria” Coste di Moro, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC, Abruzzo. 2016. 14%
Grape Variety: Montepulciano, 100%. Off the beaten track: Biodynamic Abruzzo.
Back to the Abruzzo for its signature grape variety, Montepulciano. It’s no rarity, representing 50% of all Abruzzo vines. But its very ubiquity presents us with reds and rosé wines in many styles, from light quaffers to overoaked monsters, and other red varieties are allowed up to 15%. Furthermore, the wines vary wildly in quality. Hence finding good producers is vital. For example, Contesa (see Pecorino above) make an excellent version.
Orsogna co-operative makes this stunning wine. They have 600 members and 1,200 hectares. Unusually, 40% of their vines are Biodynamic*, and their 511 hectares comprises the most extensive Biodynamic vineyard in Italy. These make the Lunaria range of wines, which are kept separate from their organic and non-organic counterparts. Orsogna also supports the World Wildlife Fund (with specific projects for local Wolves and Turtles). Impeccable credentials.
Fortunately, the quality of this wine lives up to the billing. The Montepulciano ferments with wild yeasts in a mix of stainless steel and cement tanks and matures in large inert old oak for a year. As a result, this 2016 is an inky garnet colour, with fruits of the forest perfume. In the glass, it’s soft and velvety with layers of red berries, blueberry and black cherry fruit. The superb balance of tannins, fruit and mouthwatering acidity give it weightlessness before a final intriguing note of carob appears on a long slow finish.
Food-wise, red meats like lamb or a grilled steak are ideal matches, though a plate of salumi/charcuterie will also do nicely.
Ministry of Drinks, £14.99
It’s a lot of fun discovering new places and flavours, though going off-piste is not without its challenges. Most of us naturally err on the side of caution and look for the familiar, better to be safe than sorry. Nothing wrong with that, though the hope is that these wines will encourage you to explore! Meanwhile, on another day, the examples chosen could easily have been entirely different and include Rosé!
There’s no better time than to try these wines, with the upcoming festive season meaning lots of opportunities to enjoy them. Also, look out for discounts as we approach Christmas and the New Year festivities.
* For a full explanation of Biodynamic and Organic cultivation, see here.
Wine Alchemy shared these wines with the Cumbria Wine Society in November 2021