Italy's Autochthonous Wines

Getting ready for the next wave of wines from unusual native grapes
Autochthonous Wines

We are beginning to see another wave of wines made from grapes that are native or indigenous to Italy — and there are lots of them.

A couple of decades ago, Americans began to drink Italian wines from grapes that weren’t chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon. These grapes had names that then seemed foreign and odd to many people — sangiovese, pinot grigio, nebbiolo, barbera, lambrusco — but today are commonplace to wine lovers. Now we are beginning to see another wave of wines made from grapes that are native or indigenous to Italy — and there are lots of them.

Last autumn, I was asked to be judge at a small but growing wine festival in northern Italy’s Bolzano called Autochtona. It derives its name from a word that some Europeans prefer to indigenous or native — autochthonous — which means the same thing but is much harder to say.

During my stay at Autochtona, I counted more than 50 different grape varieties that were either in blends or bottled as 100 percent varietals, and talked to dozens of winemakers about the characteristics of these grapes. Increasingly, these wines are finding their way into my sample closet, and I recently have reviewed several lagreins, for example.

Here are the new arrivals.

2008 Serrapetrona “Robbione” vernaccia nera ($27) My Pick of the Litter. Until I tasted this wine at Autochtona — and was impressed by it — I thought there was only a white vernaccia. Fortunately, I was wrong. The Robbione is smooth and spicy — imagine combining the fruit of merlot and the spiciness of gewürztraminer and you get an idea. There are some nice barrel notes, but this red is still fresh, snappy, and quite enjoyable.

2011 Marco Felluga “Ronco dei Moreri” Venezia Giulia Refosco dal Penduncolo IGT ($20) Normally, I see only delightful white wines from Marco Felluga, and they usually have shorter names! The grape here is refosco, and the wine is pleasant, somewhat astringent, tangy, and lean with light cherry and cranberry flavors — a profile common with many of Italy’s autochthonous red wines.

2012 Li Velli “Primonero” Salento IGT ($10) The first of three Li Velli wines with the negroamaro grape, this one is blended with one-half primitivo, an indigenous grape known in America as zinfandel. In many ways, it’s reminiscent of a Left Bank Bordeaux with its notes of bacon fat and crisp leanness, but it has a little more red fruits and is somewhat exotic. It would be great with salumi.

2012 Li Velli “Passamante” Salice Salento negroamaro ($12) Dark, tangy cherry flavors, also lean with peppery bacon notes and light wood flavors.

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2008 Li Velli “Pezzo Morgana” Salice Salentino negroamaro riserva ($20) Dark cherry fruit, lovely barrel aromas and flavors, and lots of smooth tannins — this is a wine of substance that would go well with red meats.