A Road Map of Italian Wine – Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs by Ian D’Agata

I was thrilled, when I contacted the publisher of Italy’s Native Wine Grape  Terroirs (INWGT) by Ian D’Agata, and asked for a copy to review and they said yes and sent it to me. I had already purchased the ebook version of D’Agata’s Native Italian Wine Grapes (NIWG) and consult it all the time. Working in a large Italian wine department, given that Italy has over 500+ native Italian varietals, I check NIWG frequently to sort out one grape from another and one wine from another. NIWG has proved indispensable.

There are the classic Italian wine books for any student of Italian wine:  Joe Bastianich Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy (recommended to me when I took NASA’s Italian Wine Specialist Course with Diego Meraveglia) and Kerin O’Keefe’s deep dive books on Brunello di Montalcino and Barolo and Barbaresco. In INWGTI have found it is easy to dive into a chapter on a grape I want to know more about or need clarification on (Garganega, Moscato bianco, Tocai friulano, Ribolla gialla, Pecorino, Vermentino, Schioppettino, Nebbiolo and the barollo zones) and then go back to it again later,  I have read the chapter on Sangiovese several times and will continue to refer to it. Over the course of my WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) studies, the thing I like most about the program is that the focus is on the cause and effect of wine, how does a wine taste and why does it taste that way (grapes, place, winemaking, viticulture). INGWT focuses on the grapes producing the highest quality wines based on terroir (list of grapes covered below) of Italy and ultimately answers the questions, what are the benchmark wines made from native grapes and why do they taste the way they do.

Ian D’Agata’s influence, reputation on Italian wine is all over the internet, and consulting Antonio Galloni’s site Vinous, where D’Agata is Senior Editor and head of Development for Europe and Asia you will find his contributions. I will humbly point out below what I found most helpful and interesting in the book. But first a brief rant.

I do not own a kindle so I mostly consult (NIWG) through my phone when I need information about an Italian grape’s origin or parentage or relationship to another grape. Online access is convenient and quick, but boy do I love paper books. Books, the real thing are such a joy to handle and flip through. Paper books are heavier and a pain to pack up when you move but when it is a quintessential book like this one (INWGT), which it is for me, trying to make my way through an Italian wine department, the ability to write in the margins, underline, consult multiple pages at the same time from different parts of the book, not to have to make sure my phone is charged, just reading from paper rather than the light from a screen is pure pleasure. This is a book, I will go into why below, that  is instantly one of my essential wine books, so I will happily pack it up when I move and it will not go into the “give away” pile. So my obvious suggestion is to buy the hardcover version because this is a book you will continue to consult over time and will want to write in it and not depend on your computer to have to read it.

Why do I like this book? My background is French wine and in studying the Burgundy Master level program with the Wine Scholar Guild all the AOCs are laid out in an orderly manner, even though I have forgotten them, each village’s vineyards are mapped out exactly with plots, climats and lieu dits, not so for most of the Italian wine regions or at least not so readily available, although Alessandro Masnaghetti at ENOGEA has been forging the way in laying out maps of Italian wine. When faced with a wall of brunellos or an aisle or two of sangiovese wines, how to distinguish one from another other than word of mouth from colleague’s, associates or the internet, all of which can be skewed. This book makes sense of that wall of brunellos and aisles of sangioveses. I have been fortunate to travel to Italy, though not enough, and I have had the budget to drink Brunellos or Chianti Classico Riservas although not now. Sangiovese is a grape that is boring to some because it is the major wine grape of Italy, most people have at least heard of Sangiovese or Chianti and it isn’t as unknown and different as say Lagrein from the region of Alto Adige.  (D’Agata does not include Lagrein in this book but there is an entry in the comprehensive NIWG). Sangiovese is a grape that I love, particularly, when it has a bit of age on it and D’Agata lays out what makes Sangiovese, Sangiovese, and what the best terroirs are and why, what does it taste like and why does it produce different wines across communes and villages.  I can go back to the Chapter on Sangiovese and refer and double check on soils and towns and nuances. Even though I have been to Tuscany, I find on wine trips I get so caught up in the people, the wine, the experience that sorting out the context gets hard. D’Agata has the experience and knowledge to provide the context to sort out wines uber quickly. At times I needed to remember what I read in Jamie Goode’s book, The Science of Wine when it came to D’Agata’s link of chemical reactions to grape aroma’s and flavors. Technical language aside, be it chemistry or geology, which D’Agata handles with ease because that is who he is, this book is a thorough guide as to what wines to try and why and where to go and what to look for when you visit Tuscany on a wine trip. It is very easy to go to his chapter on Sangiovese and just focus on Sangiovese and the language is more conversational and easier to process than the very information intensive, hundreds of grapes covered NIWG.

I was hoping to find one of my favorite white secondary Italian grapes, Timorasso (included in NIWG) from Piedmont mentioned but it did not make the cut for this book, maybe the next one? I did find a leaning towards northern climate grapes where I was happy to find tons of information on the grapes of Friuli and specifically the Collio mentioned, Tocai Friulano and Ribolla Gialla and all the producers that I love, the difference between flysch and ponca soil and what makes the Collio such a great place to grow grapes.  I wish I had read the entries in this book before my trip last June!

Biotypes

I remember when I was in the Italian Wine Specialist Course with Diego Meraveglia and he used the term biotype to refer to the nebbiolo that grew in Valtellina versus the Langhe. At the time, everything in Italian wine was new and confusing that I just kind of went with the term but not really understanding what was meant by it. Without quoting pages and pages of D’Agata’s book, he gives for me the most clear explanation, on page 15 in the chapter Understanding Terroir and It’s Context, of what the Italians mean when they use the term biotype. In Robinson, Harding and Vouillamoz’ book, Wine Grapes, the word biotype is nowhere to be found only clone and mutation.

Here is D’Agata’s explanation of a biotype: “Biotypes are examples of a grape variety that has adapted over time to its new environment and consequently looks and behaves slightly differently from the original mother plant: they have a slighlty different DNA than the wine that was  originally planted because of the increasing number of mutations in the DNA that have occurred over time (and depending on the degree to which the DNA changes, will look more or less different; when the changes are really noteworthy, we speak not of biotype but of different, new varieties). For example, the Nebbiolo that grows in Valle D’Aosta looks and behaves differently from the Nebbiolo that grows in Lombardy and also from the one growing in Piedmont, but all three are clearly Nebbiolos.

To me, understanding and processing biotype, because it refers to the effect of the place, is easier to make sense of because it aligns the grape to the specific place to the wine than just using the term clone. Italy with hundreds and hundreds of native grape varieties and such ancient wine growing history is full of worm holes and black holes when it comes to learning about the wines made there. D’Agata provides a very, easy to access framework to navigate all those worm holes so you don’t get stuck in one. This book is comprehensive but succinct at the same time that only comes with years of knowledge of all these grapes and areas so that the information can be presented in an easy to understand way.

It is easy to like a wine because of the people you are tasting with, the place, the time, the circumstances and that is all good. This book provides facts and contextual evidence of why certain wines are of higher quality than others and why. The fun part is then taking all of this great information and putting it to the test and tasting the wines. If I had to compare NIWG to INWGT, the former is more like a dictionary, comprehensive with hundreds of entries while INWGT is more curated, more conversational and easier to navigate, though the paper book format may have something to do with it. I started this piece with the comment that I was thrilled and I am thrilled because this book is really helpful for anyone and an absolutely must for anyone interested in learning more about Italian wine no matter your level or wine knowledge.  It will give you lots of ideas for wine choices and for wine travel!

Grapes covered: Aglianico, Barbera, Biancolella and Forastera, Carricante, Cornalin, Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, and Molinara, Dorona, Durella, Erbaluce, Erbamat, Fiano, Fumin, Garganega, Glera, Grechetto di Todi and Grechetto di Orvieto, Grignolino, Malvasia Bianca di Basilicata, Malvasia di Lipari, Malvasia Istriana, Mayolet, Montepulciano, Moscato Bianco, Moscato di Sconzo, Moscato Giallo, Nebbiolo, Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, Nero d”Avola (Calabrese), Pecorino, Petit Rouge, Picolit, Pignolo, Prié, Refosco del Peduncolo Rosso, Refosco Nostrano (Refosco di Faedis), Ribolla Gialla, Ruchè, Sagrantino, Sangiovese, Schioppettino, Tazzelenghe, Tocai Friulano, Trebbiano Abruzzese, Verdicchio, Vermentino, Vuillermin, Zibibbo

 

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