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From left: Foradori Teroldego 2016, Elena Walch Schiava 2018 and Burlotto Langhe Freisa 2017. Italian reds all seem to sound a common theme, no matter where their origin. It's easier to find these similarities than to account for them.

Different grapes from different regions, all screaming Italy

Sep 6, 2019 5:50 AM

WHAT makes a wine French, or American or Spanish? Attributing national characteristics is a murky business, with one significant exception.

Regardless of where they come from, the red wines of Italy often bear a similar signature: great acidity and sweet fruit or floral aromas and flavours, tempered by a refreshing bitterness that sets up the next sip.

This is not to say that the nebbiolo wines of northern Italy taste anything like the sangiovese wines of Tuscany, the aglianicos of Campania or the nerello mascaleses of Sicily. As different as these wines can be, they all seem imprinted with a character that transcends regional and cultural boundaries.

It's not hard to find exceptions, especially among wines made with grapes that are not native to Italy, like merlot and cabernet sauvignon.

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But sometimes this particular character is apparent even in great Italian cabernet-based reds like the old Fiorano Rossos, made from the late 1940s through the early '90s, by Alberico Boncampagni Ludovisi, the prince of Venosa, at his estate within the city limits of Rome, where he had planted cabernet and merlot. The structure in these wines was provided, in the Italian fashion, by the acidity rather than the tannins. (French wines, by contrast, are more tannic.) Where does this Italian character originate? From the soils? Selective breeding of grapes over centuries? Or might it be something else that we have not considered?

This month, instead of focusing on a specific category, we drank three entirely different Italian red wines, each made with a relatively obscure grape grown in a different part of the country.

The three wines I recommended this month are excellent examples of the choices available today, especially from Italy, which may be growing more native grapes than any other country. The three were: Elena Walch Alto Adige Schiava 2018, G.B. Burlotto Langhe Freisa 2017 and Foradori Vigneti Delle Dolomiti Teroldego 2016.

I had not thought much beyond the assortment of arcane grapes in suggesting these three wines. Even as the wine world has apparently embraced diversity, that change still feels fragile. Mass-produced, brand-name pinot grigio will always be easier to sell in quantity than teroldego or freisa, so those who prize depth, beauty, grace and mystique must always push back against the forces of pure commercialism.

As I drank these wines, though, what struck me most were their similarities. Each of these reds had the pronounced acidity, the sweet fruit and, to a greater or lesser extent, the cleansing bitterness that in a red wine seems to scream, "Italy!" Yet nobody would say these wines taste the same.

Schiava, the grape in the 2018 Elena Walch, might more accurately be termed Tyrolean rather than Italian, as it crosses national borders. In Alto Adige, the Alpine region of northeastern Italy that borders Austria, it is called schiava, or sometimes vernatsch. In the W├╝rttemberg region of southwestern Germany, where the grape is popular as well, it is called trollinger.

In my experience, the trollingers of Germany are pale, light, floral and intensely refreshing, lovely wines. The Walch schiava was darker, a little more concentrated though still light-bodied. Its aromas were pretty, its flavours clear and straightforward, of flowers and spicy red fruits, with a touch of licorice and that refreshing wash of bitterness.

When I tasted this wine without food, it lacked intensity. But with a meal of chicken with garlic, lemon and anchovy, it came alive and felt complete.

The 2016 Foradori, made with the teroldego grape, comes from the neighbouring province of Trentino, just to the south of Alto Adige. Teroldego was the local grape, grown on the Campo Rotaliano, a wide, gravelly plain. In the 1980s, much of the wine was cheap and industrial, made from clones of teroldego vines that had been bred for quantity over quality.

Elisabetta Foradori, who took over her family's estate as a young woman in 1985, has worked tirelessly since then to restore the genetic diversity of the grape and the biological life of the soils to produce deeper, more complex wines.

These efforts have apparently not won her friends among the wine bureaucracy. She no longer uses the official Teroldego Rotaliano appellation on her wine, just the less specific Vigneti delle Dolomiti designation. Either way, the wine is superb: perfumed and packed with flavour, yet not at all heavy or overbearing.

The acidity was lively, and the flavours were of bright red fruit, with perhaps a bit of tar, finishing with a wonderful, contrasting bitterness that called for another sip.

The two northeastern wines had similarities, but the last wine, the 2017 Burlotto Langhe Freisa, was completely different. The Langhe is in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy, the home of Barolo and Barbaresco, the great nebbiolo wines. Like many of the lesser-known red grapes of the region, the freisa grape calls to mind certain characteristics of nebbiolo.

The wine was quite tannic, especially in comparison to the other two wines. It smelled of flowers and especially of strawberries. On the palate, it was fresh, lively with flavours of red fruit and tar. The acidity was pronounced, and the wine finished with marked bitterness that exceeded the other two. It was the only wine among the three in which tannins played a structural role alongside acidity, though several readers felt the teroldego was tannic, too.

Despite the differences among the three wines, the similarities grabbed my attention. I'm not sure I could find similar links between Bordeaux and Burgundy, or Rioja and Priorat, to say nothing of the reds of other parts of France or Spain.

But to these three wines, I could have added a Chianti Classico, a Valpolicella, a Cerasuolo di Vittoria and a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, and I still would have found these common points.

It's been said that Italy is less a country than a collection of regions with more antagonisms than commonalities. It may be that the wines bind the nation culturally better than the government does politically. NYTIMES