The multiple mysteries of Italian wine

Italy accounts for more than a third of the world’s grape varieties, a reflection of the country’s proudly fragmented culture and geography.

A picturesque vinyard in Piemonte Langhe-Roero.
A picturesque vinyard in Piemonte Langhe-Roero. Credit: Michal Sikorski / Alamy Stock Photo

I’ve long been fascinated by one particular fact about Italy: that the country has more than a third of the world’s entire grape varieties. The exact number is a point of contention, but experts suggest that Italy has around 545 indigenous varieties, of which 341 are DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata); the world’s entire total of grape varieties is 1,368.

Italian wine might be less prestigious than its French counterpart, but France only has 210 varieties and just 10 of them make up eighty per cent of the country’s total wine production. In Italy it’s the opposite: no one grape dominates the domestic or international market. I first moved to Parma, in Emilia-Romagna, in 1999 and so have spent the best part of a quarter of a century enjoying Italian wine, but I’m constantly making vinicultural discoveries. When I travelled the length of the river Po I came across Fortana and Grignolino; when I wrote a book in Basilicata I relished Aglianico. Even expert sommeliers are sometimes surprised to discover new grapes as they travel the country.

This multiplicity of grapes is partly a reflection of the peninsula’s rich topography, which offers many types of terrain: volcanic soils, salty ones, dry climates, wetter ones, many east-west rivers with, therefore, south-facing banks. The ancient Greeks called the Calabro-Lucano part of Magna Grecia ‘Enotria’, the ‘land of wine’ and ancient writers like Pliny the Elder and Columella recognised that the Italian peninsula was uniquely suited to viniculture.

There are human and political reasons, too. The lateness of the reunification of Italy meant that until the late nineteenth century the country remained fragmented, with each region jealously preserving its own cuisine, customs, dialects and drinks. Even after the Risorgimento, which united the warring provinces and regions into the Italian nation, the country still excelled in schismatism, provincialism and separateness from one’s immediate neighbours. Everyone has heard of ‘campanilismo’ – the attachment to the local bell-tower – but it’s a phrase constantly repeated because it encapsulates Italians’ rootedness and thus divisiveness.

Cities are sliced into contrade, into competing borghi and rioni (Italian has endless words for suburbs and districts). Each usually has its treasured heralds and colours: the ‘palio’ of Siena is simply the most famous example of a smallish city subdividing into vociferous tribalism. The football fans of even tiny towns will invariably be divided into rival ultra groups, usually the Curva Nord and the Curva Sud. Similarly, the astonishing number of Italian grapes isn’t just about a terroir, but about autochthonous vines being treasured as an expression of distinction, not only in the sense of excellence, but of differentiation.

Whatever the reason for Italy’s splintering, it has created a society which is statistically more heterogeneous than any other: at the unification of the country in 1861, Italy could boast 7,721 town or city councils compared to a mere 1,307 in France, a country which has almost twice the land mass. The most common surname in Italy (‘Ferrari’) represents only 0.67 per cent of the total. The comparable figure in the UK (for ‘Smith’) is 5.7 per cent. The contrast is even more marked with the one hundred most popular names: in Italy they only represent 2.55 per cent of the total, in the UK very nearly 40 per cent. It’s as if every country seems homogenous by comparison.

Wine experts, however, tell me that the number of Italian grapes has been inadvertently exaggerated over the decades. Maurizio Broggi, co-author of the Italian Wine Scholar series, says ‘historically it was estimated that the number was somewhere between 1,000 to 2,000. However, many of these were either synonyms (same grape, different name) or natural clones of the same grape. Therefore the number has been reduced to between roughly 350 to 600 genetically distinct and commercially-relevant varieties’.

Eric J. Lyman is a sommelier and journalist who owns a small vineyard on the outskirts of Rome. ‘It’s really hard to measure the precise number of Italian grapes. There are many that Italians think are different but, genetically, actually aren’t, so the number can be a bit of an accounting trick.’ Often the name of a wine papers over the fact that the grape is the same. ‘Barolo’s not a grape’, says Lyman, ‘the grape itself is Nebbiolo. Valtellina is also, legally, at least 90 per cent Nebbiolo.’ At least 85 per cent of Morellino di Scansano (another DOC red) is made from the Sangiovese grape.

Lyman has first hand experience of grape variety confusion, being unsure whether he’s cultivating five or six varieties of grape in his vineyard: ‘The jury is still out on whether I have two different kinds of malvasia or just one. One of the reasons it’s so hard to get reliable numbers on types of grapes in Italy is because there’s no rule on how to draw the lines between them.’

So in most regions there’s an open debate about whether one valley’s grape is really genetically separate or not to the next one. People are unsure if Prugnolo Gentile, used to make certain Montepulciano reds, is a type of Sangiovese or a separate variety altogether (it has, formally, been registered as a separate entity in Italy’s National Register of Vine Varieties).

It’s thanks to the fact that Italians treasure every minor grape variety that discoveries and connections can still be made. Lyman tells me how Zinfandel, ‘the great American grape’, was actually discovered to be a Primitivo (traditionally grown in Puglia), a once scorned grape used only in blends. ‘If Zinfandel had been related to an old French grape we would never have known, it would have been eliminated in the centralisation process, but Italians still cultivate just about every grape they have ever grown.’ Primitivo has now been re-evaluated and has become a popular wine in its own right.

It’s not just the variety of Italian wine that is boggling, but also the quantity. Italy produces almost a fifth of the world’s wine: 4.9 billion litres was the 2021 figure, or 18.5 per cent of the global total. The Veneto alone produces more wine (1.17 billion litres in 2021) than the whole of Australia (with just over a billion litres). And yet Italian domestic consumption means that the country only exports around 2.2 billion litres and that Italian wine remains a minority, niche interest for most wine lovers.

One UK-based wine importer I spoke to says that Italian wines ‘remain a bit of a mystery’. Spumante aside (Prosecco, Asti etc.), they rarely have the instant recognition and prestige of their French counterparts. But it seems to me that the sheer volume and variety of Italian wine is an intriguing way to understand the country itself: the refusal to allow an inheritance to become obselete, the longing to out-compete a neighbouring province and the idea that a shared, convivial meal is the very centre of existence. As one proverb says simply: ‘buon vino, tavola lunga’: ‘good wine, long table.’


Tobias Jones