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Tannic Treasures of the Italian Peninsula

Ripe bunch of Oseleta
Sign for the Ristorante Oseleta
.Could this be paradise? For me, probably, yes.

Five Tannic Native Italian Grapes

Anybody who knows me and my wine-drinking habits knows that I really enjoy tannic red wines. I seem to gravitate towards grape varieties that offer a lot of natural tannin, and I tend to prefer my reds a little younger than many of my colleagues. I enjoy a couple of corners and rough edges. It is a useful peccadillo to have for someone without a good cellar in which to age wines, since that means that I am forced to either drink my wines young, or that I have to buy them already with some bottle-age.

Although I am perfectly at home sipping a recent vintage, there is an important caveat I feel compelled to mention: the wines I prefer to drink can’t ONLY have tannin – nobody enjoys that and, contrary to the opinions of some of my friends, I am not a masochist. There should be fruit, spice, decent acidity and good complexity for me to really be in my happy place. Fortunately, in this modern age of winemaking – a paradise, really, for wine lovers – there is very little excuse for bad wines anymore, and even the most rustic brutes can be tamed (but hopefully not too much).

Two Oseleta grapes, one cut
Oseleta, featuring pips! Image courtesy of Masi

When it comes to tannins in wine, it is important to consider where they are coming from – and there are more than a couple of possibilities. Here is a brief overview of the main sources of the tannin in wine:

  1. The skin of the grape
  2. The pips inside the grape (usually quite bitter and harsh)
  3. The stems of the grape bunch (stem ripeness is crucial for balanced tannin)
  4. Oak (be it a barrel, a stave or a chip)
  5. Powder (added to the wine/must/juice at some point)

Personally, I prefer that most of the tannin in my wine comes from the grapes themselves, which goes a long way to explaining why I have trouble accepting Barbera (a grape with very low tannin, yet high acidity and good colour) as a truly high-quality grape. For me, it just isn’t interesting enough without a pretty judicious use of new oak barrels. And, while I certainly don’t mind – and sometimes positively encourage – a wise deployment of oak barrels, I really do tend to seek out wines that do not necessarily need it.

Where to Find the Grapes?

Now, when it comes to tannic grapes, there are many to choose from. An obvious place to look would be France, with its Tannat (a grape literally named for its tannins, and responsible for arguably the most tannic wine in the country: Madiran), its Cabernet Sauvignon and its Mourvèdre. But I wanted to talk about grape varieties that are a little farther from the beaten path – and Italy has lots of those! Nevertheless, it would have been too easy to talk about Nebbiolo, Aglianico or even Sangiovese – the “usual suspects” with regard to tannic Italian reds.

Thus, the point of this article: highlighting an assortment of little-known Italian grape varieties offering all those qualities that I so admire: good acidity, good complexity, and relatively high levels of tannins in their skins, and the accompanying potential for ageing that these qualities generally bring.

Tannic varieties need time to soften in barrel or in bottle (or both), and so finding older vintages is key to being able to understand the character – and potential – of the grape. Finding wines with seven or eight years of ageing is often a great starting point, and I have had the pleasure of being able to try all of the following grapes in bottlings of ten years of age and more – as well as freshly-released, of course.

Five Regions, Five Little-Known Grapes

Beyond the fact that these are tannic varieties, there is a common thread: all of these grapes were either languishing in obscurity, in danger of dying out (or thought to have done so), or completely unknown until relatively recently. Some of them have been “rescued” by a single estate or individual, or have been pulled from obscurity by the same.

Starting with the “softest” of the five grape varieties I’ve chosen, here they are:

Molise: Tintilia 

A ripe bunch of Tintilia
Tintilia – Image courtesy of La Cantina di Remo

Wait, Molise? Yes, Molise. You may not have heard of this, essentially ignored, part of Italy, let alone the grape called Tintilia. There are only 310,000 residents in the entire region, which is located on the Adriatic side of the Italian peninsula between Abruzzo and Puglia. Only the Val d’Aosta is smaller and has fewer people.

But Molise has Tintilia, a (most likely) native grape that the region’s most famous wine producer – Di Majo Norante – has been bottling as a monovarietal for decades; indeed, they were one of the first to do so. Happily, the variety has been making a surge recently in Molise, and there are now many monovarietal bottlings of the grape from a diverse array of producers in the region. We have Claudio Cipressi of Cantine Cipressi to thank for much of this bounty, for it was he who decided to revive the variety back in the 90s, investing much time in sourcing and propagating good vine material.

Tintilia is hardy and very drought-resistant, making it even more interesting to winegrowers grappling with the negative effects of a warming world. It prefers higher altitudes and is one of the few varieties with three pips instead of the usual two. It produces full-bodied, dense wines with lots of black fruit, spice, leather and liquorice, and with fine tannin (but lots of them) as well as delightful acidity – a quality to be treasured in varieties that prefer warmer climes.

Like several other grapes on this list, Tintilia is a recent phenomenon, despite its apparent long history. In stark contrast to the other varieties listed here, however, Tintilia – vinified in steel tanks and with an eye to fruit – can be enjoyed young, if the right wine is tried. Winemaking is concentrating on vinification in steel, focussing on greater fruit expression and moderating the tannin – and these efforts have been quite successful. So successful, in fact, that it was relatively easy to enjoy the reds I tried recently at Vinitaly from vintages as young as 2016 and 2015. Perhaps even more interestingly, one of the nicest rosés (rosato in Italian) I’ve had recently was made from Tintilia; it was fruity, juicy, light and interesting. Look for a wine called Dajje made by Cieri if you would like to try what I’m talking about.

Other producers to watch for: Di Majo Norante, of course, whose monovarietal bottling of Tintilia is a benchmark. La Cantina di Remo (who are growing the highest vines in the appellation, and producing a superbly mineral version of the grape), and Catabbo.

Tuscany: Pugnitello 

A ripe bunch of Pugnitello hanging on the vine
Up close and personal with Pugnitello

One of the more recent additions to the roster of Italian grape varieties – and the national register. Pugnitello is at home in Tuscany, and was discovered near Grosseto, in the Maremma, in the 1980s. Apparently, the grape had long been confused with that most famous of Italian natives from nearby Abruzzo: Montepulciano. Indeed, there are some significant similarities between the two varieties, both in appearance and with regards to behaviour in the cellar. So similar, in fact, that, despite DNA evidence establishing the difference of the two varieties, there remain some holdouts in the wine world claiming that they are, at most, simply biotypes of the same grape.

Given the evidence, it seems fairly cut-and-dried to me. At any rate, the San Felice estate – famed for its Chianti Classico and located in the eponymous region – took an extreme interest in the grape after its “discovery” by researchers from the University of Florence, planting it extensively in their experimental vineyards in Castelnuovo Berardenga. The first vintage (just three barrels) of a (nearly) monovarietal wine was made in 1993 – now San Felice has over 14 hectares of Pugnitello planted across Tuscany, with ten in Chianti alone, and has been making monovarietal wine from the grape in commercially-viable quantities since 2003, as well as adding small quantities of it to their Chianti Classico.

Other producers across the region have taken note, and now there are at least a dozen different monovarietal Pugnitello wines being made, not to mention how many wines (usually Sangiovese-based) to which the grape contributes colour, fruit and structure as part of the blend.

Colour, fruit and structure. This is an accurate description of what Pugnitello brings to the table. The grape is rich in anthocyanins: compounds found in the skin of grapes that are responsible for the colour (which is very deep in the case of Pugnitello). Like many Italian native varieties, the grape is named for its appearance – in this case, the bunch is smallish and looks like a fist, which is what Pugnitello means: little fist. Fruit flavours are deep, like the colour, and fleshy. Tannins are high, yet smooth. Acidity is likewise quite high. The grape benefits from barrels and oxygen during vinification, and the wine profits from oak ageing. The grape is pure hedonism; I almost feel bad enjoying it so much.

Wines to look for: San Felice, of course, and Poggiolella are both making very fine monovarietal Pugnitello.

Friuli: Pignolo

Who would have expected such a grape from Italy’s far Northeast?

Like many grapes on this list, the bunch is small and tight, but in this case it is not a fist, but a pine cone that is the namesake. And it was nearly extinct as a variety by the 1950s, when it was more or less “rescued” by a determined viticulturist (named Casasola), a winemaker (Walter Filiputti) and an estate owner (Silvano Zamò), all at or near the Abazzia di Rosazzo, where the vine was preserved. And this despite a long, illustrious history – but such is the fate of grapes that are both difficult to manage and low-yielding.

Sensitive in the vineyard, hugely tannic and loaded with polyphenols, Pignolo offers a challenge both to winemakers and to viticulturalists, not to mention consumers trying to swig the wine in its youth. The wines do offer lots of blackberry fruit and spice, as well as lovely floral elements – but these don’t start to emerge in the wines until at least five years after vintage. It really is a tough wine to enjoy when it is young. But with some age? Fruit emerges, spice and elegance, depth and complexity, perfume and length. It can be an exceptional wine.

What to look out for? Clearly the wines need bottle age – and plenty of it. I have had several extraordinary Pignolo experiences, and they were all with wines over ten years old. The 2006 bottling from Rocca Bernarda was, for me, one of the best wines I tried at the recent Vinitaly, and I can only recommend seeking out and trying any Pignolo you find – on a restaurant wine list, for example – that’s at least eight years old – it will often reward you! Look for Rocca Bernarda, Le Vigne di Zamò or a tiny producer like Marinig (especially 2007 – 2010).

Veneto: Oseleta 

Ripe bunch of Oseleta
Oseleta with my hand for comparison, picture taken in December.

To say that this variety is from the Veneto isn’t quite as precise as I would like it to be. Specifically, this is one of the permitted native varieties in Valpolicella, and it is generally around Verona that this intensely tannic, small-berried grape is to be found, with some important vineyards of it located in nearby Bardolino – in fact, the oldest and largest single vineyard of Oseleta is located just outside the gates of the Cordevigo estate belonging to Villabella, located between Bardolino and Verona.

The Masi estate, run by the Boscaini family for generations, is one of the greatest proponents of this variety. Since they “discovered” it for themselves in a neighbouring estate, they have done extensive replanting with Oseleta and even published detailed research on the vine. Their Osar was the first monovarietal bottling of Oseleta I’d ever had, and they make the complete range of Valpolicella wines with and without the variety. It is a fascinating comparison.

Oseleta is a small grape with a high proportion of skin and pips (another grape with three) to pulp. Its bunches are small and fist-shaped and the variety is a late ripener, making it popular with birds looking for a sweet treat late in fall – hence its name, which means “little bird” in one of the dialects of the Veneto. It lends itself to the appassimento drying process, and the few monovarietal wines that exist use this process to make the wine. Oseleta builds sugars relatively quickly, reducing the drying time necessary and, therefore, the risk. But it produces very little juice, and so is almost always found as part of a blend, where its presence can be very clear even in very small percentages, bringing in flavours of herbs, blackberry, violets and leather.

For monovarietal bottlings, look for “Osar” from Masi, current vintage 2009, or “Oseleta” from Villabella, which, sadly, is only available from magnum – current vintage 2007.

Umbria: Sagrantino 

A ripe bunch of Sagrantino on the vine
A ripe bunch of Sagrantino on the vine

Jewel in the crown of Umbria, Tuscany’s unjustly poorer cousin, and responsible for its arguably finest appellation wine: Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG, which must be monovarietal Sagrantino. I first heard about this glorious grape and its associated wines (there is also a Montefalco Rosso which permits up to 15% Sagrantino) from Matt Kramer’s excellent book “Making Sense of Italian Wine”, which was first published all the way back in 2006. A couple of years later the book crossed my desk and I learned about a grape variety called Sagrantino, indigenous to a tiny area of Umbria centred on the town of Montefalco. I immediately went on a fruitless hunt. No, in those days it was impossible to find in Germany – at least in Hamburg and anywhere online that I could locate. It wasn’t until 2011 and my first trip to Umbria that I was finally able to taste this fascinating variety, and I was immediately enamoured. In fact, Sagrantino was the reason I went to Umbria at all that year, although I was more than happy to try to track down good Orvieto on the same trip.

Like most of the other grapes on this list, Sagrantino as we know it now (which is to say “dry”) is more of a recent phenomenon – but the grape itself goes back a long, long time. The first DOC for the wine, granted in 1977, was for the sweet passito version. The dry version came later, and both have been granted DOCG status as of 1992. And who is responsible for the newer, dry style? Hard to say, but Adanti produced one of the first, certainly, and still makes excellent Montefalco Sagrantino. But it is the Arnaldo Caprai estate that has done the most to put the dry style – and Montefalco – on the map. 

Sagrantino is not only Italy’s most tannic grape variety, a recent study conducted by Fulvio Mattivi et al. at the Edmund Mach Foundation indicates it may well be the most tannic grape in the world. Fragrantly herby, spicy and with seductive brambly fruit, the variety never loses its tannin – even with age (as near as I can tell with the tastings I’ve done) – but those tannins can be polished and supple in the right hands, instead of rustic and harsh. The grape, like most on this list, benefits greatly from some time in bottle.

Some producers to look for: Paolo Bea (a biodynamic producer with extraordinary wines) Antonelli, Scacciadiavoli (using very little new wood, theirs was the first Sagrantino I fell in love with, and remains one of my favourites), and Tabarrini.

But if you want to have an unforgettable, sweet Sagrantino experience – something which I cannot recommend highly enough – please do try to seek out one of the passito wines. The smoothing effects on the tannin from the higher residual sugar resulting from the drying process used on the grapes, combined with those sweet herbs and the spices the grape offers in abundance, offers a unique and unforgettable kind of enjoyment. Look for Antonelli or Perticaia.

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