Have you ever looked at a list of Italian wines and had no idea where to start? You’re not alone! There are more than 350 indigenous Italian wine grape varieties to choose from, which can be quite overwhelming.
If you’re a red drinker, you’re in luck! We’ve partnered with Marco Sansalone, a native Italian and writer behind The Wineblogger, to outline the 9 most common Italian red wines. Salute!
Sangiovese is one of my favorite reds from Italy, as it is the most widely planted grape variety in the country. Wineries make great wines with this grape - for example, Brunello di Montalcino. Chianti and Vino Noble di Montapulciano are other great examples of Sangiovese.
Typically, Sangiovese has a medium to high body, high tannins, high acidity and beautiful flavors like tart cherry, red plum, leather, tobacco, dried roses.
Flavors: Tart cherry, red plum, leather, tobacco, dried roses
Nebbiolo is the grape behind top-quality red wines from Piedmont (northwestern Italy), the most notable being Barolo and Barbaresco.
Nebbiolo wines are distinguished by their strong tannins, high acidity and distinctive scent – often described as "tar and roses.” A less obvious characteristic, visible only over time, is their tendency to lose color. Within just a few years of vintage, most Nebbiolo wines begin fading from deep, violet-tinged ruby to a beautiful brick orange.
Nebbiolo has medium fruit, high body, high tannins and high acidity.
Flavors: Anise, clay pot, leather, cherry, rose
Barbera is formally known as “the little brother” of Barolo, as it is often a more affordable wine that is easier to drink.
Somehow, Barbera wines taste both rich and light-bodied. Why is that? One reason is that it has dark staining pigments that dye the wine to near-black. However, Barbera also has notes of strawberry and sour cherry flavors synonymous with lighter-bodied wines. Light tannins and high acidity also make it taste “juicy.”
Flavors: Dark cherry, dried strawberry, lavender, dried leaves, vanilla
Lambrusco is a brightly colored grape variety used to make sparkling red wines in Emilia-Romagna, northern Italy. It is a collective term for a group of grape varieties (like Muscat) – more than 60 Lambrusco varieties have been identified so far.
The popularity of Lambrusco grew so rapidly in the 1980's that it was the only way of producing the required volumes quickly enough to satisfy demand and cheaply enough to keep the wines affordable. Most wines made with Lambrusco are made in bulk, and go through their secondary fermentation in large steel tanks - but there are definitely some gems!
Flavors: Typically a little bubbly with strawberries, blueberries and a pleasant hint of bitterness
Montepulciano is the 2nd most planted red grape in Italy after Sangiovese and has a reputation as an affordable, juicy, “pizza-friendly” red wine. (Not to be confused with Vino Noble di Montepulciano, which is made of Sangiovese!)
Fortunately, there are several producers in Abruzzo that have shown the amazing potential of this grape by producing inky, black-fruit driven, chocolatey wines, best enjoyed after 4 or more years of aging. Medium-bodied red wines like Montepulciano generally pair with a wide variety of foods due to the natural elevated acidity. However, some Montepulciano wines with robust herbal and tobacco-like flavors often call for richer and more savory foods.
Flavors: Red plum, oregano, sour cherry, boysenberry, tar
Expect bold aromas of cherry liqueur, black fig, cinnamon and plum, along with subtle notes of green peppercorn, chocolate and crushed gravel dust.
On the palate, Amarone wines often have medium-plus to high acidity balanced with high alcohol and flavors of black cherry, brown sugar and chocolate. The older the wine, the more it will offer flavors of brown sugar, molasses and fig. What might surprise you about this wine is the presence of a touch of natural residual sugar. The residual sugar helps compliment the wine’s natural high acidity and adds to its boldness – if you didn’t know Amarone had residual sugar, you’d think it was dry.
Flavors: Cherry liqueur, black fig, cinnamon, chocolate
One of Italy’s best values! Great for Napa Cabernet lovers who want to explore Italian wine. Valpolicella is made by macerating Amarone grape skins and solids with fresh Valpolicella Classico.
Medium to full body. Rich, soft, complex yet accessible. The grape has five tiers: Valpolicella Classico (largest quantity produced), Valpolicella Superiore (a simple daily red), Superiore Ripasso (one of Italy’s best values), Amarone Della Valpolicella (top wine of Italy), and Recioto Della Valpolicella (rare dessert wine).
Flavors: Tart berries, herbs, light bitterness, dark chocolate (depends on the variety and the quality)
Primitivo is a dark-skinned grape known for producing inky, tannic wines, particularly Primitivo di Manduria and its naturally sweet Dolce Naturale variant. (This grape is also known as Zinfandel!)
A classic Primitivo wine is high in both alcohol and tannins, intensely flavored and deeply colored. A certain bitterness is often found in Primitivo which, combined with its mouth-puckering tannins, means that it needs a few years in either bottle or barrel.
Flavors: Cinnamon, black pepper, black forest fruits, clove
Negroamaro is a dark-skinned grape variety that has been associated with the Puglia region in southern Italy for at least 1500 years. It has a deep color, medium to full tannins and dark berry fruit flavors. It can also have earthy and slightly medicinal flavors. It is mildly aromatic and can produce complex wines that show characteristics of ground brown spices such as clove, cinnamon and allspice.
Flavors: Raspberry, black cherry, violet herbs, earthy tones
Also, for a fun infographic on white wine versus red wine, see here!