Barbera: An Italian Red Grape Grown in Piedmont, Italy

Thin-skinned barbera is the most widely-planted grape variety in Piedmont and the fourth most popular in Italy after sangiovese, catarratto and trebbiano toscano. While wines are made in a range of styles, they generally offer low tannins, very high acidity and sharp, often sour cherry and red fruit flavors complemented by earthy overtones.

Barbera’s trademark high acidity makes it pair exceptionally well with food, particularly rich and hearty fare.

Map of Italy's wine regions

Map of Italy’s wine regions

About the Italian region of Piedmont (Piemonte)

Piedmont is definitely the Italian region most prized by wine collectors as overall quality and consistency is very high. While the stratospheric prices of world-class Barolo and Barbaresco wines might keep them out of reach, there are many nebbiolo bargains to be had, particularly outside of the core Langhe zone in below-the-radar denominations north of the Po river. Further, we encourage you explore the complete landscape of red wines where there are many exciting options: the light freisa, the food-friendly barbera and the fruit-forward dolcetto.

Although vastly unappreciated, Piedmont is also home to impressive white wines that hit attractive price points. Look to arneis, erbaluce, nascetta and timorasso for something new.

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Cannonau: Italian Red Wine Grape from Sardegna

Better known throughout the world as garnacha or grenache, thick-skinned, late-ripening cannonau yields big, brawny wines in Sardinia. Typically low in acidity and tannins, they offer rich flavors of dark fruit (raspberries and cherries), coffee, licorice and chocolate, often with trademark notes of herb and spice. To put Sardinia’s cannonaus into perspective: they share greater similarities with versions from Spain’s Catalunya than those of France’s southern Rhône, favoring fruit over earth and higher alcohol (often around 15%), characteristics likely attributable to the warmer temperatures.

Very flexible reds, they offer exceptional price-value. Cannonau also makes excellent full-bodied dry rosés.

Map of Italy's wine regions

Map of Italy’s wine regions

Where to find the best Cannonau wines

For the highest quality varietal wines, look for the following Cannonau di Sardegna DOC sub-areas:

  • Capo Ferrato
  • Jerzu
  • Oliena

About the Italian region of Sardegna

Anchored off Italy’s west coast, the island of Sardinia offers some distinctive wines — led by the bold cannonau and the flavorful vermentino — at compelling prices. Even familiar grapes — many of which have Spanish origins — take on a unique character as a result of the bright Sardinian sunshine and fierce north-blowing sirocco winds that originate in the Sahara. While wines can sometimes lack polish, they more than make up for any deficiencies by delivering a sense of place. It is a great region for the adventurous wine drinker.

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Learn about the wines of Italy with Approach Guides wine app for iPhone and iPad. The app profiles all of Italy’s winemaking regions, grape varieties, appellations, and vintages, giving you everything you need to know to choose a wine that meets your preferences.

What to drink and where to eat, shop and go in Florence, Italy

While living in Italy, we often went to Florence to take in some serious culture, good shopping and great food and wine. Here are some of our recommendations:

What to Drink

After a long day of sightseeing and shopping, Florence offers the perfect backdrop for a glass or two of Tuscan wine from nearby vineyards. Here are some of our suggestions on what to look for (from our wine guide app for iPhone)

Tuscany’s wine options are vast and quality is high, although, when compared to other regions in Italy, the price-to-quality ratio is not quite as compelling. That said, as a general rule, you should stick to red wine options in Tuscany, where sangiovese-based wines are the stars . Some of our favorite wines come from these great appellations:

  • Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG
  • Chianti Classico DOCG
  • Brunello di Montalcino DOCG

For wines based on international grape varieties (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, etc.), the Maremma area, located in a relatively undeveloped portion of Tuscany along the Ionian (west) coast, offers some great wines at attractive prices.

Where to Eat

The following three restaurants consistently delivered world-class food and were the favorites that we returned to again and again.

Cavolo Nero

Cavolo Nero is our go-to restaurant in Florence. Located off-the-beaten-path (in the oltr’arno), this charming and elegant restaurant serves excellent, fresh food that changes with each season. Cavolo Nero’s super-friendly staff is happy to help you navigate the menu and its wine list. Another plus? The wine and food are very reasonably priced.

Cavolo Nero. Via dell’Ardiglione, 22; S.Frediano; Tel: 055/294 744; closed Sundays.

Il Cibreo

Another one of our favorite restaurants, we recommend dining at the trattoria, over the more formal ristorante and café across the street Excellent food that stays true to its Tuscan roots. Note that the Trattoria does not take reservations, so keep this in mind, because you will likely have to wait for a bit to be seated.

Il Cibreo Trattoria: Via dei Macci, 122R; Ristorante: Via dei Macci 118r; Telephone 055/234 1100; closed Sundays and Mondays.

Coco Lezzone

To sample a real Florentine steak (bistecca fiorentina), there’s no better place than Coco Lezzone. You must to call one day in advance to reserve una bistecca fiorentina (priced by the kg, that is, 2.2 lbs). Also try their delicious ribollita (traditional vegetable bread soup). We recommend sitting in the older front room as it is has a more authentic feel.

Coco Lezzone (no website). Via Parioncino, 26/r, Telephone 055-287178; closed Sundays and Tuesday evenings.

Where to Shop

Florence is known for its shopping. Here are two of our favorite stores:

  • Yesterday’s Fausto Santini Outlet (Via Calzaiuoli, 95R; tel 055/239 8536). High-fashion shoe maker, with gorgeously unique shoes for men and women at prices that are 1/3 of those in the Milan boutique.
  • Paolo Carandini (Via de’ Macci, 73R; tel 055/245 397). Paolo Carandini sells his beautiful, handmade leather goods (journals, bags, etc.) out of a tiny workshop in the city center.

Where to Go

Cultural Walking Tour: Florence Frescoes

ag-cover_italy_florence_freThe presence of large number of Last Supper frescoes (called cenocoli in Italian) in Florence’s historical city center allows visitors to view several sites over a few hours or a few days, giving them a brief but complete lesson in comparative art history. In this travel guide, we highlight the best of the Last Supper frescoes of Florence (spanning 1335-1645) and look at how they relate to Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic depiction in Milan (1496-98). Learn more about Last Supper frescoes in Florence…

Wines from the Etna DOC (Sicily, Italy)

Sicily, the land of abundant sun, good food, and a rich culture infused with Byzantine and Arabic influences, continues to see growth in tourism and exports. Although Sicilian wines can be inconsistent at times, winemaking is improving at a breakneck pace with prices remaining generally reasonable.

The Etna DOC — located in eastern Sicily on the slopes of the Etna volcano — is one of Sicily’s top denominations.

Map of Italy's wine regions

Map of Italy’s wine regions

Red Wines

The Etna DOC zone is one of the premier areas (along with the Faro DOC) for the nerello mascalese red grape. The Etna DOC is located in eastern Sicily on the high elevation (1000+ meters) slopes of the Etna volcano; wines are derived from a minimum of 80% of the variety.

Genetically connected to frappato, gaglioppo and sangiovese, thin-skinned, late-ripening nerello mascalese offers a more elegant, reserved style of Sicilian red. Wines are light colored with approachable ripe red fruit flavors, pleasant spice and soft tannins. Highly expressive of terroir, they present a trademark mineral earthiness, likely reflecting the volcanic soils around Mount Etna in which the grapes are grown. Wines come at attractive price points and are certainly worth trying, particularly if you are a fan of northern Piedmont’s lighter nebbiolos, Cru Beaujolais or the Loire Valley’s cabernet francs.

White Wines

While possible best known its gentle nerello mascalese reds, the Etna DOC is also the home of tasty whites based primarily on a blend of the indigenous carricante and catarratto grape varieties.

Bottles marked as standard Etna bianco contain a minimum of 60% carricante; those marked as superiore have a minimum of 80% carricante. Given thick-skinned, late-ripening carricante’s leading position in the blend, they are delicate wines that display high levels of acidity, making them ideal an partner for simply prepared seafood. They reveal flavors of green apple, orange, lemon, honey and mineral, sometimes with anise and saline notes.

Italian Wine iPhone & iPad App


Learn about the wines of Italy with Approach Guides wine app for iPhone and iPad. The app profiles all of Italy’s winemaking regions, grape varieties, appellations, and vintages, giving you everything you need to know to choose a wine that meets your preferences.

A Wine to try: Bonarda from Italy

The bonarda (aka croatina) grape variety offers great wine values in Italy
Bonarda is the local name for the croatina grape in Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna and bears no relation to the bonarda grape varieties found in Argentina and Piedmont. The mid- to late-ripening grape delivers wines with dark color, gushing fruit, low acidity and soft tannins, often resembling montepulciano or dolcetto in expression.

Map of Italy's wine regions

Map of Italy’s wine regions

Where to find bonarda wines

In Lombardy

The bonarda grape achieves its highest levels in Lombardy’s Oltrepò Pavese DOC (and the Casteggio DOC sub-area), located in the foothills of the Apennines mountains on limestone-rich clay soils. In wines alternatively labelled as Oltrepò Pavese Rosso, Sangue di Giuda or Buttafuoco, it is mixed chiefly with barbera and typically remains over 50%; it is also made into varietally-labelled wines in which it makes up at least 85% (riserva wines are aged for a minimum of 24 months). They often represent very good price-value. Look for it also in the blends of the San Colombano al Lambro / San Colombano DOC.

In Emilia-Romagna

Bonarda delivers exceptional results — dark, fruity and low in acidity — in the sandy clay soils of Emilia-Romagna’s Colli Piacentini DOC, where it is made into varietally-labelled wines (minimum 85% croatina). It also makes up a portion of blends, typically taking a secondary position to barbera or pinot nero, in the Colli Piacentini’s Gutturnio and Novello sub-areas.

Italian Wine iPhone & iPad App

Learn about the wines of Italy with Approach Guides wine app for iPhone and iPad. The app profiles all of Italy’s winemaking regions, grape varieties, appellations, and vintages, giving you everything you need to know to choose a wine that meets your preferences.

AG Wine Pick: Pigato from Liguria, Italy

The wines of the Liguria region of Italy can be difficult to find — only the reclusive Valle d’Aosta region produces and exports less bottles. Plus, given the naturally high costs of production in Liguria (due to its mountainous landscape), its wines can tend to the more expensive side. While the reds are certainly good, the real strengths of Ligurian winemaking lay in its whites, both the world-class vermentino and the distinctive pigato.

You will find that the wines from the Ponente (western Liguria) are typically derived from indigenous grapes, while those from the Levante (eastern Liguria) lean toward Tuscan varieties; that said, we would point you toward the Ponente for truly distinctive, Ligurian wines.

Map of Italy's wine regions

Map of Italy’s wine regions

About Pigato

While pigato is genetically identical to the region’s trademark vermentino (and Piedmont’s favorita), it nevertheless achieves unique expression: pigato favors the earthy side of the flavor spectrum, is a bit more acidic and has a touch more body weight; by contrast, vermentino shows more exotic fruit and has more developed aromas. In addition, pigato is inclined to have more pronounced saline notes, making it ideal for local seafood and shellfish. While it might not prove to be your favorite everyday wine, pigato is sure to be a unique experience and might pair so well with seafood dishes that you will be sure to return to it again.

Look for varietal wines from the Riviera Ligure di Ponente DOC. In this denomination, there are two primary sub-areas: Albenga (at lower elevation, where wines assume fruitier, fuller-bodied profiles) and Ranzo (at higher elevation, where wines take on more restrained, aromatic qualities).

Italian Wine iPhone & iPad App

Learn about the wines of Italy with Approach Guides wine app for iPhone and iPad. The app profiles all of Italy’s winemaking regions, grape varieties, appellations, and vintages, giving you everything you need to know to choose a wine that meets your preferences.

Four Little-Known White Grapes From Piedmont

When you think of Piedmont, its world-class reds — Barolo and Barbaresco — naturally come to mind.  But Piedmont has got some lesser-known whites that are worth giving a swirl.  Here are some great white options from Piedmont.

Map of Italy's wine regions

Map of Italy’s wine regions

Nascetta

The rare nascetta, potentially related to favorita/vermentino/pigato, is indigenous to Piedmont’s Langhe and was only recently saved from extinction. Early to mid ripening, the grape delivers full-bodied, often unctuous wines with flavors of wildflower, white peach, herb, honey, sage, salt and mineral. Despite their rich characters, these aromatic wines possess sufficient structuring acidity to maintain balance, making them pair well with richer seafood dishes. Look for varietally-labelled wines in the Langhe DOC.

Timorasso

The rare timorasso is planted chiefly in Piedmont’s Colli Tortonesi and Monferrato DOCs. Brought back from near extinction by winemaker Walter Massa, the grape is making a comeback among wine aficionados (although perhaps only 20 hectares are under vine). The thick-skinned, early- to mid-ripening grape yields massive wines with a distinctive creaminess. Flavors include candied fruit, toasted hazelnut, honey, spice, bitter mountain herb and mineral. Timorasso’s rich, full-bodied character allows it to pair with dishes that most other whites simply cannot, such as poultry, pork, veal, smoked meats and sausages. It is worth seeking out for lovers of powerful whites that are looking for a new favorite.

Arneis

Thin-skinned arneis is Piedmont’s finest white, grown chiefly in the Langhe and Roero. Arneis-based wines offer low acidity, floral aromas and a rather strong fruit-driven palate that includes ripe pear, orange, apricots and peaches. You may also get an edge of smokiness and a touch of bitter almond on the finish. Due to the grape’s relative obscurity outside of Italy, these full-bodied whites are often great values. Arneis is a perfect accompaniment to heavier pasta dishes. Wines reach their greatest heights in varietal offerings from the Roero Arneis DOCG.

Erbaluce

Thick-skinned, early- to mid-ripening erbaluce is indigenous to northern Piedmont — the Erbaluce di Caluso DOCG and Canavese DOC zones northeast of Torino — and this is where you will find the best pure varietals. The grape produces wines with high acidity and delicate flavors of wildflowers and green apple, coupled with a distinctive minerality. They are ideally paired with simply grilled fish. Erbaluce also makes for very tasty sweet and sparkling wines. Made to consistently high standards, they are a reliable option. Look for it also in varietal wines from the Colline Novaresi and Coste della Sesia DOCs.

Italian Wine iPhone & iPad App

Learn about the wines of Italy with Approach Guides wine app for iPhone and iPad. The app profiles all of Italy’s winemaking regions, grape varieties, appellations, and vintages, giving you everything you need to know to choose a wine that meets your preferences.

Italy’s Valtellina Wines: Chiavennasca (aka Nebbiolo)

Italy’s Valtellina denomination, based in the region of Lombardia, offers some great, under-appreciated value wines. Although they do not quite reach the same heights as in Piedmont, nebbiolo-based wines from Lombardy are impressive and worth trying. If you are a lover of nebbiolo, this zone is worth exploring!

Map of Italy's wine regions

Map of Italy’s wine regions

About the Valtellina

  • The Valtellina. The best area for chiavannasca, the Valtellina zone located in the mountainous northern reaches of the region, along the Adda river in the province of Sondrio, where rocky clay-based soils prevail.
  • Classifications. The denomination’s basic wines — labelled as Rosso di Valtellina DOC — are made from a minimum of 80% nebbiolo and aged for six months in wood barrels. The premier wines — labelled as Valtellina Superiore DOCG% — are made from grapes grown on the premier plots within the same geographic area, comprised of at least 90% nebbiolo and aged for a minimum of 24 months (12 in oak barrels).
  • Versus nebbiolo from Piedmont. As compared to those from Piedmont, Valtellina nebbiolos lack the same dark fruit punch due to the modestly cooler temperatures that make it challenging for this very late-maturing variety to reach optimal ripeness. What they lack in power and harmony, however, they make up for in finesse, aroma and earthy concentration. Further, they typically hit more attractive price points, which makes them worth checking out.

While all Valtellina wines are of generally high quality, look for the following five Valtellina Superiore DOCG sub-areas for the best experience:

  • Grumello. Fruit forward and aromatic with notes of almonds due to small amounts of the local brugnola grape in the blend.
  • Inferno. Most powerful, concentrated and austere versions.
  • Maroggia. Lowest production with medium- to full-bodied, fruity versions.
  • Sassella. Viewed as the best of the Valtellina, richer and fuller-bodied versions requiring 3-5 years of aging.
  • Valgella. The most delicate, floral-perfumed expressions of nebbiolo.

What about Sforzato

Made from a minimum of 90% nebbiolo grapes, sforzato wines (aka Valtellina Sfursat) are unique to Lombardy’s Valtellina. Following a similar process to that used with the Veneto’s Amarone, they are made by drying out the grapes until they are raisins and their sugars are concentrated. Since all of the sugar is allowed to convert to alcohol, the resulting wine is totally dry; this results in high alcohol levels, usually around 14%. As with Amarone, the final result is a rich, almost syrupy, wine with low acid levels. While slightly less mouth filling, sforzato wines deliver a greater level of spiciness. Look for them in the Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG.

About the nebbiolo grape (chiavennasca)

Nebbiolo, known locally in Lombardia as chiavennasca, produces the most sophisticated red wines in Italy.

  • Trademark characteristics. The light-colored wines are characterized by large amounts of acidity and tannin, which typically require many years of bottle aging to balance and integrate. Despite their power, nebbiolo-based wines are never dense, jammy or distinctly fruity. Showcasing powerful aromas redolent of red cherries, roses and truffles, they also have notes of eucalyptus, violets, pine needle, herbs, mushrooms and cinnamon spice. As the wines age, they take on darker notes of tar, tobacco, leather and earth.
  • Name origin. The name nebbiolo is derived from the Italian word for fog, nebbia. The grape’s fog association could be derived from one of two possibilities: the fog that typically settles over the area of the Langhe in October or the characteristic white-colored coating that appears on the skin of the grape late in the growing season. The grape is also known by the following names: chiavennasca (Lombardy’s Valtellina), picotendro (Valle d’Aosta) and spanna (northern Piedmont).

Italian Wine iPhone & iPad App

Learn about the wines of Italy with Approach Guides wine app for iPhone and iPad. The app profiles all of Italy’s winemaking regions, grape varieties, appellations, and vintages, giving you everything you need to know to choose a wine that meets your preferences.