You know Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling, aka the six noble grapes. You’re also probably familiar with internationally renowned varieties like Syrah/Shiraz, Tempranillo, Malbec, Pinot Gris/Grigio, and Chenin Blanc.
But the road to becoming a true wine geek is paved with the innumerable varieties that remain rooted to their homelands. As a rule, these indigenous grapes are little-known and never grown outside their place of origin, which is partly what makes the wines they yield so special: They’re true labors of love for producers striving to showcase the ancestral fruits of their terroir.
Few countries rival Italy in this regard. Though estimates of how many native wine grapes grow there vary so widely as to be pointless—from a few hundred to 2,000—there’s no question that both Italy’s diverse geography and fractured political history have favored incomparable viticultural heterogenity.
Italy’s viticultural bounty is showcased on several Denver wine lists, including Tavernetta, Coperta, and those of the beverage pros I spoke to about their current favorite native Italian grapes: Elliot Strathmann (Spuntino), Jonny Peterson (Osteria Marco), and Ryan Fletter (Barolo Grill and Chow Morso Osteria). Here’s what they think you should order the next time you’re skimming their wine lists:
Etna, an appellation of Sicily, has garnered a lot of attention in recent years for its multifaceted volcanic terroir and decades-old plantings, with this age worthy red grape leading the way. The Murgo Etna Rosso 2016 that Osteria Marco offers by the glass ($11) “initially shows as light and fruity,” Peterson says, “but as it opens up, you start to get that volcanic soil and herbs like tomato leaf and oregano.” Which isn’t to say you should expect the same from every Nerello Mascalese. “It’s fun because they’re all so different, so unique to their site.”
This Umbrian red grape is “always kind of a wild ride,” Strathmann acknowledges. “Even the friendlier ones have intense tannins until they’re 20 or 30 years old. But there’s enough fruit, minerality, and acidity to build up around them, and it has immense potential for making mind-bogglingly fantastic, big wines.” Not only does the Sciacciadiavoli Sagrantino di Montefalco 2011 he sells at Spuntino ($72) have “layers on layers” of character “to stand up to rich, cold-weather foods—braises, short ribs, heavier pastas”—but it also has a great story: Sciacciadiavoli translates as “drive the devils out,” a nod to the witch doctor who lived on the property in the 19th century and used a sweet style of the wine, called passito, in his exorcisms. (Strathmann keeps some of the sweet stuff on hand for diners who purchase the dry style, so they can taste the difference.)
On the Austrian border where both Italian and German are spoken, Alto Adige is best known for its whites. But the region is also home to fresh, easy-drinking, cherried reds from native Schiava (aka Vernatsch). When bottled as Santa Maddalena (aka St. Magdalener), it’s typically blended with a small amount of another, bolder local red grape, Lagrein. Peterson calls the Bozen Bolzano St. Magdalener Huck am Bach 2017 he features by the glass ($14) at Osteria Marco “dynamic—at first it smells like Hawaiian Punch. But as you swirl you get notes of lavender, rose, some earthy funk—mud and a little mushroom. It’s got more body than it looks like it has, but you don’t need to shove food into your mouth afterward,” making it a good aperitivo wine.
Fletter compares this “black-fruited and peppery” Friulian red variety (pronounced skee-OH-peh-TEE-noh) to Syrah. Pouring Ronchi di Pietro Schioppettino 2015 by the glass ($11) at Chow Morso, he admits, “I’m super surprised that it has been so well received.” But if the name alone is a mouthful, the grape itself is “a user friendly varietal. There’s virtually no oak, so you’re really tasting it for what it is—and it has the freshness and crunchiness and acid to go well with everything, from white meats and seafood to red meats and spicy food to all the cheeses.”
Italy’s home to several white grapes named Trebbiano, most of which “are pretty innocuous,” Strathmann says. This is the exception. “The good examples are mineral-driven, with laser-fine acidity and great texture—like white Burgundy, but different.” Going for $40 a bottle at Spuntino, Tiberio Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2016 “is so undervalued and delivers so much for people who like that elegant style.”
Verdicchio from the Marche “is easily a contender for the greatest white wine in Italy,” according to Fletter, which is why he offers two by the glass at Barolo Grill—Casalfarneto’s unoaked Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Fontevecchia 2016 ($11) and its oaked Castelli di Jesi Verdicchio Riserva Crisio 2014 (which he’ll pour for you off-list). Praising its stylistic versatility—it can be dry, sweet, or sparkling, and drunk young or aged—Fletter explains that “it’s not rich, but it’s not puny either; it has texture and density. It’s got orchard fruit and a white floral quality to it. It really carries minerality well too—it has that interesting umami thing—and it tends to pick up seaside brininess as well. You walk a bottle of Verdicchio into a party, you’re going to make friends.”