Book review: Native Wine Grapes of Italy

By Italian Wine Central Staff
May 28, 2014

“Definitive” is the term that comes to mind for this book. It is rare to find a book that seems to cover its subject so thoroughly that it banishes the thought of needing any further resource on the matter, but Native Wine Grapes of Italy by Ian D’Agata is such a book. Make no mistake—this is a reference book, not a novel. Unless you’re the type that likes to sit in bed and peruse the dictionary, you probably won’t be reading this like it was The Da Vinci Code. But like a dictionary, it’s the perfect thing to have around when you need to settle a question quickly.

D'Agata book coverRecently, we had occasion to question whether there was such a thing as Aleatico Bianco. An Internet search confirmed that Aleatico was a red grape variety, but still left the door open to the possibility that a white version existed. D’Agata’s book noted that three types of Aleatico were reported in the 19th century—Bianco, Nero, and Rosso—but left little doubt that Aleatico Bianco was a thing of the past, if it ever existed at all.

Native Wine Grapes of Italy (University of California Press, 2014, $50) is 640 pages unrelieved by pictures, sidebars, or graphics—although adding photos of grape bunches by the hundreds would only have made the book longer without making it any more enlightening. It begins with a brief introduction, followed by two chapters about ampelology (apparently the correct term for what we all learned to call “ampelography”) and the history of vine development (what would a book about anything Italian be without a history discussion?).

The main part of the book takes on vitigno after vitigno (vine variety), usually singly but in the early going in “families.” This first grouping is interesting, talking about all the similarly named but not necessarily related grape varieties of Italy—your Grecos, Refoscos, Schiavas, and so on, including the ever popular Trebbiano family. After the families come listings of major varieties and then a chapter with the really obscure ones.

Each individual variety is treated in more or less the same way, starting with a synopsis of the research on genetic relationships, cultivars, and mistaken connections. The entry continues with physical descriptions and a summary of the variety’s plantings in Italy and, where applicable, around the world. A section called “Which Wines to Choose and Why” follows, giving insights into differences between regions, denominations, and producers vis-à-vis that variety. D’Agata goes so far as to suggest a short list of “wines to try,” wines he feels show off that variety at its most authentic (even for the obscure group).

The book concludes with some statistics on hectares planted for each variety, a glossary, an extensive bibliography, and two indexes (one for the variety names only).

At $50, this book is well worth the investment for anyone who is interested in the full spectrum of Italian wine—not just for a library shelf but as a ready resource in any wine shop or other sales environment where having accurate information about Italian grape varieties is necessary. Native Wine Grapes of Italy will remain the definitive reference on this subject for years to come.

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6 comments on “Book review: Native Wine Grapes of Italy”

  1. Hard to believe but this book gives little importance to the Proseccos that are produced in and around Asolo, which is as much a DOCG region as Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. Also not mentioned is the unique Colfondo produced there. No excuse for this snub given that the book was published in 2014.

    1. This book, as the title promises, is about the grape varieties rather than the wine regions of Italy, and the author makes no bones about the fact that everything in the book apart from the scientific data is his opinion. He does mention Colli Asolani Prosecco as "another wine of interest" made from Glera, but does not elaborate on it. This might be because the production there is so tiny compared to that of Conegliano Valdobbiadene (100,000 cases vs. 5.8 million). And again, he probably does not mention the col fondo style of Prosecco (which can be made throughout the Prosecco area, not just in Asolo) because the book is not about winemaking and the production of that style is minuscule. All in all, I would say this was less a snub than an inability to fit everything about Italian wine into one book.

  2. Well, I guess I am just partial. He could have listed a col fondo in his section "wines to try". That's just my opinion, and by the way, thanks for your input.

    1. That’s a challenging question, and no one has a conclusive answer. Ian D’Agata says as much in his book’s introduction, noting that he has a list of around 500—but some of those may be biotypes of better-known grape varieties, while there may be many more that he has not run across yet. Anyone else care to weigh in?

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