“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.
Recently, 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.