An odyssey through Italy’s indigenous grapes – via Zoom

Falanghina, montepulciano and passerina all featured in the latest online tastings attended by drinks blogger Peter Ranscombe.

FEW countries can boast as many varieties of grapes as Italy – the International Organisation of Vine & Wine (OIV), the keeper of the geekiest of all statistics, lists 454 varietals as being grown from the Alps down to Sicily.

Yet the true total is likely to be even higher, with many regional variations over the years, as vines mutate and adapt to their habitats.

While the big names – like nebbiolo and sangiovese in the red corner, and pinot grigio and prosecco’s glera in the white corner – may be well known to Scottish fans, Diana Thompson from Wine Events Scotland used her latest virtual wine tastings to focus on some of Italy’s less renowned varieties.

Thompson has been running online tastings during the lockdown and teamed up with Edinburgh-based supplier Bellissimo Vino for her latest sessions, spread over two consecutive Wednesday nights.

Her tastings also focused on two often-overlooked regions: Abruzzo in Central Italy – just over the hills from Picinisco in Lazio, where I visited I Ciacca winery last year – and Campania in the south.

Last week’s session kicked off with a sparkling version of falanghina, Campania’s flagship white grape, which has been enjoying something of a renaissance since the 1990s, when the introduction of stainless-steel tanks allowed winemakers to retain more of its fresh aromas.

The Cantina di Solopaca Falanghina Beneventano Frizzante (£8.80, Bellissimo Vino) was packed full of intense grapefruit, lemon and lemon sherbet aromas.

Being a “frizzante” it was partially sparkling, as opposed to the full whack of the “spumante”.

Certainly an unusual wine – I’m not sure I’d rush to look for another sparkling falanghina, but tastings like this are all about exploring the unknown.

It was followed by passerina, which definitely falls into the lesser-known grape category.

One of Abruzzo’s indigenous varieties, it hails from the region’s Adriatic coast.

The 2018 Ginesia Organic Passerina Terre di Chieti (£11.95) was my pick of the first week’s trio, with savoury lemon rind and grapefruit flavours, along with a lick of butter.

Like so many traditional Italian whites, this would make a great accompaniment to food, with plenty of acidity to cut through batter, or swim alongside seafood.

Both the passerina and the 2017 Menicucci Alzavola Rosso (£13) are made by the Menicucci family winery, which produces wines that are certified as organic, with all the intense aromas and flavours that come with organic farming.

The Alzavola rosso blends 40% merlot with 60% montepulciano, Abruzzo’s flagship red grape.

It was heavy with sour cherry and dark chocolate on the nose, with coal smoke and a bit of tar, before morphing into sweeter blackcurrant jam on the palate, yet still with a kick of fresh acidity and more of those sour cherries on the finish.

As with the passerina, the 2018 Menicucci Alzavola Bianco (£13) from tonight’s second leg was another excellent food wine, this time made from a blend of 60% pecorino – the variety that shares its name with the Italian sheep’s cheese – and malvasia, an aromatic variety grown throughout the Mediterranean.

I really enjoyed its aromas of peach and freshly-baked bread with a lick of butter, which were replicated on the palate and which balanced its crisp acidity.

The pink version under the Ginesia label – the 2019 Ginesia Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo Organic Rosé (£12.50) – may have looked a lurid candy floss pink colour thanks to its montepulciano origins but its cherry-drop aromas were fresh and not confected.

It also had the defined and concentrated fruit characteristics I’d expect from an organic wine, with the red cherry joined by ripe raspberry on palate, with enough fruit to balance the refreshing acidity.

Thompson had advised participants to decant the final wine – the 2015 Carrese Aglianico Riserva (£15), from the Sannio area within Campania – an hour before tonight’s tasting and it certainly benefited from time to breathe.

Aglianico is often branded as a “baby Barolo” thanks to its sour cherry, coffee and chocolate flavours, but I think this one was closer to a Brunello, with its tannins crying out for a thick lump of bistecca alla Fiorentina.

Bellissimo Vino is well-stocked with lots of interesting examples for those who want to continue their Italian odyssey, while Thompson is moving on to South Africa next and then “wines of the unexpected” with Montrose-based Woodhouse Wines.

For more stories from Peter Ranscombe’s The Grape & The Grain drinks blog visit