I got my copy of Native Wine Grapes of Italy by Ian D’Agata from Amazon for just under £24, and it is the best £24 I have spent on a wine book for a long time. I am delighted to be able to enthuse about a wine book for a change.
This book certainly deserves to be considered in its own right, but inevitably it will be compared with Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz. So, with apologies to Ian, I shall occasionally refer to The Other Book. To compare at the most superficial level, while Wine Grapes unambiguously boasts on its cover that it is a guide to 1,368 varieties, Ian more vaguely claims to have identified over 500 native Italian grape types, not all of which may prove to be varieties, with the implication that most of these are described in the book. Also, you will find more Italy-related information about each grape in Native Wine Grapes of Italy than you will in Wine Grapes. So, if quantity of information is important to you, when it comes to native Italian grapes you get more in Ian’s book. All that does rather raise the question of Ian’s definition of a native Italian grape. It includes all grapes that have formed part of Italy’s viticultural tradition. Thus Cannonao (Grenache) is included, as it is traditional in Sardinia, but more recent imports like Cabernet Sauvignon are definitely out. Also excluded are grapes only traditional in Alto Adige, on the basis that the region was not part of Italy until after the First World War. All rather arbitrary in a way, but you have to draw a line somewhere.
In my last book review, I mentioned that information can be made interesting by ensuring there is plenty of detail, and this book is a good example of how that can work. You learn not only about the results of the latest genetic studies, but also how the varieties are officially recorded, synonyms, misunderstandings, ampelography, what the wines taste like, and what growers have to say. It is clear that, even in this terroir-obsessed age, Ian is a firm believer in the importance of grape variety, and a true champion and enthusiast of Italian varieties.
The enthusiasm is infectious, and I found myself not treating the book as a mere reference work, but actually reading it page-by-page from the start. So far I am on page 110 of over 600, and may still falter before I get to the end, but already I have read more than I ever did of Wine Grapes. And as I read I was inspired to get hold of some of the wines described. One notable feature of the book is that specific wines are recommended, not on the usual basis of how good they are, but from the point of view how varietally correct they are judged to be. I definitely feel a Lambrusco tasting coming up 🙂
Amazingly, I am nearly at the end of this book review, and have not yet mentioned any criticisms. The main one I can think of is that the book is not ideally laid out for reference purposes. The varieties are listed alphabetically, but distributed across four chapters: Grape groups and Families, Major Native and Traditional Grape Varieties, Little-Known Native and Traditional Grape Varieties, and Crossings. So unless you know the category your grape fits into, you may not hit it on your first look-up in a chapter. I have already mistaken a few varieties for being “little-known”, when in fact they are “major”. Rossese Bianco, for example, is actually quite major, and not at all little-known! The best solution would probably have been to use italics in the index to indicate the main entry for each variety. Clearer headings for each variety would also make them easier to find.
If you have anything more than a passing interest in Italian wine, I would strongly recommend this book. If you don’t, buy it anyway, and discover what you are missing out on!