No one knows exactly how many different kinds of wine grapes there are in Italy. Estimates range from a few hundred to a few thousand, and though the title is not undisputed (Portugal would like a word), Italy can comfortably claim more indigenous varietals than any other country. This makes sense, because Italy produces more wine than any other country: over 4.2 million liters a year in a territory ¾ the size of California. (For comparison, the US as a whole is at 2.5 million liters per annum.)  Some are forgettable - “rivers of disgracefully thin, characterless stuff” says Jancis Robinson - some, like Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello, are world-renowned and prized by oenophiles everywhere. Most are relatively unknown outside of Italy; almost every week at the shop, we come across a new-to-us, delicious and distinctive Italian varietal, grown for centuries on specific soils. Sampling them all would take a lifetime, and I sometimes think that, if forced to subsist on the viticultural output of only one nation for the rest of my life, I might choose Italy. Here are three (out of 277 or 585 or 2,159) reasons why.

Tiny, alpine and semi-autonomous, the Valle d’Aosta (Vallée d'Aoste to the region's many French speakers) is Italy's smallest region, just one-eighth the size of neighboring Piedmont. It contains some of Europe's highest peaks, and the vineyards are frequently terraced into dizzyingly steep slopes. The altitude determines which grapes are grown in which locations: red grapes (90% of the production) are grown at lower elevations (around 300 meters), more whites on the upper levels (1200 meters.)  At one point the Valle d'Aosta had so many grape varieties growing you could write a book about it. Unfortunately, phylloxera (the aphid-like pest) killed most of the vines on local farms in the 1860’s, wiping out the majority of the region’s wine heritage; today, there are 13 grapes which have been identified as indigenous to the region. Fumin (from fumo, Italian for smoke, due to Fumin’s, you guessed it, smoky aromas) is arguably the most mysterious and intriguing; thought to have been virtually extinct before being resuscitated over the last 30 years, there is relatively little information available about it. DNA testing has thus far revealed no relation to other local varietals. Much of the knowledge we do possess regarding Fumin and Valle D’Aoste viticulture in general comes from the Institut Agricole Regional (IAR), an agricultural school, research center, and working farm that produces biodynamic wine from primarily native varietals. The first of our selections this quarter is their 2017 Fumin, a tiny production (1,450 bottles total), comprising 85% Fumin and 15% autochthonous local varietals, and an excellent, concentrated example of Fumin’s elusive appeal.


Moving south to east-central Italy, we come to Lazio, centered around Rome, and one of the oldest winemaking regions in Italy, with a viticultural history that dates back to the pre-Roman Etruscans. Lazio has all the natural ingredients for great wine: rich and varied terroir, a mild climate, with decent rainfall and wide daytime/nighttime temperature shifts, and a handful of unique native varietals. However, in the latter half of the 20th century, industrial farming and concentration on marketable, international grapes earned Lazio a reputation for pedestrian, uninspired products. This has been changing lately though, thanks to a new generation of winemakers with a renewed focus on small production and local varietals. Cesanase (cheh-sah-NEH-zeh), a grape barely grown outside the region, is in particular poised to become Lazio’s signature contribution to the pantheon of great Italian reds. Damiano and Letizia Ciolli, both Lazio natives, are arguably the leaders of this Cesanese renaissance. They farm 7 hectares of hilly red volcanic soil in the Cesanese di Olevano Romano DOC, one of three Cesanese appellations (the other two are Cesanese di Affile and Cesanese del Piglio del Piglio) 30 miles southwest of Rome. The couple works with both distinct strains of Cesanese: Cesanese Comune (common) and Cesanese d’Affile (originating from the town of the same name.)  Comune tends to be richer in fruit and color, while di Affile, considered the more noble of the two, is lusher and more aromatic, with better structure and aging potential. Their “Cirsium” (named after a vineyard wildflower) is 100% Cesanese di Affile from 57-year-old wines planted by Damiano’s father in 1953.

Sicilian wines have become increasingly popular in recent years, none more than Etna Rossos, the supple and dramatic reds made from grapes grown on the slopes of Europe’s largest active volcano. Thirty miles away, in the upper northeast corner of Sicily, on hills overlooking the Straits of Messina that separate Sicily from the mainland, lies Faro, one of Italy’s smallest DOCs.  In the late 1980s Salvatore Geraci, an architect specializing in restructuring and preserving historical palaces and villas, took over the vineyard his family had farmed for generations, and he has pretty much single handedly rejuvenated a nigh-extinct winemaking tradition dating back to antiquity.  Palari’s Rosso del Soprano (the name literally means “red from the heights” - a reference to the 80-year-old vineyards, some 1,500 feet above sea level that produce the wine) makes for a fascinating contrast with its more famous neighbors in Etna. The two primary grapes, Nerello Masacele and Nerello Capuccio, are the same as in Etna, but the remaining jumble of intensely local varietals (Nocera, Cappuccio Tignolino, Acitana, Galatena and Calabrese) nurtured in the specific terroir of sandy limestone soils and maritime winds produce wine that retains all the wild red fruit and rusticity of Etna reds but with a finesse and aromatic intensity all its own.


The PlumpJack Wine Buying Team

Institut Agricole Regional (IAR) Fumin Valle d'Aosta DOC 2017

Location: Valle D’Aosta, Italy

About the winemaker: The Institut Agricole Régional (IAR), founded in 1952, is one of the most important agricultural universities in Italy. Currently, the IAR is composed of a working farm, professional technical school, and research center.  IAR is responsible for promoting the study and professional training of students within the agriculture sector, focusing primarily on biodynamic vine growing, wine production, as well as biodynamic fruit and dairy research and production.  The focus on developing and utilizing applied research allows the university to combine theory and literal “in the field” training, achieving exceptional results within a short period of time.

The Institut tends multiple varieties of indigenous grapevine species that were recovered with much time and energy from old vineyards around the Valle d’Aosta.  These wines are textbook versions of each varietal lovingly crafted from vine to bottle.  All wines at the Institut are farmed and micro-vinified in lots of 1500-4700 bottles according to Biodynamic principles.

About the Winemaking:  The vineyards are situated on the mountainside above Aosta at Cossan at the altitude of 670 meters above sea level and at the foot of the mountainside at La Rochère at the altitude of 580masl. The plots have Southern exposure and a rittochino, which is a hydraulic-agricultural arrangement of sloping land. The purpose of this arrangement is to regulate the outflow of water by simultaneously reducing the risks of erosion and landslide. The soil has a sandy loam texture and is rich in skeletal materials. The vines are trained in Single Guyot system with a planting density of 9,000 stumps per hectare. The endo-alpine climate is dry and airy which favors growth. The grapes were harvested in the third week of September, and were then de-stemmed, pressed, and left to macerate in steel tanks for 21 days in a temperature-controlled environment. Afterwards, the wine aged in French oak barrels for 12 months, in steel vats for 3 months and for at least 1 more month in a bottle.


Tasting Notes: Ruby red in color with purplish hues. It has a characteristic fruity balsamic bouquet with hints of red and black berries, and is savory with a touch of smokiness. Well-balanced acidity and tannins, finishing with notes of juniper, vanilla and tobacco.

Winemaker: The Institut Agricole Régional (IAR)

Price per bottle / Price per case:


Suggested Food Pairing:

Grilled steak

Fegato alla paesana (country-style calf livers)

Pork sausage with eggplant

Aged cow’s milk cheese


Damiano Ciolli ‘Cirsium’ Cesanese Reserva 2016

Location: Olevano Romano, Lazio, Italy

About the Winemaker: For four generations, the Ciolli family has worked the land and sold their grapes to other local wine producers. Then, in 2001, Damiano took over the family winery and began to bottle his wines along with the support and collaboration of his longtime significant other Letizia Rocchi, who earned her PhD in grapevine physiology and winemaking.

The wines they make together are a testament to the nobility of the Cesanese D’Affile grape and the great terroir of the Ciolli vineyards.  As a young man, Damiano spent much of his time traveling to the best vineyards of Europe, tasting and examining best practices and traditional techniques.  His move back to Olevano Romano allowed him to breathe new life and winemaking experience into the centuries old estate.

The family held land forms a natural amphitheater with a Southern exposure, similar in shape to the Conca d’Oro in Chianti Classico (Panzano), but at a breezy 450 meters above sea level.  The Southern aspect, the deep red colored volcanic soils, and excellent diurnal temperature variation give the Cesanese d’Affile grape perfect ripening conditions on the ancient Ciolli estate.

About the Winemaking: The Cirsium comes from a 65-year-old single vineyard of 100% Cesanese di Affile planted by Damiano's grandfather in 1953. It derives its name from the Latin word for thistle. This vineyard produces about 4 - 6 bunches per vine and is the top selection of the estate.  The Cirsium is fermented in a stainless-steel tank at temperature controlled within 25 °C to preserve the varietal aromas of Cesanese. Maceration lasts for about 15 days. After maceration, the wine is racked in French oak barrels where it goes through malolactic fermentation and ages on the fine lees for about 18 months; batonnage when needed.  Cirsium rests quietly in the cellar for at least 2 years after bottling.  Farmed Biodynamically.


Tasting Notes: Varied and complex aromas on the nose: hints of red fruits, cherry, snuff, licorice , roses and black pepper. Ripe red fruits, spices, pepper, allspice, cherry and blackcurrant on the palate. Light in color, medium bodied, with great drinkability. Serve slightly chilled.

Winemaker: Damiano Ciolli & Letizia Rocchi

Price per bottle / Price per case:


Suggested Food Pairing:

potato gnocchi,

polenta and sausage,

pork ribs,

mushroom based pasta,

abbacchio (lamb) or sheep stew.





Palari Rosso del Soprano 2013

Location: Sicilia, Italy

About the Winemaker: Though Salvatore Geraci’s family has farmed and made wine in Messina province for generations, he discovered fine wines by way of Burgundy. In the 1980s, his success as an architect allowed him to become a collector. With the encouragement of legendary Italian wine critic and gastronome Luigi Veronelli, he decided to make his own wine from vineyards planted in Faro by his grandparents in the 1930s, recruiting his agronomist brother Giampiero and the renowned Piedmont enologist Donato Lanati, who was professor of Wine Technology at the University of Turin for 17 years.


About the winemaking:  The terrain is blessed with a unique microclimate due to its dramatic rise in altitude of 1,475 feet above sea level within an eight-mile range. The sustainably farmed vines grow on steep slopes requiring the grapes to be handpicked and placed into small baskets. Fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks under controlled temperature and the wine is aged French oak barrels for one year and at least 8 months in the bottle.


Tasting Notes: Spices and bright red fruit with a touch of leather and tobacco on the nose lead to a layered palate with notes darker fruit accented by savory notes of tar, licorice, and white pepper. Long and persistent finish.

Winemaker: Salvatore Geraci & Donato Lanati

Price per bottle / Price per case:


Suggested Food Pairing:

Rigatoni alla Norma (Eggplant Rigatoni)

Monkfish with olives capers and tomatoes.





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