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The Rise of Italian Grapes in American Vineyards

After decades of planting primarily French grapes, American producers have started to embrace Italian varieties. About 2,000 native grape varieties are cultivated in Italy.

While Sangiovese, Barbera and Nebbiolo have increased in popularity for decades, relative unknowns, like Fiano, Teroldego, Sagrantino and Lagrein, have cropped up in vineyards across the U.S.

Here’s a look at what’s being done across the country.

Man pouring red wines on a large dining table
Sampling wines at DaVero / Photo by Paige Green

Italian grapes in California

Many California growers have planted Italian grape varieties because they thrive in the state’s climate. They don’t require much more than what Mother Nature gives them.

“In California, we are finally starting to return to what I think winemaking should be,” says Ridgely Evers, founder and owner of DaVero Farms & Winery in Sonoma County. “We weren’t growing climate-appropriate varieties for many decades, and because we were out of sync with the terroir, we had to add a lot of chemicals to grow grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon effectively.”

Many Northern Californian regions have more in common with Tuscany than Burgundy. For brands like DaVero that want to grow grapes organically or biodynamically, to plant varieties that thrive in a Mediterranean climate is ideal.

“At age 68, I have made it my personal mission to get as much carbon in the ground as I can, and we’ve found the best way to do that is to grow Mediterranean, with a focus on Italian varieties, [and done] biodynamically,” says Evers.

On estate land, DaVero grows Barbera, Montepulciano, Nebbiolo, Sagrantino, Sangiovese, Malvasia Bianca, Moscato and Pallagrello Bianco. It also partners with area growers on Dolcetto, Primitivo and Vermentino.

Evers’s commitment to climate-appropriate Italian varieties is exemplified by a new, larger-scale brand he created called Avivo. While DaVero produces about 4,500 cases of wine per year, Evers plans to scale up Avivo to about 100,000 cases in the next few years. The wines will be produced via the same stringent, biodynamic principles he currently employs, just on a much larger scale.

The operation will involve a network of specialty growers. Craig Ledbetter, partner/vice president at Lodi’s Vino Farms, with some 17,000 acres under vine, will farm several Italian varieties for Avivo, including Vermentino and Sangiovese. But Vino Farms has also long grown Italian varieties for several winemakers, both large and small.

“My father planted Sangiovese in 1996, and since then, we’ve planted Vermentino, Pinot Gris, Primitivo, Muscat Canelli and others,” says Ledbetter. “Most of those are used by our bigger buyers like Constellation [Brands] and Woodridge in blends, so we’re excited to be working on growing wines that will end up in single-variety blends for Avivo.”

Ledbetter says he’ll always likely grow wine for major players like Constellation Brands, but he sees opportunity with boutique winemakers who seek out lesser-known varieties to highlight California’s terroir in new and unexpected ways.

Ripe dark purple grapes hanging on vines
Sagrantino Grapes at Benessere Vineyards / Photo by Geoff Hansen Napa Valley Images

A quest for the unexpected is what made Castoro Cellars, in Paso Robles, interested in Italian varieties. It organically grows 181 combined acres of Falanghina, Moscato, Primitivo, Pinot Grigio, Charbono and Barbera.

“We are growing the varieties across the appellation, and each location displays its own personality from the terroir and microclimate,” says founder and owner Niels Udsen. “The locale expresses each variety beautifully.”

In Napa Valley, Benessere Vineyards began to grow Sangiovese in 1996, and has since added Sagrantino and Aglianico.

“Our vineyards are close to the Vaca and Mayacamas mountain rangers, which reminded our owners of the Apennine Mountains that run the lengthy of Italy,” says Matt Reid, winemaker at Benessere. “Our daytime highs and cooler temperatures at night, plus our drier conditions, are in keeping with the most renowned sites for Aglianico, such as the volcanic slopes of Vulture.”

Reid says that the Napa version of the Aglianico, Sagrantino and Sangiovese display similar flavor profiles to the Italian grapes. His Sagrantino is slightly riper, while the Sangiovese is “fresher, brighter and with a more polished tannin structure.”

In the Northeast

Winemakers and grape growers in Pennsylvania and New York have also experimented with Italian varieties. Unlike other regions, they’ve found that the difference in climate from Italy teases out new layers of flavor.

In the Finger Lakes region, Sawmill Creek Vineyards grows Sangiovese for Barnstormer Winery, which makes a rosé from the grapes. Tina Hazlitt, Sawmill’s financial manager, says her father-in-law, Jim Hazlitt, planted the Sangiovese on a whim after he sampled it in Italy.

“Scott Bronstein of Barnstormer tells us that their rosé has been growing in popularity recently,” says Hazlitt. She believes that their cool climate lends a subtlety, restraint and nuance to the rosé not typically found in Italian offerings.

At nearby Atwater Estate Vineyards, Winemaker Vinny Aliperti says that the winery is known for experimentation and that its “combination of topography and geography allows us to push the limits” of what’s possible in New York.

This year, Atwater planted its first acre of Lagrein. Aliperti hopes that the grapes exhibit their own characteristics defined by their adopted home on Seneca Lake.

Pennsylvania’s Mazza Vineyards produces about 60,000 cases a year. Experiments with Italy’s Teroldego are what the general manager, Mario Mazza, calls a representation of its values and vision.

“We only produce about 200 cases of our Teroldego, but we spend proportionally a great deal of time caring for those vines and making the wines,” he says. “It’s dry, elegant, refined, and although it’s a very limited release, we believe it represents us at our best.”

In Andrews Bridge, Pennsylvania, terroir-obsessed Vox Vineti produces single-vineyard, small-batch wines. Ed Lazzerini, Vox Vineti’s “winegrowner” says he loves the sense of place found in the quarter-acre each of Barbera and Nebbiolo planted in 2010. Vox Vineti has five acres planted, with plans to put more Barbera and Nebbiolo in the ground next year.

“Nebbiolo precisely expresses the unique nuances of site and terroir,” he says. “Barbera can be a bit more a workhorse grape, but I find the linearity of its acidity to be the perfect structure on which to craft dazzling rosé.”

Very dark black grapes ripe on the vine
Lagrein Grapes at Remy Wines / Photo by Mark Fenske

In the Pacific Northwest

Producers in Oregon and Washington have turned to Italian grapes out of curiosity, and as a hedge against long-term warming patterns.

“We have found that customers are very receptive and excited to learn about new varieties most of them have never heard of,” says Chris Figgins, president/director of winemaking for Figgins Family Wine Estates in Walla Walla, Washington.

Figgins has planted Sagrantino, Montepulciano, Aglianico and Negroamaro. “We were so impressed with the Aglianico we planted in 2002, we planted a commercial scale block and released our first Leonetti Cellar Aglianico 2013, last year,” he says.

The bottles sold out quickly.

In Oregon’s northern Willamette Valley, Montinore Estate began to experiment with Italian wines to honor owner Rudy Marchesi’s roots. Initially, Marchesi planted Teroldego and Lagrein, both related to the region’s flagship variety, Pinot Noir. The grapes also grow in Northern Italy, a climate that mirrors the Willamette Valley.

Montinore produces three wines from Italian grapes, which includes single-variety bottlings of Teroldego and Lagrein. The third, Rosso di Marchesi Quinto Atto, is a blend of estate-grown Teroldego, Lagrein and Pinot Noir, as well as Sangiovese and Nebbiolo sourced from Washington State.

Remy Drabkin, owner/winemaker of Remy Wines, also in the Willamette Valley, grows Lagrein and purchases Dolcetto from Jubilee Vineyards. She says the grapes represent “smart planting for climate change, with thick skins and an open-cluster morphology, which gives them inherent mildew resistance and means they ripen more slowly.”

There will always be a place for Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. But as terroir-appropriate wines become more popular and climate change threatens the status quo, it’s exciting to see the rise of Fiano from Paso Robles, Teroldego from Pennsylvania, and Negroamaro from Walla Walla.