Updated November 2023
While Northern Italy might be best recognized for powerhouse reds like Barolo and Amarone and crisp whites from Friuli and Alto Adige, between these two significant categories lies a diverse range of light-bodied Italian red wines perfect for summer sipping.
Across Northern Italy, light red wines have been a part of locals’ lives for hundreds of years, often playing second fiddle to the bolder wines, often in the global limelight.
From the elegant Schiava of Alto Adige to the grippy and tart Grignolino of Monferrato and the quaffable blends from Bardolino — these wines have all the characteristics that make for a perfect chillable red.
Schiava: The DNA of Alto Adige
In Northeastern Italy, the small region of Alto Adige has long been working with the native grape Schiava. Lauded by local producers for its lighter body and ability to pair with a variety of foods, this wine is the perfect crowd-pleaser.
The variety’s physical properties lend to its light characteristics. Schiava vines develop large bunches with dark and juicy grapes but have relatively thin skins. Ultimately, this leads to a wine with concentrated fruit flavors and low tannins.
The region’s distinct terroir adds to the wine’s fresh acidity and lighter body. “The Schiava grape variety has found its perfect home in Alto Adige thanks to the extremely mineral, warm soils, and the Mediterranean-influenced climate despite the latitude,” says Robert Oberkofler of Cantina Bolzano.
Producers in the region value Schiava’s flexibility to pair with various foods. “It’s one of the few all-rounders in the world of wine,” says Judith Unterholzer of Gump Hof, a historic estate in the region. “(It’s) a soft and elegant wine which, served slightly chilled, is a wonderful aperitif and goes well not only with traditional Alto Adige dumplings but also with grilled vegetables, smoked fish, white meats, Mediterranean pasta dishes, and pizzas.”
Schiava once dominated growings across Alto Adige, accounting for 80% of vines. However, a boom in interest in white wines and full-bodied reds in the 1980s shifted the priorities of many growers. Plantings of Pinot Grigio, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon took precedence.
Harald Cronst of Cantina Kurtatsch recounts this movement ultimately helping the grape’s reputation, prompting a focus on site-specific expressions. “There has been a quality revolution,” says Kurtatsch. “Schiava remains only where the terroir is excellent.”
Monferrato Rosso: “Forgotten and Wild” in Piedmont
In Northwestern Italy, Piedmont is globally recognized for its robust Barolo and Barbaresco wines. These powerhouses comprise 100% Nebbiolo, with high acidity and tannin, making both exceptionally food-friendly. However, these wines can be tough to enjoy in the hot summer sun. Therefore, if you are looking for a wine that has the tannic structure to stand up to barbecue but is still juicy and chillable, look to the widely undiscovered wines of Monferrato Rosso.
Monferrato is a laid-back version of Barolo, drawing young winemakers like Summer Wolff to the region. “While we find ourselves lucky enough to be making wine in one of the best regions in the world, we are in the ‘forgotten and wild’ part of Piedmont,” says Wolff. “Land is still incredibly affordable, the pace of life is slow and simple, and farming organically is just how things have always been done.”
Monferrato Rosso has no grape variety stipulations, so the wines range from varietal bottlings to blends of indigenous grapes like Barbera, Grignolino, Freisa, and Dolcetto alongside international varieties like Cabernet Franc and Syrah.
The wines of Monferrato reflect the region itself, with their easy-going and drinkable nature. Wolff jokes that “a sign of a good wine is whether you can finish it on your own,” recalling tasting her 100% Freisa wine. “We opened the first bottle, and it was gone before I had time to sit down… that is exactly what we want.”
Bardolino: The Red Next Door
On Lake Garda in the Veneto region lies another example of a lighter red wine often overshadowed by its bolder neighbor. Bardolino is a light-bodied red wine blend from Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and Molinara. The same grapes famously comprise the wines of its next-door region, Valpolicella. Even though these wines come from the same varieties, differences in terroir and production methods lead to distinct expressions.
Alessia Bertaiola of Sassara Vini, a Bardolino winery, focuses on natural wines, noting their approach is to “allow the natural expression of the grapes, which are not rich in color.” Bertaiola mentions that Bardolino has soils different from Valpolicella’s, and the limited presence of clay creates a lighter body and more mineral-driven wine.
Bertaiola aims for her wines to convey a sense of place and the taste of local traditions of what Bardolino was “before the advent of full-bodied reds.” The result is a quaffable red wine bursting with flavors of strawberry, cranberry, citrus, and a saline minerality that is perfect for enjoying on its own or with a range of foods.
There’s little doubt that the full-bodied reds of Northern Italy will remain the workhorses for the region, bringing international recognition and praise. Still, a recent rise in consumer interest in lighter, chillable reds and unique native grapes has restored hope for many of these wines to thrive.