Spanning 620 miles (1,000 km), Italy’s size and geographic differences make for a diverse winemaking landscape. While there’s no sure way to determine the exact number of indigenous grapes (some experts say it’s over 2,000) — Italy’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry currently recognizes between 350 and 400 official winemaking grape varieties. It’s no wonder people often consider Italian wines the most difficult to comprehend, particularly when the names of the most popular Italian red wine grapes are often nowhere on the labels. Instead, much like the French, they use a labeling system highlighting the growing area.
From Piedmont, Lombardy, and Trentino-Alto Adige in the north to Basilicata and Calabria in the south — not to mention the islands of Sardinia and Sicily and everything else in between — Italy is home to 20 distinct regions.
Without further ado, let’s jump into ten of the most popular red Italian wine grapes and where they grow.
Where It Grows: Puglia, Basilicata, and Campania
Aglianico is a black grape that grows in southern Italy. Some call it “the Barolo of the South” (il Barolo del Sud). It produces elegant, complex fine wines similar to Barolo from Piedmont, with juicy dark fruit, balsamic, and dried fig characteristics.
Highly sought-after versions include Basilicata’s only DOCG wine, Aglianico del Vulture Superiore, particularly from vineyards surrounding the extinct Mount Vulture volcano.
In Campania, Aglianico goes into producing Taurasi DOCG wines in the Province of Avellino and Aglianico del Taburno DOCG from the Province of Benevento.
For more on Aglianico, check out SOMM TV’s recent episode of BYOB, a series focusing on affordable bottles for your next get-together.
Where It Grows: Piedmont and Southern Lombardy
This dark-skinned berry produces a stunning red wine with full-bodied richness and good acidity. A typical Barbera showcases a unique licorice flavor with red cherry and blackberry aromas. It’s come a long way from previous generations when it was once considered an accessible weekday wine that people drank while waiting for their Barolo to be ready.
Most Barbera plantings surround the towns of Asti, Alba, and Pavia. The most famous version is arguably Barbera d’Asti DOCG.
Where It Grows: Veneto
Corvina grows in northeast Italy and is the primary grape in Valpolicella and Amarone wines, while Rondinella and Molinara grape varieties play supporting roles.
Corvina produces light to medium-body wines with high acidity. It’s producers’ choice as to barrel age Valpolicella wines, adding structure and complexity. Corvina’s small berries are low in tannins but have thick skins, making them ideal for passito (a drying process), which is the differentiating winemaking step between Valpolicella and Amarone. Amarone often exudes raisin, prune, and syrupy fruit characteristics and can age for decades.
Where It Grows: Piedmont
Dolcetto is often thought to be the underdog variety of Piedmont, sitting in the shadows of Nebbiolo and Barbera. Its name means “little sweet one”, referring to the ease with which it grows, not its sweetness levels. Varietal expressions are dry, with flavors of blackberries and herbs with peppery notes and a slight bittersweet finish.
There are ten Dolcetto DOCs and DOCGs. Standard versions of DOC wines containing 100% Dolcetto require a minimum of 11.5% ABV, while Superiore require 12.5% ABV. Furthermore, to qualify for DOCG status, the wines must age for at least one year.
Where It Grows: Abruzzo
Montepulciano is Italy’s second most popular red wine grape and grows primarily in Abruzzo, where wines are called Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. The grape makes a dark, rich wine with sour cherry and plum flavors, sometimes with tobacco notes, giving it an herbaceous character.
The grape is often confused with a town in Tuscany of the same name. However, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (wines of Montepulciano) are famously Sangiovese-based.
Where It Grows: Piedmont and Lombardy
Most of Italy’s Nebbiolo plantings are in Piedmont, where it’s responsible for two of the world’s most sought-after Italian red wines – Barolo and Barbaresco. Barolo, in particular, is one of the most talked about wine styles in the world and is dubbed the ‘Wine of King, King of Wines’.
Wines made from Nebbiolo offer aromas of red fruits with notes of cherry, coffee, and its blind tasting tell — anise. They are robust wines with high tannins and acidity and are incredibly age-worthy, sometimes lasting for decades in the cellar.
Outside Barolo & Barbaresco DOCGs, Nebbiolo grows in the Novara and Vercelli hills in northern Piedmont, where it goes by the name Spanna and makes the DOCG wines of Ghemme and Gattinara.
In northwestern Piedmont, near the Valle d’Aosta, Nebbiolo produces Carema DOC wines. Across the Tanaro river, it makes Roero DOCG wines.
In the Lombardy region of Valtellina, the grape goes by the name Chiavennasca.
In this clip from Sommelier’s Notebook: An Intro to Nebbiolo, available on SOMM TV, Master Sommelier Sabato Sagaria shares how Barolo and Barbaresco — made entirely of Nebbiolo — can have further cru classifications within their DOCGs.
Where It Grows: Puglia
Negroamaro grows almost exclusively in Puglia, particularly in Salento, where it’s the backbone of Salice Salentino wines. Negroamaro wines are quite rustic, combining perfume with an earthy bitterness (the name literally means “black bitter”).
It is well suited to Puglia’s hot summers and exhibits good drought resistance; it’s vigorous and high-yielding. Most expressions are very affordable and offer a good introduction to the distinctness of Italian wines.
Where It Grows: Sicily
Nero d’Avola gets its name from Avola, a small town in southeast Sicily, where plantings were once confined. However, with a rise in quality and popularity, vineyards now grow in the neighboring towns of Noto, Rosolini, Pachino, Ispica, Vittoria, and other parts of the island.
Thanks to Sicily’s warm climate, the Nero d’Avola grape produces rich fruit-forward wines with aromas of plum and other dark fruits alongside peppery notes and strong tannins. Barrel-aging is common, as is blending with other grapes.
Where It Grows: Umbria
The grape makes Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG wines (100% Sagrantino) and Montefalco Rosso DOC wines (Sangiovese-dominant requiring 10-15% Sagrantino). Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG requires a minimum of 37 months of aging before release, including 12 in oak barrels. Montefalco Rosso DOC wines must age a minimum of 18 months.
Where It Grows: Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, and more
Sangiovese accounts for approximately 10% of all vineyard plantings across Italy, but the grape’s home is Tuscany, in central Italy. There, it’s the solitary grape of Brunello di Montalcino DOCG and Rosso di Montalcino DOC. It’s also the primary component in the wines of Chianti DOC, Chianti Classico DOCG, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG.
Sangiovese wines are famous for their tart cherry flavor while also exhibiting dry herbs and spices alongside subtle earthy aromas. They boast high acidity and tannins.
In Umbria, Sangiovese plays an important role in the DOCG wines of Torgiano Rosso Riserva and the DOC wines of Montefalco Rosso (as mentioned above). In Marche, Sangiovese makes Conero in Marche DOCG and Rosso Piceno DOC wines.