A delicious lesson in two Italian wine varieties

Summer’s end is around the corner, folks — sorry — so back to school for all of ya! But fear not, my kind of schooling is fun. In today’s instalment of Bill’s Grape School, it’s a “study” of two Italian varieties.

The white is a lesser-known grape called cortese. The red is actually rather common on the shelves of the SAQ, though it is often confused with an appellation that has absolutely nothing to do with the grape, aside from sharing the same name. Its name is montepulciano.

Remember that it is up to all of us to protect that rich fabric that is the world’s grape varieties. And how do we do that? By buying and trying them. Happy studies, folks.


One is a grape and the other a town that has given its name to an appellation, but they are often confused. I have had many people tell me when I have suggested they try a wine made with montepulciano that they love Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

Well, I love them as well, but Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is an appellation in Tuscany and the wines are made primarily with sangiovese, or prugnolo gentille as the clone is known in the area.

In fact, the montepulciano grape is not even grown in Montepulciano. The grape’s connection with the famous Tuscan appellation is not known, though it might have once been grown in the area, taken its name and then migrated south. Where it is grown, however, is all over central and southern Italy, making it, after sangiovese, Italy’s second-most-widely planted red variety.

If it does have a spiritual home, it is along the Adriatic coast of central Italy, in the neighbouring regions of the Marches and the Abruzzo.

Here the appellation names might be more familiar. There are more than 50 Montepulciano D’Abruzzos listed at the SAQ, the majority being red wines with a sprinkling of rosé. This appellation within the Abruzzo region is by far the biggest producer of the grape.

The wines are, for the most part, relatively powerful with notes of red berries, floral aromatics like violets, and what I like most, pretty gritty tannins. These are “workmanlike,” no-nonsense wines. And while words like elegance are rarely used to describe them, on the “bang for your buck” metre they rate very high. The vast majority of the wines are under $20.

The reason for this is that the montepulciano vine is known for producing high yields, which is why they are not very expensive. But there are more “powerful and ageable” expressions of the grape, and for that, you look north of the Abruzzo, and in the Marches.

There are two primary appellations that require montepulciano as a majority of the blend — the rest is usually sangiovese. Those are rosso piceno and rosso cornero.

With grapes grown on limestone-rich hillsides, I find the wines of these two appellations to be more mineral and with more powerful tannic structures than farther south. Perhaps because of the inclusion of sangiovese in the blend, I also find the wines to be more complex, if less “easy” than those of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo.

But whichever style you may prefer, these are consummate table wines. Because they tend to have good acidities, they can deal easily with tomato-based sauces and stronger cheese. Those with more tannic structure can easily be paired with steaks. And like most Italian wine, especially during the heat of the summer, serve them around 16 C to highlight their refreshing qualities.

Rosso Piceno Superiore 2010, Il Brecciarolo, Velenosi, Italy red, $14.50, SAQ #10542647. If you like them ripe, and a good dose of oak, then this is consistently one of the better under-$15 wines out there. A blend of montepulciano and sangiovese that, despite the hefty fruit, shows good acidity. Especially if you are looking to get into Italian wines, an excellent introduction. Serve at 18 C. Drink now-2015. Food-pairing idea: grilled steak, grilled mushrooms

Montepulciano-d’Abruzzo 2011, Masciarelli, Italy red, $15.70, SAQ #10863774. More complexity than the 2010. Alongside the red fruits, notes of licorice and a touch of herbs. Vibrant acidity, it just begs you to refill your glass. Not the most powerful, but that’s not the point. This will go with almost everything. Serve at 16 C. Drink now-2016. Food-pairing idea: manicotti stuffed with herbs and cheese and tomato sauce

Rosso Conero 2010, Moroder, Italy red, $17.65, SAQ #11155307. Shows everything that I love about the grape — ripe fruit, refreshing acidity and gritty tannins. I love the lack of oak flavouring here. This is all grape in its beautiful rusticity. Great job. Serve at 16 C. Drink now-2016. Food-pairing idea: veal Parmesan

Montepulciano-d’Abruzzo 2011, Coste delle Plaie, Podere Castorani, Italy red, $21.60, SAQ #10788911. Dark fruits, you can almost taste the bark of the vine. A touch of meatiness as well. This has less of the aromatic complexity, but more punch and length. Very good for you earthier wine lovers. Serve at 16 C. Drink now-2016. Food-pairing idea: lamb chops


For some reason, its name to me conjures up images of a Mafia boss. But no, cortese is a white grape variety from Italy’s northern region of Piedmont. Even within the region, which is primarily know for its red grapes — nebbiolo, barbera and dolcetto — it is not widely grown.

The Gavi production zone is located in the southern part of the Piedmont region and encompasses 11 provinces. The best-growing area is considered to be the Rovereto hillside, which is just north of the town of Gavi. The wines grown in the area around the town can be labelled “Gavi di Gavi.”

The first mention of cortese in the region dates to mid-1600s and it hasn’t really migrated from this small area. I like places that don’t feel the need to branch out and try new grapes.

So what does it taste like? I often compare it with a lighter version of chardonnay. It can range into the stone fruits, and often shows more floral aromatics than chardonnay. In an effort to get some more bulk in the wines, winemakers have been leaving them on their lees, or dead yeast cells. Others have opted for oak aging, but I prefer a leaner, more refreshing version of the grape.

In terms of food-wine pairings, Gavi works wonderfully as an apéritif. At the table, lighter fish and seafood are a perfect combination. I recently had one with a spinach quiche, and it was a great match.

Gavi di Gavi 2012, Granee, Beni di Batasiolo, Italy white, $17.05, SAQ #10388109. Chardonnay-light. Batasiolo’s version of Gavi tends toward a richer textured wine, but this is the cleanest and crispest I have tasted in a while. Nice spicy finish on top of a nice blend of stone fruits and fennel. Serve at 8-10 C. Drink now. Food-pairing idea: apéritif, mussels, cold seafood

Gavi 2012, Fontanafredda, Italy white, $20.65, SAQ #11213108. Light and fresh. Lemons and green apples with a just a hint of limes. This is the naked version of the grape, where minerality and acidity are at the forefront. Serve at 8 C. Drink now. Food-pairing idea: apéritif, white fish

Gavi 2012, Pio Cesare, Italy white, $22, SAQ #10387413. Pretty aromatics, the most floral of the three I tasted. More in line with the Batasiolo, with its richer, leesy texture and spicy finish. Can handle some richer foods much like a chardonnay. Serve at 8-10 C. Drink now. Food-pairing idea: apéritif, scallops with lemon butter