Food & dining

By the Glass

For research or pleasure, ‘Native Wine Grapes of Italy’ a gem of a read

Wine writers will tell you they reach for two kinds of books: Those for serious research and those for curling up in a favorite chair. When a book inhabits both categories, it is a rare and delightful tome indeed.

“Native Wine Grapes of Italy,” by Rome-based wine writer and educator Ian D’Agata, spans both genres with ease. The 550-page hardcover, just published by University of California Press, is well-suited to the budding researcher, eager to learn the distinctions between ampelography (the study of grape varieties in the broadest sense) vs. ampelology (grapevine science that draws on DNA sequencing to characterize grapes). But even the casual enthusiast will enjoy learning about Italy’s nearly 400 genetically distinct grape varieties and the wines they make. An entire chapter is devoted to grapes most have never heard of. Retagliado bianco from Sardinia or francavidda from Puglia, anyone?

D’Agata knows Italian grapes. He spent thirteen years doing research, traversing vineyards, tasting wine, and interviewing producers up and down Italy’s boot. It is an impressive scholarly work. But D’Agata’s enthusiasm takes what could be a dense topic and transforms it into a book that engages a broad audience. Its pages also answer lingering questions.


A while back, we ran across a Northern Italian bottle of red whose label indicated schiava nera as the grape from which it was made. Contacting the importer and consulting the usual sources yielded surprisingly little information about the varietal. So it was a breath of fresh air to flip to the chapter discussing schiava grapes and learn their history, etymology of their name, and discover that the major schiava varieties are genetically unrelated, despite being similar in appearance to one another. D’Agata even mentions the bottle that kicked off our search. It turns out that particular winemaker refers to his grapes as schiava nera when the varietal in the bottle is schiava grossa. Mystery solved!

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The schiava example might seem geeky, but curious wine lovers will appreciate the in-depth discussion that leads to a better understanding of these grapes and the wines they make. The book does not offer photos or illustrations (save for a map of Italy toward the front) so this work will not spend much time in the living room as a coffee table book.

But that’s perfectly fine with us. It’s hard enough deciding where our copy will live most of its life. Perhaps it’s best to have two — one copy for the home office and another nestled alongside our favorite armchair.

Native Wine Grapes of Italy by Ian D’Agata. University of California Press, 2014. $50 hardcover.

Ellen Bhang can be reached at