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The irony of Italian wines

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If you are a wine lover, chances are that in the last year you probably had a wine called either Aubaine or Petite-Vidure. But you didn’t know it.

That’s because Aubaine is another name for chardonnay and Petite-Vidure is another name for cabernet sauvignon.

Almost every wine grape in the world has an alternative name that is used infrequently (or not at all) and/or is related to an area of the world where it may well grow, but in scant amounts.

As such, most alterative grape names are obscure. This happens all over France, Germany, Austria, Spain and South Africa, and even in Croatia, Portugal and Bulgaria.

And then there is Italy, where we find pinot grigio, sangiovese, barbera, nebbiolo and literally many hundreds of others that are locally well known, and only a few miles away are completely unknown — by any name.

The remarkably diverse geography of Italy dictated that for centuries travel from one region to another was difficult or nearly impossible. Even today, the drive between Piedmont in the north to Tuscany, just to the south, takes drivers over 100 bridges and through 100 tunnels.

Before the tunnels and bridges arrived, “nearby” cities were really far apart.

This clearly led to the rise of the city-state in the 15th century and worked against complete national unification until 1861.

Today, a trip to the Tuscan walled cities of Lucca, Volterra, San Gimignano and others is a glimpse into regional identities so great that the wines found in each area are often radically different from one another.

This is almost made clear by a new book, “Native Wine Grapes of Italy,” by Ian d’Agata ($40, University of California Press).

The Rome-based author spent most of his life cataloging the hundreds of wine grapes throughout Italy, most of which are known in nearby towns only by alternate names. And many grapes are not known at all just a few miles away.

D’Agata also spent 13 years doing interviews and traveling the vast Italian countryside to discover grapes he had never heard of.

The book is fascinating not necessarily to read, but to pick up and randomly read a description of an obscure grape that nonetheless has a story to tell.

Ansonica, for instance, is a white Tuscan grape also called Inzolia in Sicily that d’Agata says makes a delicately herbal white wine with a deep golden hue.

Then there is Gaglioppo, a Calabrian native red grape also found in four other regions, of which the author says some unkind things.

This monumental work fails one crucial test: About 99 percent of the grapes listed here may well have been documented, tested as varietal wines, and dissected as to what kind of wine they make. But from a practical point of view, the text has little meaning for non-Italian residents who are wine lovers.

That’s because the vast majority of these grape names will never be seen on a wine bottle since in Italy most of the wine produced never leaves the city-state areas in which they are made. They go from production line to market in cask, most of it served without additional charge with meals.

Visit Valle d’Aosta, for instance. Go to a local café. Order a glass of the house’s vino da tavola.

You will be brought a glass of red wine. It will be red and pale in color — see-through likely. The wine’s aroma will be fresh and not very complex. You then ask the waiter what the wine is.

And his answer will be succinct: rosso.

Wine of the Week: 2013 Marques de Caceres Verdejo, Rueda ($10) – This lightly floral Spanish white wine grape (not to be confused with the northern Italian grape Verduzzo) once was the basis for heavy, rich white wines out of central Spain. Today both Marques de Caceres and Marques de Riscal make delightful, sprightly lighter wines from the grape. This one offers a tangerine and elegant spice note, chamomile tea and a dry finish. Often seen about $8.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at

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