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The Knowledge

An Insider’s Guide To Italian Wine

Eight of the best lesser-known varietals, from La Stoppa’s in-house expert

  • photographs by Mr Valentin Hennequin

It was in San Francisco nearly a decade ago that I first became immersed in the world of Italian wine. I’d arrived from my home city of Seattle with little knowledge of San Francisco’s restaurant or wine scene, but encouraged by my older sister, I applied for a job at A16, an Italian restaurant in the Marina District, for which I was incredibly unqualified. I was up-front about my lack of wine knowledge. The hiring manager was equally blunt in reply. “There is always something new to learn,” she said, “especially in Italian wine.” She took a chance and hired me.

At first, I struggled to grasp the names of impossible-to-pronounce grape varieties: aglianico, falanghina, nerello mascalese and piedirosso. But my break came when the heavily pregnant wine director, Ms Shelley Lindgren, needed help shifting more than a hundred cases of wine. I put myself forward. And so, I became her assistant and she became my mentor. And my knowledge grew – eventually, I assumed the role of associate wine director at A16. As a reward for my many years of work, I was offered the opportunity to work a harvest at the location of my choice. I chose my ancestral home, the place where my great-grandparents had once lived: Sicily. While there, I had the pleasure of meeting a many great Sicilian winemakers and hearing their stories, and discovered how much more there really is to understand about the nation’s wines.

These days, my husband and I live in a tiny village in the serene Italian countryside. At the farm, I help in all capacities, whether in the cellar, the vineyard, the garden or agriturismo, as well as working as an ambassador to the winery and sharing the philosophy of this Italian way of life. Below, then, are some of the lesser known wines that have come to interest me – and, I hope, will interest you, too.

Mr Nico Sciacchitano is the export manager at La Stoppa

Emidio Pepe Pecorino

  • Left: Emidio Pepe, Abruzzo. Photograph courtesy of Emidio Pepe. Right: photograph by Mr Valentin Hennequin

An oft-overlooked variety produced by one of the most historic producers in Italy. The Pepe family is known for the longevity and age-ability of their wines, but only just over a decade ago did they decide to turn the same long-ageing philosophy to pecorino. A wine to return to over the years.

Pairs well with: this pecorino wine works best with the cheese of the same name, especially in a salad with fresh fava beans. An ideal start to most meals.

Radikon Ribolla

  • Left: Radikon, Venezia-Giulia. Photograph by Mr Fabio Rinaldi. Courtesy of Radikon. Right: photograph by Mr Valentin Hennequin

Mr Stanko Radikon was a pioneer of long-macerated white varieties. Ribolla is the coat-of-arms variety for the region, and the Radikon family uses it here to produce a masterful, terroir-driven orange wine.

Pairs well with: almost anything, from fish and meat to notoriously tricky matches such as asparagus and roasted artichokes. One to get you out of a culinary cul-de-sac.  

La Stoppa Ageno

  • Left: La Stoppa, Emilia-Romagna. Photograph courtesy of La Stoppa. Right: photograph by Mr Valentin Hennequin

Another orange wine, produced in Emilia-Romagna from a long maceration of a thick-skinned local varieties (90 per cent malvasia di candia aromatica, 10 per cent ortrugo and trebbiano). While the aroma might lead you to expect something sweet, this has an intensity to rival the most tannic red. Considered a risk when it was first released, this is now considered a benchmark for resurgent orange wine.

Pairs well with: a palate cleanser, that works as well with tacos at Copenhagen’s Hija de Sanchez as it does with pork belly at San Francisco’s Mission Chinese Food.

Occhipinti Siccagno Nero d’Avola

  • Left: Occhipinti, Vittoria, Sicily. Photograph courtesy of Occhipinit. Right: photograph by Mr Valentin Hennequin

Not your everyday clunky fruit bomb, this is a Nero d’Avola produced in Vittoria with minimal intervention and with a finesse and freshness that sets it apart from the rest of its Sicilian counterparts. The producer, Ms Arianna Occhipinti, has worked hard to explore and give value to her unique terroir.

Pairs well with: grilled fattier fish, such as tuna or sardine, marinated in lemon, rosemary and garlic, as is the Sicilian style.


  • Left: Ognostro, Taurasi. Photography courtesy of Ognostro. Right: photograph by Mr Valentin Hennequin

The grapes Mr Marco Tinessa uses to produce this wine are grown from very old vines in the heart of Taurasi before being trucked and boated to Sicily for vinification by cult winemaker Mr Frank Cornelissen at his facility on Mount Etna. A labour of love, but illustrative of the drive required to make something great.

Pairs well with: wood-oven-roasted rabbit with fennel, bitter greens and currants.

Cantina Giardino Nude

  • Left: Cantina Giardino, Campania. Photograph couresy of Cantina Giardino. Right: photograph by Mr Valentin Hennequin

This wine truly opened my eyes to what Campania’s long history of wine production is all about. The name, Nude, says it all. This is a wine made from aglianico grapes with no manipulation, no shortcuts and plenty of patience.

Pairs well with: as they say,  “what grows together, goes together”. In Campania, I once sampled this alongside spit-roasted pig with herbs. Not just any pig, but a smaller local breed that had been recently butchered and roasted over a fire made of old vine wood. The wine’s smoky, rustic undertones with juicy black fruit were singing along with the flame-kissed pork. 

Cristiano Guttarolo Negroamaro

  • Left: Cantine Cristiano Guttarolo, Puglia. Photography courtesy of Cantine Cristiano Guttarolo. Right: photograph by Mr Valentin Hennequin

Primitivo’s counterpart, negroamaro is a tricky variety to work with. In warm-climate winemaking regions, it can be easy to produce a wine with less structure and more fruit. In Puglia, Mr Guttarolo manages to capture the glow of the sun while maintaining acidity, thus producing a well-balanced wine.

Pairs well with: lamb with peppers or any richer dish which has a sweeter element included.

Casa Caterina Franciacorta

  • Left: Casa Caterina, Lombardy. Photograpy courtesy of Casa Caterina. Right: photograph by Mr Valentin Hennequin

Look outside the box for fizz and don’t just settle on prosecco. Lombardy is the Champagne of Italy. The region has long produced great sparkling wines, and this gives most top champagne producers a run for their money.

Pairs well with: oysters, in particular the rock oyster “raveneau” at London’s Noble Rot restaurant.

And one last thing…

Looking for a pinot grigio or chianti from off the beaten track? Try Ms Elisabetta Foradori’s Fuoripista pinot grigio from Trentino, an orange wine fermented on the skins for eight months in amphorae. Or Mr Silvio Messana’s Montesecondo Tïn sangiovese, which is produced near Florence in chianti classico country and also fermented on the skin for 10 months in amphorae.

Stay curious – it will serve you well.

Raise your glass

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