Native Wine Grapes of Italy: Book Review

This is maybe the best wine book in the world at the moment. With one condition.

Let’s admit it, there is a tiny niche of wine drinkers who want to buy a wine book. There’s a small niche of these wine drinkers who buy wine books who particularly love Italian wine. There’s only a percentage of these wine drinkers who buy wine books and particularly love Italian wine who are mainly interested in native grapes from that country.

But if you are one of THESE people, the Native Wine Grapes of Italy by Ian D’Agata could be the best wine book in the world right now.

Native Wine Grapes of Italy by Ian D'Agata

Native Wine Grapes of Italy by Ian D’Agata

This is not to do the book down in the slightest. The book is expertly written and, quite literally, packed with information on hundreds of grape varieties from across the beautiful country of Italy. The author, Ian D’Agata is a world expert who writes for well-respected publications such as Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar and who is obviously passionate about the subject. This book is a true labour of love that is the product of many years of dedicated research and prodigious attention to detail.

What this book is not, in reality, is what Stephen Tanzer himself describes it as in his quoted review; “… a GPS device for finding each variety – from world-renowned to nearly extinct – in its greatest manifestations.” This type of book is to GPS devices what The Complete Oxford English Dictionary is to the tourist’s phrasebook. This book is a detailed, complex reference tome that you will need to keep on hand to better understand what you read and taste, if native Italian wines are your thing. You are unlikely to keep it in your car and carry it to a wine tasting or on holiday.

Navigating the book itself is a little like navigating the Italian wine world. Once you have found what you want, each grape variety entry is presented the same way; with details of Where it’s Found first, with some local history and technical notes on the studies establishing its uniqueness; then a section on Which Wines to Choose and Why to give advice on the styles, and finally a short list of Wines to Try. All this is reasonably clear, but the varieties themselves are actually arranged by family “Group” which might make great sense to someone well versed in Italian grapes and culture, but to an outsider can be rather confusing. Also, since many grapes have multiple synonyms, you need to browse the index to realise in some cases that your grape is listed under a different name. So actually finding what you want in the first instance is not always so easy.

Find the image in these pages

Find the image in these pages

The text throughout is clear and precise, though somewhat technical, but Ian does manage to inject personal experience and preference to the entries making them more readable. However, in the 620 pages of this “grape GPS” there are no images, diagrams or photos, and a solitary map of the entire country (so the book still names a Cartographer, Bill Nelson). Unless you are quite familiar with the regions of Italy, it can be rather difficult to orient yourself around the country with grapes that can pop up in various locations, so have a map or … GPS device to hand!

In the context of the 21st Century’s tools for making complex data and knowledge available to browse, it is both comforting and perplexing that this treasure-trove of expertise should be presented in paper form. I hope there will always be a demand for having a book “to hand” to look up some curious bit of information – if nothing else because we want to believe we can absorb that knowledge by some mysterious process of osmosis from shelf to brain. However, it is also a shame that casual readers will be put off by having to pay £35 (or £21 on Amazon) for the complete book and cannot dip into it through some searchable online format.

Congratulations to Ian D’Agata and to University of California Press for having created this book, and I do hope that all Italian native wine grape drinking book fans go and buy a copy forthwith.

Note: this book was sent to me unsolicited by the publishers for review