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Italian Expert Recommends Grape Varieties for California


Plymouth, Calif.—After touring Sierra Nevada foothills vineyards in El Dorado and Amador Counties and sharing information with growers on viticultural practices for Italian winegrape varieties, Professor Vittorino Novello of the University of Turin, Italy, suggested seven Italian varieties for growers to try that he believes offer potential for quality production in California

Novello, professor in the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Science at the University of Turin, is a well-respected viticulturist in Italy and worldwide. He has visited and studied winegrape growing regions throughout the world and lectured at many international conferences. In addition to expertise on Italian winegrape varieties, he is knowledgeable about high altitude and hillside viticulture. He lectured in 2007 at “The Elevation of Wine” conference presented by the Lake County Winegrape Commission, and in 2010 at the Unified Symposium in Sacramento, Calif., where he delivered a presentation on “Wine Growing on the Edge.”

Related: Read about our choices for Italian Wines in California

In El Dorado County, varieties seen and vineyards visited included: Aglianico at Arrastra Vineyards, white varieties Fiano and Arneis at Camino Alto Vineyard, Nebbiolo produced at Suma Kaw Vineyard for Madrona Vineyards, and Barbera and Dolcetto grown at Naylor Vineyards in Fairplay.

In Amador County, varieties seen and vineyards visited included: the white variety Vermentino at Casino Mine Vineyard; Barbera at Cooper Vineyards; Sangiovese and Barbera at Vino Noceto Winery; and Primitivo, Barbera, and Greco di Tufo grown at Shake Ridge Vineyards.

Overall, Novello said he was impressed with the growers’ knowledge of viticulture and their experience in producing these varieties. In some locations, given the vigorous nature of some Italian varieties, he thought the grapevine canopies were too small in relation to the yields being sought and obtained. In Italy, a rule of thumb is to have a vine canopy with 1 square meter of leaf area for every 1 kilogram of grape yield at harvest.

Novello presented a list of five red varieties and two white varieties that he thinks could be well suited to California growing conditions. Some of these currently grow well in warm and dry climates in Italy, and some he selected because they are increasing in importance in Italy.


A cross developed in 1938 originally meant to combine Barbera and Nebbiolo, but DNA profiling in 2009 revealed the Nebbiolo parent was actually Chatus, an obscure variety associated with the Ardeche region of the Rhône Valley in France. Albarossa is growing in importance and popularity in Italy, planted in the Piedmont (Piemonte) region. It grows with medium vigor, has medium to small clusters, and produces higher and consistent yields. It needs good exposure and is commonly grown on hillsides. It produces wines with good alcohol and acidity, and is valued for its high anthocyanin (color) content, but with less tannin (lower bitterness and astringency) than Nebbiolo.


A medium to high vigor red variety that is increasing in interest and in plantings across several regions in Italy. It has good yield potential of 10-15 tons/hectare with medium clusters. Produces wines with good alcohol, good acidity and good phenolic content and can be made in a range of styles—rosé, lighter-bodied red wine, or full-bodied red wine for aging. (Montepulciano has been grown in California in recent years with 108 acres planted statewide based on the National Agricultural Statistics Service 2015 California Grape Acreage Report. Small production lots of Montepulciano varietal wine is being produced from vineyards in the Sierra Foothills, Lodi, Mendocino County and other locations.)

Negroamaro (Negro Amaro)

The main grape of the Apulia (Puglia) region, it tends to have vigorous growth with medium compact clusters. Older vineyards are on head-trained vines and newer vineyards are planted on vertical trellises. It can produce 12-13 tons/hectare, and it does well in warm, arid climates. Produces wines with good alcohol and acidity, low pH and high phenolic content. Can be made in a range of styles–dry rosé, medium-bodied dry wine, and full-bodied wine suitable for aging.

Nero d’Avola (Calabrese)

Novello called it “the king of Sicily” where it grows well in warm, arid locations and is becoming very popular with increased plantings. Five different “biotypes” or selections are grown that display variability in cluster shapes and berry size. Vine g rowth is vigorous with medium clusters. It can be grown head-trained and spur-pruned, and can also be vertically trellised and spur-pruned. Produces well-balanced wines with good alcohol and acidity and good phenolic content. Can be used for rosé, or full-bodied wines for aging.

Nero di Troia (Uva di Troia)

Grown in Puglia and is increasing in popularity. Vines have good vigor producing medium clusters and medium yields. It needs good exposure and is commonly planted on hillsides. Produces red wines with good alcohol, medium acidity, and good phenolic content with good anthocyanins but less tannin.

Inzolia (Ansonica)

One of the oldest white grapes grown in Sicily. Vines have high vigor and high yields. It has lower acidity and is often used in white wine blends to provide its characteristic perfume aroma, elegance, and golden yellow color.

Zibibbo (Muscat of Alexandria)

A white variety grown in Sicily that belongs to the Muscat family. Grown in a number of countries as Muscat of Alexandria, it has a wide range of uses for still, sparkling and dessert wines, and as a table and raisin grape variety. Vines have medium vigor, medium productivity and the variety is slightly resistant to mildew. In Italy its grapes are commonly dried after harvest and used to make “Passito” dessert wine.

Related: Italy Wine Geographic

Currently, selections of Montepulciano, Negro Amaro, and Nero d’Avola are registered at the University of California, Davis Foundation Plant Services (FPS) and available from several American grapevine nurseries. Muscat of Alexandria selections are registered at FPS and available from several nurseries. FPS has a selection of Ansonica that is being cleaned up to become a registered selection. Albarossa and Nero di Troia are not currently registered at FPS. Novello said additional information about Italian varieties can be found on the Italian Vitis Database at

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