What it means to be a “native grape” in Italy: VinItaly’s #VIA USA 2021

VIA USA students July 2021

To be named an Italian Wine Ambassador from Vinitaly International Academy requires a deep level of knowledge. Candidates attend extensive online and in-person classes.

For this COVID pandemic period, instead of meeting in-person as before, course instructors made videos of course materials which were available online. Assignments included reading two books, Ian D’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy and Italian Wine Unplugged: Grape by Grape.

Then students met in San Francisco and in New York City for two days of four hour guided tastings with the exam on the third day.  

To pass requires making a video on a preassigned topic with a group: 

One team member should introduce what we mean by “native grapes” (as defined in Italian Wine Unplugged ), while the remaining members each make their case for why their own personal selection should be Italy’s next rising star.

Here’s my part of our script:

Ciao everyone! 

I’m Gwendolyn Alley of the US Wine Tasting Team. Today we’re considering “native grapes” of Italy with Chris Keel.

Italian wine expert Ian D’Agata in his book Italian Wine Unplugged defines “native grapes” as those “born in a specific place and have remained almost exclusively associated with that location.”

According to D’Agata,  another word for native is autochthonous, deriving from the Greek word “auto” meaning “own” and “khthôn” meaning “earth”. 

So a grape from its “own earth” or its own place on earth,

However, if a variety came from elsewhere, but has been associated with its new home for thousands or even hundreds of years, it can also be considered “native.” 

 D’Agata says that many of the grapes that we think of as Italian natives are actually of Greek or Middle Eastern origin having been brought to Italy by returning Roman legionnaires, seafaring Phoenician traders, and Greek colonists.

So instead of “native” some grapes are merely locals. But these locals have adapted and changed greatly over the years in which they have made mountainous Italy their home. 

Due to a number of factors, including disease and economic pressure, many of these native grapes were forgotten for most of the twentieth century. However, “Passionate estate owners in Italy have always replanted and nurtured vines of rare varieties that they felt were capable of yielding good wines,” writes D’Agata.

With fewer than fifteen wine grape varieties accounting for 90 percent of the wine grapes grown in the United States and France, it’s time to look at Italy’s multitude of native grapes– the most in the world– for new tasting experiences. So what are some of these interesting Italians? 

Today, the US WIne Tasting Team has turned to Chris Keel, a member of the 2021 VinItaly Italian Wine Ambassador Agile course here in San Francisco. We asked him to make a case for his own personal selection of a wine which just might be Italy’s next rising star– and which should show up in the World Blind Wine Tasting Championships scheduled to take place in October 2021 in Chateauneuf du Pape, France where the contest can feature any wine from anywhere in the world. 

In recent years, the competition has included the Italian native red grape Sangiovese from Chianti and corvina from Volpicella. Another well known Italian native red grape you might expect at a blind wine tasting contest would be nebbiolo from Barolo or Barbaresco.

Most people know about these RED grapes of Italy — Sangiovese and Nebbiolo in particular– but they should get to know the WHITE grapes of Italy. And not just Glera, the grape in Prosecco, but other white grapes  like verdicchio aka Trebianno di Soave or my favorite, Turbiana or Trebbiano di Lugana which is made in a variety of styles including wines suitable for aging and sparkling wines made in the traditional method. Other interesting Italians include Albana, grillo, and vermentino. 

Today Chris will introduce us to Fiano, and make a case for why we should all get to know this grape better. 


We hope this has piqued your interest to discover these potential rising stars of Italy for yourself — whether you’re preparing for a blind wine tasting or just looking for a wine to pair with your next meal, check out these interesting Italians!

For the 2.5 hour exam, candidates describe two wines tasted blind using a specific format, respond to 2 short answer questions, and complete 100 multiple choice questions. The pass rate is quite low, and the test is considered one of the hardest.

I’m happy to report that my partner in the video project, (the only other student with me in SF to actually show up for class and take the test) Chris Keel of the wine specialty shop Put a Cork in it in Dallas-Ft Worth passed! Congratulations to Chris!

While I hoped I would pass, I found it difficult to find the time and to concentrate to do the studying required because of several tragedies that struck during the past few days– a friend died, our petsitter got COVID, and our dog died. I also put a ding in our VW van. 

I still learned a lot and found the time invested worthwhile. Chris said he did little else for the past 4 weeks– and that’s how he passed by watching about 50-60 hours of course videos twice, and then studying his notes. 

Congrats to Chris and the other new VINITALY Italian Wine Ambassadors:

Other mentions:
Ambassador with Honors: CIRO PIRONE
Best Video Project: GEMMA RICHARDSON
Best Blind Tasting: CIRO PIRONE
Best Multiple Choice Paper: KEVIN DI LUCENTE
And thanks to The Wine Vault for hosting our taping!
Want to be an Italian Wine Ambassador? Register now — tasting and testing scheduled for September!





2 thoughts on “What it means to be a “native grape” in Italy: VinItaly’s #VIA USA 2021

    • Thanks Marc! And congratulations!! I think we should have done the video one more time when the AC wasn’t running and the bottles weren’t in our faces! And thanks for the compliment. I should have practiced using their format more. Perhaps I’ll switch to it for my tasting notes on my blog.


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