Italy’s Hidden Gems

Italy is the largest wine-producing nation in the world and has 20 wine regions.  Unlike other countries where grape growing is largely restricted to specific geographical areas, Italian wine is produced nearly everywhere from the top of the boot to the tip of the toe. 

Most serious wine drinkers are well acquainted with Tuscany’s Chiantis and Piedmont’s Barolos and Barbarescos. However, with so many wine regions, each having its own unique terroir, and with over a thousand indigenous grapes, there are many great quality, lesser known Italian wines.

The next time you are at your favourite wine store, try a bottle from one of these lesser-known wine regions.


This southern region is referred to as ‘the green lung of Italy’. Historically, the area was known for the bulk wine production of Montepulciano and Trebbiano, but wineries are working on changing that.  There is a native light-skinned white grape varietal called Pecorino, that was once thought to be extinct, but is now gaining popularity thanks to its ability to produce ripe and refreshing wines.       


Calabria, which is situated at the toe of the boot, has been producing wine for more than 2,500 years. It’s best known for a regional style called Ciro Rosso, made from the Gaglioppo grape.  It is a powerful, flavourful red with earthy notes and persistent fragrance.


Located in southern Italy, east of Naples, Campania is primarily home to the Aglianico varietal. It has very high acidity and tannins, similar to Piedmont’s Nebbiolo grape.  Thus, Campania is sometimes referred to as the ‘Nebbiolo of the south’. It produces an earthy, hearty red wine that goes well with fatty meats and spicy sauces, and like its Piedmont counterpart, has tremendous aging potential.


Emilia-Romagna is one of the oldest wine-producing regions and spans most of central Italy. It’s known for Lambrusco, a sparkling red wine made from the grape of the same name. The wine ranges from dry to sweet, depending on the producer. It has high acidity and notes of berry.


Friuli is situated in northeastern Italy between the Alps and the Adriatic Sea.  The region was historically known for its white wines, many of which were created from the area’s Friulano grapes.  However, it is now receiving international attention for its red wines, which are composed of international varietals such as Merlot.

Lake Garda

Lake Garda

Garda, the largest lake in Italy, is in the alpine foothills, midway between Venice and Milan.  There are several small wine regions scattered along its shores, each with its own specialty.  For example, the Bardolino region produces wines from Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella varietals, similar to those grapes of the Valpolicella region.

The Lugana region has developed a reputation for bold complex white wines from locally grown Trebbiano grapes.


The Langhe region is found between the Barolo and Barbaresco appellations in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy.  Just like Barolo and Barbaresco, Langhe makes its most acclaimed wines from local Nebbiolo grapes.


Liguria is in north-west Italy to the south of Piemonte. The eastern half of the region is home to the famous wine-producing Cinque Terre area, while the western side, Riveria Ligure di Ponente, is known for several highly distinctive wines. Rossese is unique, said to be unlike any other Italian red. It’s been likened to both Dolcetto and Valpolicella and yet boasts its own unique complex character.


Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea.  There are several underrated indigenous wine varietals found there such as Vermentino, Cannonau and Mirto. Wines made from the white grape Vermentino are crisp, acidic and fruity.

The island’s dominant red variety is Cannonau, which is very similar to France’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  It has robust fruit and earthy flavours.


Sicily is an island off the coast of the tip of Italy’s boot.  Its finest red wines are made from  Nero d’Avola grapes which grow in arid vineyards and produce rich wines with intense flavour.  Similar to Syrah, it has the ability to produce a hearty, fruity and sometimes tannic wine. There are also reds that are produced from the Nerello Mascalese varietal that create elegant, expressive wines.          


In western Italy, south of Umbria is the town of Taurasi.  The local vineyards contain Aglianico, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese grapes which are Italy’s three most distinguished varieties.


Umbria is located in the middle of central mainland Italy.  It is bordered by Tuscany to the north and west, Marche to the west and Lazio to the south.  According to some experts, Umbria is home to some of the most undervalued wines in Italy, ranging from crisp, dry Grechetto to bold, ruby red Sagrantino.  Sangiovese grapes are also popular in Umbria.

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Springtime Adventure to Italy

During a recent 16-day springtime excursion to Italy as part of a tour group, I discovered passionate people, their food and their wine.  I enjoyed homemade soups, pasta, olives and olive oil, mozzarella and parmigiana reggiano cheese, prosciutto, seafood, pizza, risotto, gelato, tiramisu, limoncello and a variety of amazing coffees.

Aperol Spritz

Italy is the home of the “Dolce Vita” sweet life of physical pleasure and self-indulgence. It has the subliminal charm of fine leathers, renaissance art, classical music and of course, great food and wine.

My wife Valerie and I had the wonderful opportunity to travel by bus through the regions of Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Lazio and Campania where we enjoyed the regional cuisine and wines.

We began our excursion in Veneto, the home of the cities of Venice and Verona where the white sparkling wine Prosecco is enjoyed in numerous cocktails; most notably Aperol Spritz and Bellini.  Aperol Spritz consists of 3 parts Prosecco, 2 parts Aperol and 1 part soda.  It is then garnished with an orange slice before serving.

A classic Bellini consists of 1 1/2 oz. of peach puree, topped off with chilled Prosecco.  It is served in a champagne glass and garnished with a peach slice.  Both drinks are refreshing on a warm sunny day.

The first winery we visited was the Le Fraghe winery near Verona, where we sampled several of their wines. First was Camporengo Garganega, which is straw yellow in colour.  It has a balanced bouquet of floral hints of acacia and mimosa with peach and apple. It has full body flavour.

The second wine, Ròdon Chiaretto di Bardolino, consists of red Corvina and Rondinella grapes. Cherry red with rich purple highlights, Ròdon has fragrant aromas. Notes of wild rose are the first to emerge, followed by nuances of wild strawberry and redcurrant. The wine is crisp and full bodied.  It also had excellent tannins and acidity with a lengthy finish.

Brol Grande Bardolino Classico consists of Corvina and Rondinella grapes.  Brol Grande is a purple-tinged ruby red of medium intensity. Its bouquet is the result of a blend of the fruity essences of sweet-sour cherry and blueberry, along with spicy nuances of cinnamon and black pepper. The one-year barrel time helps the development of the wine. It has a long and slightly salted finish.

All three wines contain Italy’s DOC designation.  They are occasionally available in wine stores in Ontario and Quebec.

Veneto is also the home of Valpolicella and Amarone wines.  Unfortunately we did not have the opportunity to visit one of these wineries.

The second winery we visited was the Fattoria Poggio Alloro winery, in San Gimignano, Tuscany. The name Poggio Alloro means Bay Leaf Hill, and it refers to the bay laurel bushes that grow on the property. The farm is a family business. At the present time it consists of one hundred hectares and it is completely organic. The grape varietals include Vernaccia di San Gimignano (a local grape that grows only in this town), Sangiovese (to produce the famous Chianti wine), Canaiolo, Colorino, Malvasia and Trebbiano, Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot.

We sampled six wines while we were there, three white and three red.  The white wines included Montecarlo Bianco, which is a blend of 50% Vermentino Toscano and the balance consisting of Vermentino, Roussanne, Sauvignon and Pinot Bianco.  This combination produces a light, clear wine with a straw yellow colour. The aroma is delicate while the taste is dry, delicate and well-balanced.  Montecarlo Bianco has the DOC designation.

The second white was Montecarlo Bianco Otium, which consists of 40% Trebbiano Toscano, 20% Vermentino, 20% Roussanne, 10% Sauvignon and 10% Pinot Bianco.  This wine also contained the DOC designation.

The final white was Incantate Bianco IGT Toscana, which was made totally of Chardonnay grapes. The flavour is tropical and the wine is well balanced.

The first red wine presented was Montecarlo Rosso, which was a blend consisting of 60% Sangiovese, Syrah, Canaiolo, Malvasia and Merlot. It is a light red wine with an aroma that is intense, and the taste is delightfully smooth and dry.  It contains the DOC designation.

The second red was Montecarlo Rosso Otium, a DOC designated wine consisting of 50% Sangiovese, 30% Syrah, 10% Cabernet and 10% Merlot.  It was aged in oak barrels for four months.

The final wine was Incantate Rosso Toscana which was a bold and structured blend of 60% Merlot and 40% Syrah.

There are also 1,500 olive trees on the farm that are utilized to produce extra-virgin olive oil. The olives are completely hand picked each November and then cold pressed to guarantee the superior quality of this product.

The final winery that we attended was the Tenuta Torciano winery, also in the San Gimignano area.  The winery provided a wonderful lunch to accompany the wine tasting but unfortunately the staff did not display the labels of the wines or describe the wines in any detail.  The wines are available to be ordered online but they did not say whether any could be purchased from wine stores within Canada.

One wine that we sampled was Tenuta Torciano Baldassarre “IGT Toscana”. This wine is a blend of Sangiovese Grosso, Cabernet and Merlot. It had a deep ruby red colour which transitions to garnet as it ages.  It has an elegant bouquet. Hints of wood can be perceived amidst the typical herbaceous notes. Its flavour is dry, full and smooth.

Chianti Classico “Doge” DOCG red wine is produced with Sangiovese grapes, which are harvested by hand and then aged for 12 months.

Doge is characterized by an intense ruby red color. The nose contains hints of violet, then enriched with nuances of ripe red fruit, licorice and vanilla. The taste is full and harmonious, with soft tannins.

Tenuta Torciano Chianti Classico Riserva “Godenzio” is made from Sangiovese and Canaiolo grapes.  It has a deep ruby red colour with a penetrating bouquet and full and smooth taste.

Overall, many wines produced in Italy are not intended for export but to be consumed as table wine within Italy itself.  These wines are released and drank at a young age, have an abundance of fruit flavour and a slightly lower alcohol level. Examples of these wines include Dolcetto, Montepulciano, Nero d’Avola, Aglianico and Negroamaro.

Unfortunately, being part of a tour, we were at the mercy of the tour company as to which wineries we visited.  On the other hand, we had the opportunity to travel to two cheese factories, a couple of olive farms, a Prosciutto farm and a limoncello producer where we enjoyed experiences we otherwise wouldn’t have.

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Invasive Species in Ontario

The spotted lanternfly is an invasive species from Southeastern Asia that poses a threat to Ontario’s wine-growing industry.  It has been recently detected in New York state, not far from the Niagara wine-growing region.

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According to the Invasive Species Centre, the spotted lanternfly is an invasive plant-hopper native to Southeast Asia. The insect was first detected in Pennsylvania in 2014 and since then has advanced to several other states, including Monroe and Erie Counties of New York, which are very close to the Niagara wine region. It has not yet been detected in Canada, but industry experts say it’s only a matter of time.

The spotted lanternfly has caused a great deal of destruction to grape vines and other tender fruit trees in the United States.  The insect sucks the sap out of grape vines, causing them to collapse.  If left unchecked, the insects could devastate entire vineyards, which would each cost upwards of $45,000 an acre to replant.  It is a much more aggressive pest than previous pests.

A 2019 study completed by Pennsylvania State University estimated that the insect caused between $43 million and $99 million US since being detected.  Although the study also includes nursery operators and Christmas tree growers, researchers noted that grape growers were hit especially hard. Pennsylvania has experienced a loss of between 45% to 100% of wine grape crops. 

Insecticide application in some vineyards and orchards in the affected areas have gone from four applications per season up to 14 applications, increasing industry expenditures and potential negative impact to the environment.

Early detection will be the key to mitigating the damage caused by the spotted lanternfly.  It’s easier to control and a lot less expensive at the prevention stage.  At the management stage it has proven to be very difficult to control and eradicate.

An adult spotted lanternfly can be identified by its black and grey spots and bright red underwing.  Their wings are about 2 centimetres or 1 inch long.  They will often be found clustered together on a tree.

The eggs are brown, seed-like, covered in a grey, mud-coloured secretion.  They will be grouped together in a vertical formation, usually found on trees, but can be laid on any surface, including cars.

The nymphs grow in four stages, starting out with black and white spots but as they mature they gain red spots with distinctive patches of black and white.

Spotted lanternflies spread into new environments in two ways. They are not strong flyers but are able to cling well to a variety of surfaces. They will hold on to people and vehicles who move through heavily infested areas. Their eggs masses are very difficult to spot and can be laid on almost any material, including stone, cut logs, Christmas trees, rusty metal, boats or grills. Egg masses are laid on an object then covered by a shiny, grey, putty-like material that darkens and turns brittle overtime.

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs is currently surveying for spotted lanternflies in high-risk areas to assist with early detection.  However, we can all help prevent the spread of spotted lanternfly by buying and burning local firewood, checking ourselves and our belongings thoroughly after visiting an infested area, and watching for egg masses especially during the winter.  If spotted, take photos, note the location, and report the sighting to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

The pending invasion of the spotted lanternfly is an example of a larger problem linked to climate change.  The longer growing season and more temperate winters caused by rising temperatures are allowing more invasive species to spread into the region and to live longer.

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Peated Whisky

Though popular with many enthusiasts today, peated whisky hasn’t always been. Rich and full of deep, smoky flavours, it is very complex. Admittedly, peated whisky is an acquired taste, but for those of us who enjoy its earthy tone and charred smoky taste, it is divine.

The intensity and flavour vary greatly depending on the region. Generally, the flavour covers a broad range, including intense aromas and flavours of sulfur, saline, diesel, leather, meat, moss, pine and charred wood.

Peat consists of a mixture of decayed vegetation that has developed over thousands of years.  It is commonly found in swamps and bogs.  It has a high carbon content which is why it has historically been used as a fossil fuel.

Scotland has a large, accessible quantity of peat which was used to fuel the nation’s distilleries, which initially used it to fire pot stills.  However, today peat is used less for fuel and more for flavour. The peaty, smokiness infuses the whisky during the malting stage of production. Barley is dried using a peat-fired kiln to end the malting process. Flavours from the peated smoke seep into the grain and then carry through mashing, fermentation and distillation, to maturation and finally into the bottle.

Peated whisky in Scotland varies by region.  In The Highlands, peated whiskies are the minority even though it is the largest whisky region. Some peated variations to try from this region are Oban 14 and several styles from Highland Park.

The Speyside region is home to over half of the active distilleries in Scotland. Whiskies from this area tend to have fruit-forward flavours with only scents of smoke. BenRiach The Smoky Twelve offers a subtle smokiness.

In Campbeltown, peated whiskies tend to have a delicate smoke profile, with subtle mineral notes and robust character.

Islay is where the majority of peated whisky is made. Islay is the largest of the Hebridean Islands. It is home to nine working distilleries and is among the most recognizable locations for peated whisky in the world.  Legacy brands such as Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, and Bowmore are all on Islay. Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg are collectively known as the Kildalton Distilleries because of their adjacent locations. The famed Islay distilleries produce some of the most heavily peated whiskies in the world, including Laphroaig and Octomore by Bruichladdich.

The level of peat in a whisky is measured in phenol parts per million (ppm). Most whiskies will be categorized in one of the following styles: lightly peated, measuring 15 ppm or less; mildly peated, averaging around the 20 ppm range; and heavily peated, a level of 30 ppm and above. Knowing the ppm of your whisky options can help you determine how smoky the flavour may be.

In recent years a couple of distilleries have been experimenting with making even smokier whiskies.  Most notable of these are Bruichladdich and Ardbeg.  They have created whiskies with PPM levels in excess of 100.

The aging process impacts the smokiness of the whisky.  The longer the aging period the more the intensity of the smokiness decreases.

So, in the world of peat, let’s see how the various whiskies compare:

  • Talisker (30 PPM)
  • Bruichladdich’s Port Charlotte (40 PPM)
  • Bowmore (40 to 50 PPM)
  • Caol Ila (40 to 50 PPM)
  • Lagavulin (40 to 50 PPM)
  • Laphroaig (40 to 50 PPM)
  • Kilchoman (50 PPM)
  • Ardbeg (55 PPM)
  • Bruichladdich’s Octomore (80+ PPM)
  • Ardbeg’s Supernova (100 PPM)

Over the years I have sampled all but Talisker, Port Charlotte, Kilchoman, and the two with PPM in excess of 80.  Bowmore and Lagavulin are my personal favourites but my brother tells me Port Charlotte is also well worth trying.

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