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Wednesday, 08 September 2021 14:28

Trebbiano: The Most Perplexing Nine Letters in Italian Wine?

Written by Kevin Day
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When you think of Italy’s vast array of wine grapes, which one comes to mind as the most difficult to study? Maybe Nebbiolo, for its seemingly endless site-specific details? Or Sangiovese, simply because there is so much of it, in so many different forms? I would posit that Trebbiano is perhaps the most perplexing. For one, Trebbiano grapes appear in vineyards across the Italian peninsula. In the case of Trebbiano Toscano and Trebbiano Romagnolo, they are among the most widely planted white wine grapes in Italy. The potential for variability is astounding.

Secondly, and perhaps more to the point, true varietal Trebbiano wines are rare, as the grape is often blended or — in places like Emilia-Romagna, Lazio and Abruzzo — not even properly identified and categorized. Only recently have genetic studies begun to iron out the relations among these grapes, so it is not uncommon that vineyards could be co-planted with different varieties all together. Another possibility: a winemaker may have been told they have Trebbiano Abruzzese in their vineyard, for example, when in fact it is Trebbiano Toscano. While this confusion is not entirely common, it is persistent.

A Grape or a Grape Family?

But before we go any further, let’s pin down what is meant by Trebbiano, because even this simple baseline has been hotly debated for years. 

Trebbiano references a group of grapes that yield dry white wines as well as delicious sweet dessert wines. Their commonality in appearance (e.g. white berries, long bunches) and performance (e.g. higher yields and versatility to soil types) likely accounts for the common name. But after that, they can be startlingly different in the glass. The finest examples of Trebbiano d’Abruzzo (the DOC, not the grape, which is called Trebbiano Abruzzese) can be among Italy’s greatest white wines. Mass-produced versions of Trebbiano Toscano can feel threadbare and anemic. Furthermore, just because it carries the name Trebbiano doesn’t mean it is even genetically related to other Trebbiano grapes (see Trebbiano di Soave below).

I like to think of the Trebbianos not as a family but a cast of characters in an unevenly produced theater production. You might have a few thespians in the bunch capable of rich character and nuance; or you might have a few examples that struggle to convince you of anything authentic. Success with Trebbiano often comes down to the specific variety, where it is grown and the disease pressure it encounters, and, most importantly, how it is handled by the winemaker. 

So let’s take a look at the Trebbiano grape varieties you are most likely to encounter in your studies, and try to sort out some of the more confusing details.

Trebbiano Toscano

The most common Trebbiano in the world is also known by its French name, Ugni Blanc — which is the core grape behind Cognac. In Italy, Trebbiano Toscano reigns as one of the most widely planted white grapes, thanks to its easy-to-grow versatility and high yields. But that reputation has a flipside: the resulting wines are often pale, dilute and uninteresting. 

Where Trebbiano Toscano is most valued is in blends, both in dry white wines where it can provide much-needed acidity, and in Tuscany’s world-class vin santo wines, where its zippy acidity balances Malvasia Bianca Lunga’s richness and plush texture. For decades, even the red wines of Chianti were required to contain white varieties, with Trebbiano Toscano being heavily favored. Many producers (as well as critics and consumers) believed this held back the quality potential of the wines and it is perhaps no coincidence that once Trebbiano Toscano was ditched from the mandate, Chianti wines increased in quality.

Beyond Tuscany, Trebbiano Toscano is widely planted in Emilia-Romagna, Umbria, Abruzzo and Lazio.

Trebbiano Abruzzese

As we often find when studying Italian wine: the more mountainous the landscape, the higher the potential for mystery! Such is the case with Abruzzo’s high-quality Trebbiano Abruzzese, whose total plantings in the undulating highlands of Abruzzo are still not fully accounted for. This is in part because its vines are often confused with Bambino Bianco, Trebbiano Toscano and even Passerina. 

Secondly, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo (a DOC-level wine) must be 85% Trebbiano Abruzzese, Trebbiano Toscano and/or Bambino Bianco. The “or” in this blend is crucial, as it affords a lot of wiggle room for winemakers, and little incentive to differentiate among the grapes. 

But thanks to a handful of producers such as Emidio Pepe, Valentini and, in particular, Tiberio, we are learning a lot more about Trebbiano Abruzzese. Particularly, that it makes some of Italy’s most fascinating, textural and age-worthy dry white wines.

In his tome Native Wine Grapes of Italy, wine writer Ian d’Agata notes that Trebbiano Abruzzese demands precision of timing with harvest: the grapes quickly drop acidity when they over ripen. Furthermore, he adds, the must oxidizes easily, something that modern winemaking techniques have helped to correct, and which — in part — has led to a renaissance for this variety. 

Trebbiano Spoletino

Trebbiano Spoletino is likely an Umbrian original, even if its exact origin is not fully known. Grown almost entirely around Montefalco and Spoleto, the grape saw a renaissance of sorts in the early 2000s thanks to the work of Cantina Novelli, who began giving the grape the attention it deserved and by producing a compelling varietal version that encouraged other Umbrian wineries to produce their own. 

Trebbiano Spoletino boasts more richness than Trebbiano Toscano, as well as a tendency for heightened aromatics that sometimes resemble those of Sauvignon Blanc. 

Trebbiano di Soave

This “Trebbiano” grape can be used as a blending variety in the wines of Soave, serving a minority role (no more than 30%). However, what really needs to be said here is that Trebbiano di Soave is in fact genetically identical to Verdicchio — the same grape that hallmarks many of Le Marche’s (and Italy’s) greatest white wines. 

Verdicchio is not a member of the Trebbiano family, so the localized name for it in Veneto is misleading. Nonetheless, it is a persistent name and one to watch for when studying Veneto’s wines.

Other Trebbiano Grapes

There is abundance of other Trebbiano grapes found across Italy, but monovarietal bottlings are very rare. The roster includes Trebbiano Giallo (from Lazio; a blending grape allowed in the Frascati DOC and Frascati Superiore DOCG), Trebbiano Romagnolo (blended into many white wines in the Emilia-Romagna region) and Trebbiano di Spagna, which is also called Trebbianina. This last grape is used in many generic IGT white wines in Emilia-Romagna, as well as for balsamic vinegar production.

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Kevin Day

Kevin Day is an Italian Wine Scholar™ with Highest Honors, and the editor-in-chief of the popular online wine magazine Opening a Bottle. In 2019, he was shortlisted for the Louis Roederer International Wine Writer’s Award in the category of Emerging Wine Writer. He lives in Denver, Colorado.

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