Posted on | April 22, 2015
Written by | Ed McCarthy
Beyond the big two, Italian white wines are primed to charm Americans.
Thirty years ago, what American could have written a column about quality Italian white wines? Italy was red wine country. The bianchi that got exported were almost exclusively mass-produced. But three years ago, something happened that I thought I would never see: For the first time, Italian whites outsold Italian reds, led, of course, by the two wines have totally changed the Italian wine picture in the U.S.—Pinot Grigio and Prosecco.
Those two wines have effectively become household names, and Italian whites continued to outsell its reds in America in 2012 and 2013.
Pinot Grigio and Prosecco share mainstream appeal and relative affordability, with plenty of product arriving stateside to quench the masses’ thirst. The point right now, though, is not to praise Pinot Grigio and Prosecco so much for what they are, but for what they have done: These two popular wines have made everyone in the trade aware of the simple fact that Italian white wines sell.
Today, the bianchi of Italy from top to toe deserve even more attention from the trade. Most of Italy’s quality whites come from its three cooler regions in Northeastern Italy, all of which produce more white wines than red—Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige and the Veneto—although a sprinkling of good white wines are also made in the predominantly red wine regions throughout the rest of Italy, as far south as Sicily. Here is a guide to some of the most promising under-the-radar regions and grapes.
Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Where Ribolla Gialla Thrives
Friuli, as the region is commonly called, is probably Italy’s finest white wine region, especially the wines from its sub-regions in eastern Friuli—Collio and Colli Orientali. Friulano is its best-known grape made as a varietal wine; Malvasia Istriana is also an excellent white varietal wine here. But one of my favorites in all of Italy is Friuli’s Ribolla Gialla.
Typically yellow-gold in color (the word “Gialla” is Italian for yellow), wines made from the Ribolla Gialla variety are very dry and almost always unoaked, with floral and citrus aromas, and include a stony character; they have high acidity and are intensely flavored. I highly recommend Ronchi di Cialla’s Ribolla Gialla (SRP about $20), though it can be hard to find. Jermann is another excellent producer. Some other labels with wider distribution include Angoris, Poggiobello, Conte d’Attimis-Maniago, Puiatti, Marco Felluga and Bortoluzzi. The wines of Josko Gravner (retailing in the $80-$90 range) are a special treat.
Alto Adige: Two Germanic Stars
Picturesque Alto Adige is the northern part of Trentino-Alto Adige, dominated by the majestic Dolomite Mountains. This region vies with Friuli for being the home of Italy’s best white wines. German is the leading language spoken in Alto Adige, because this region was once a part of Austria, but was ceded to Italy after World War I. The two underrated white-varietal stars in Alto Adige are both Germanic in origin: Kerner and Müller-Thurgau.
Abbazia di Novacella—the most northern winery in Italy, in the Valle Isarco—is a working Augustinian Monastery and a popular tourist visit with its beautiful medieval library. The Abbazia also makes superb white wines. The 2013 Abbazia di Novacella Kerner is generally available in the U.S., and retails for $20. This Kerner is dry, viscous, medium-to full-bodied, intensely flavorful and delicious.
Müller-Thurgau, another German variety that performs better in Alto Adige than in its home country, makes excellent, relatively inexpensive ($15-$20) wines in the Valle Isarco. The best Müller-Thurgau comes from the J. Tiefenbrunner; this winery’s old-vine, high-altitude, Müller-Thurgau from the Feldmarschall Vineyard is world-class, with great concentration. Considering its quality, it is not that expensive (the 2012 vintage retails for about $35), but it can be difficult to find as only limited quantities come into the U.S. Feldmarschall is at its best with about five years of aging, according to owner-winemaker Christof Tiefenbrunner.
Veneto – Soave is back
Veneto makes more white wine than any other region in Italy. Its most renowned white wine, Soave, was one of the wines mass-produced (and often not sourced from the best areas) in the decades following World War II.
Although Soave, made from the local Garganega grape variety, is a well-known white wine, I include it here because it’s less-known that Soave has a new face. The region and the wine have gone through a renaissance in the past 15 years, and about a half dozen Soave producers are now top-notch. The two best, in my opinion, are Gini and the better-known Pieropan. The 2013 Gini Soave (SRP $15-$18) is very dry and fresh, with lots of character. Inama, Pra and Suavia are other good producers.
Upstarts from the East Coast
On Italy’s Adriatic (eastern) coast, the two regions of Marche and Abruzzo offer some quality white wines. Marche is the home of Verdicchio, a varietal white wine that, like Soave, has been imported into the U.S. since the 1950s. Except that it is much better made now. If your memory of Verdicchio was that of an innocuous, over-produced wine, try it now. My favorite is Villa Bucci. Try the 2012 Villa Bucci dei Castelli di Jesi (retails for $20); it is dry, elegant more than powerful, with notes of lemon and bitter almonds. The older Villa Bucci Riservas made from 50 year-old vines, such as 2004 and 2010, are even better and complexly flavored, but can cost up to $45. It took a producer such as Ampelio Bucci to make us realize that wines made from the Verdicchio grape age well.
Abruzzo—typically thought of as a stronghold of red wine, with its prolific Montepulciano d’Abruzzo—also happens to be the home of one of Italy’s greatest producers, Valentini. Edoardo Valentini was known as “Lord of the Vines” because he was able to raise the quality of Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo to unheard of heights. The Trebbiano white grape variety typically makes very ordinary wines. Valentini, using a small percentage of his best grapes, each year managed to make a magisterial wine from Trebbiano grapes, dry, with crisp acidity, and a depth of flavor that was amazing. And his wines last for decades! Valentini’s son, Paolo Francesco, who worked side by side with his father, has carried on nobly since Edoardo’s death in 2006 and has maintained the high standards for Valentini Trebbiano d’Abruzzo.
Cataldi Madonna is another fine Abruzzo producer who happens to make an excellent varietal Pecorino. An old white variety brought back from anonymity by Luigi Cataldi Madonna, Pecorino thrives in Marche and Abruzzo, and is becoming more and more popular here. The 2012 Cataldi Madonna Pecorino (SRP about $20) is arguably Italy’s finest Pecorino.
Focus on Fiano in Campania
Campania is equally known for fine red and white wines. Nestled between Naples and Mt. Vesuvius, Campania is receiving more attention lately as consumers discover the treasures of southern Italy. For me, Fiano di Avellino is Campania’s finest white variety, although Greco di Tufo and Falanghina have their fans. The terroir around the town of Avellino, with its mineral-rich, volcanic soil, yields Fiano’s finest wines. In the glass, the wine has classic floral notes and hints of hazelnuts, along with lively acidity; it is best served slightly cool, not cold, to bring out its flavors.
The three producers best-known for Fiano di Avellino are Feudi di San Gregorio, Mastroberardino (“Radichi”) and Terradora (“Terre di Dora”). Lately, less-known Fiano di Avellino wines are getting attention. Two in particular are Ciro Picariello Fiano di Avellino (slightly more expensive at about $25 retail, but with excellent viscosity and intensity) and Clelia Romano’s Colli di Lapio. (Fiano is also an up-and-coming white variety in Sicily; Planeta’s “Cometa”
is very good.)
Carricante: in the Shadow of Mt. Etna
Sicily’s Mt. Etna region is booming; it has become a hotbed of fine wines, both red and white, with its grapes growing on the volcanic slopes of its namesake mountain. The Carricante grape variety, growing on the higher slopes, is becoming renowned as one of Italy’s best white varieties. Benanti has been making Carricante’s best expression, “Pietramarina” Etna Bianco Superiore, since 1991. While Benanti recently lost its star winemaker, Salvo Foti, who is now making his own Carricante-based Etna Bianco, every vintage of “Pietramarina” I have tasted has been amazing—naturally high in acidity, with all kinds of citrus notes, lemon, lime, grapefruit and/or orange, with touches of anise or mint.
With complexity like that in the glass, it is an exciting time for Italy’s less-known white wines, which are bound to become better known in a short time.