On the heels of Pinot Grigio’s surging popularity should come a wave of enthusiasm toward Italy’s huge array of other light, refreshing whites. But that’s not happening. Instead, many Italian charmers remain undersung and undervalued. They are, in many ways, some of the wine world’s best-kept secrets.
Classic Italian whites fly under the radar for a few reasons. They don’t come with immediately recognizable grape varieties, such as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, scrawled on labels. And when the grapes are named, they’re often obscure, indigenous ones; think Arneis, Grillo and Greco. Even less helpful, many of the wines are named after coin-sized places on the map, such as Orvieto or Gavi, with no mention of grape varieties at all.
Of course, naming a wine by its place of origin didn’t stop Montrachet and Condrieu from gaining stature. But unlike those celebrated French wines, most Italian whites aren’t high-priced, highbrow, or fancy. They’re not bejewelled with mindboggling complexity. Frankly, they aren’t even capable of upstaging a good meal much of the time. So they’re not well positioned to take the world by storm. Instead, they’re designed to be accompaniments, to season meals and moments — and take both up a notch. And in this role, they excel.
Let’s take a look at a few of these under-priced little gems, starting with an Italian white that’s improved dramatically in the last decade: Soave.
So, here’s the dirt. Soave suffers from an image problem based on years of producing dilute, sweetish, mediocre plonk. But recently, it has improved considerably, and today is one of Italy’s most compelling pours. At best, it is incredibly mineral and similar to good quality Chablis at a snip of the price.
Soave, made in Veneto, blends at least 70 per cent Garganega with up to 30 per cent Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc or Trebbiano di Soave. The Garganega imparts an attractive mineral-white pepper complexity to the other more neutral varieties. And because the wine is usually vinified in stainless steel, the results can be very fetching — a pure kiss of refreshment.
Pieropan Soave Classico 2009 ($20)
This entry-level wine from Pieropan, the leading Soave producer, blends 85% Garganega with 15% Trebbiano. It teems with stony minerality, smoky-spicy nuances and taut acidity. Great light bodied wonder with a lean 12% alcohol.
Food pairing: mushroom salad.
Pieropan Soave La Rocca DOC 2009 ($42)
This pure Garganega is a cult favourite among wine professionals. Optimal site selection and meticulous attention to detail in the vineyard and winery — including aging on the lees and in barrel — produces a wine that tastes of fruit, nuts, spice and vanilla without compromising elegance. Medium-bodied with 13% alcohol.
Food pairing: ricotta cannelloni.
Like Soave, Gavi suffers from a bit of a tarnished reputation from a few decades of flooding the market with bland wines. But recent years have seen significant quality improvement.
This crisp, clean wine is named after the town in the centre of its production zone, Gavi, in Piedmont. It’s made from the Cortese grape which, like Pinot Grigio, produces a wine that’s light and versatile, not often oaked, and quite crisp. But unlike neutral lemony-fresh Pinot Grigio, well-made Gavi tends toward pear and grapefruit, with some mineral depth and often a bitter tug of green olive on the finish.
Beni di Batasiolo Granée Gavi Del Commune di Gavi 2008 ($18)
This wine starts with subdued lime aromas before racing across the palate with zesty lemon-lime flavours edged with pink grapefruit zest and sun-warmed stone. Light-bodied.
Food pairing: grilled calamari.
Orvieto is a delicate wine style from the region of the same name in Umbria. It blends Trebbiano and Grechetto grapes, seasoned with Verdello, Drupeggio and/or Malvasia. The better wines tend to have higher proportions of Grechetto, which is a more characterful variety than the relatively bland Trebbiano. Frankly, Orvieto has all the freshness and lightness of a Pinot Grigio, but boasts a bit more flair.
Ruffino Orvieto Classico 2009 ($11)
This light-bodied, affable wine starts with fresh flavours of apple, lemon and white flowers before revealing a faint sprinkle of white pepper followed by a fresh Bartlett pear finish.
Food pairing: smoked salmon.
Verdicchio has been produced for eons on the eastern seaboard of Italy, poured locally with the fish and seafood caught off the coast of Marches. It’s a restrained, delicate wine that ranges from super-lean when grown inland — and labelled Verdicchio di Matelica — to a bit rounder when grown near the coast and labelled Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi. Both wine styles share a characteristic lemony crispness and a final note of palate-cleansing bitter almond. And for trivia’s sake, the name, Verdicchio, comes from the word “verde,” which means green and refers to the wine’s slight greenish hue.
Macrina Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore 2008 ($17)
Clean, attractive wine with aromas and flavours of smoked almond, minerals and sea spray. Perfect match with fried, or even grilled, fish and seafood. Impressively, drinks well even with three years of bottle age. Medium-bodied.
Food pairing: anchovy fritters.
Fazi Battaglia Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico 2009 ($10)
Lemon sorbet aromas lead to a bright zip of lemon-lime sherbet followed by a final note of bitter almond. Well balanced, good value quaff.
Food pairing: sautéed prawns.
Unlike Soave, Gavi, Orvieto, Verdicchio, and of course, Pinot Grigio, Arneis — from Piedmont — is a bit less restrained. Named after the grape from which it’s made, the wine can be intriguingly flavourful with a firm core of peachy-pear fruit laced with herbaciousness. The only drawback is that Arneis can tend to be flabby — or lack acidity — when the grapes are plucked too ripe. In fact, the name Arneis actually translates to “little rascal” because it’s a challenging variety to grow. It does attract loyal followers, though, with some fans calling the variety Barolo Bianco, linking it to the famous noble red of the region.
Gigi Rosso Roero Arneis 2009 ($19)
One big lick of grapefruit and dried herbs. Well-balanced, light-bodied, and versatile.
Food pairing: grilled halibut.
Cordero di Montezemolo Arneis 2009 ($20)
This savoury wine would set off many Italian dishes. Aromas of mixed citrus and herbs lead to flavours of grapefruit laced with white pepper and bitter greens. Killer wine. Medium-bodied with 13% alcohol.
Food pairing: spaghetti with parsley and mussels.
Like Arneis, Fiano is a relatively flavourful wine. And the Fiano grape from which it’s made tends to taste of toasted hazelnut, citrus, damp herbs and often a certain salty-savouriness. From Campagnia, Fiano’s best expressions come from a little area called Avellino, and can actually develop for years in bottle, taking on layers of honeyed, nutty goodness.
Terredora Campore Fiano di Avellino 2008 ($29)
An excellent example of the richness this style can deliver. Scoring 91 points in Wine Spectator, this wine teems with robust flavours of citrus, nuts and melon shot through with bright lemon-lime.
Food pairing: roast chicken.
Grillo is a Sicilian grape variety that, like Chardonnay, tends to taste of mixed citrus fruit and responds well to oak. Its tight seam of acidity makes for a refreshing sipper when vinified dry. But Grillo also forms the base wine for Marsala, the well-known sweet fortified wine.
Eres Favula Grillo Sicilia 2009 ($13)
Tantalizing aromas of warm roasted nuts sprinkled with clove and nutmeg. Then, on the palate, a quick whip of lemony freshness lashes the palate before the nutty-spiciness shows through toward the elongated finish. Medium-bodied with 13% alcohol.
Food pairing: butternut squash soup or ravioli.
greco di tufo
To me, this story wouldn’t be complete without mention of Greco di Tufo — a favourite Italian white of mine. Greco is the grape, which is grown around the village of Tufo in Campagnia. The wine ranges from light- to full-bodied while retaining a certain restraint, silky texture and taut acidity. Flavours range from citrus and peach to aniseed, nuts and minerals. But sadly, it’s not easy to find on shelves due to low production volumes, low profile and the fact that it’s mostly consumed locally rather than broadly exported. But if you come across it, taste it.
Cantine Manimuci Impeto Greco di Tufo 2009 ($14)
Invigorating lemon puree on the nose. Lovely white peach fruit with a tight citric zing, and satisfying steeliness on the finish. Silky smooth with great poise and purity of fruit. Light- to medium-bodied.
Food pairing: sole in a cream sauce.
Named for the grape from which it’s made, Vermentino is a fruity, aromatic and lively wine. It’s often quite concentrated and intense with typical notes of citrus, herbs and almond. In Italy, Vermentino hails from Sardinia, Liguria and Corsica.
Vermentino di Sardegna Tyrsos Contini 2009 ($14)
Orange and lemon oil on the nose leads to a broad but bracing palate of mixed citrus, white peach and pear. Gloriously juicy fruit anchored by piercing, plunging acidity. Tinglingly fresh with a slight bitter twist on the finish.
Food pairing: antipasti.
Prosecco, that pear-scented bubbly from the Veneto, is no longer simply cheap and cheerful fizz. It can actually be quite elegant, dry, and serious due to a huge milestone that took place last April. Conegliano Valdobbiadene — the centre of the Prosecco region — has just been elevated to DOCG status, meaning Prosecco made in this zone is held to the highest possible quality standards. This change had a domino effect too; Prosecco previously sold as IGT from surrounding areas were raised to DOC status from this development, requiring the wines to meet tighter quality regulations such as lower yields of fruit per vine.
And you’ll be pleased to know Prosecco is trending toward less residual sugar. How do you know if the Prosecco will be dry? It’s on the label. Brut is driest (0-15 g/l of sugar), followed by Extra Dry (12-20g/l), and Dry (17-35g/l) — so dry is actually quite sweet. That said, a well-made Extra Dry should always be balanced with enough acidity to actually finish clean and dry.
Val D’Oca Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Extra Dry NV ($14)
Attractive flavours of pear and peach with a hint of wet stone. Round with a hint of sweetness but finishes dry. Light-bodied with 11.5% alcohol.
Food pairing: prosciutto.
Santa Margherita Prosecco Superiore Brut Valdobbiadene ($18)
A powdery, talc-like character underpinning flavours and aromas of lemon zest, Bosc pear and cashew. Bracing acidity. Finishes dry. Quite restrained and elegant. Food pairing: roasted, salted nuts.
Franciacorta, a wine very similar to Champagne, only made in Lombardi, is probably Italy’s most undervalued wine.” Think of it as Champagne’s sassy Italian cousin. Like its French relative, it blends Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but instead of seasoning the mix with Pinot Meurnier, it blends in Pinot Bianco and Pinot Gris. Both Champagne and Franciacorta undergo their second fermentation in bottle, which makes for optimal complexity, elegance and finesse — as well as the finest bubbles.
Bellavista Brut Cuvée Franciacorta NV ($36)
Hailing from one of the most prestigious estates of the region, this wine blends 90% Chardonnay with 10% Pinot Bianco and Pinot Nero. The result is an inviting, seductive wine with focused, finely tuned flavours of cooked apple, white flowers, warm pastry and a hint of creamy vanilla.
Food pairing: oysters.