Italian White Wines Other than Pinot Grigio

By Al Dereu

"water, water, everywhere, and all the boards did shrink
water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink…"—S.T.C.

The most popular of dry Italian white wines in this country—by far, I might add—is Pinot Grigio. Its quaffable character makes it a natural choice for the dinner table, especially in warm weather. Its delicate citrus accents and palate-cleansing acidity make it easy to like; it is as user-friendly as it is available and affordable. But perhaps Pinot Grigio best serves as a "gateway wine," opening the door to other—and in my humble opinion, more interesting—white wines from Italy.

Similar in style, and hence an ideal wine to start with, is Soave. Soave is an area in the Veneto region of northern Italy, from where many dry Italian whites hail. By law, it must be made predominately from the Garganega grape, with a host of other grapes including Chardonnay, its cousin Pinot Blanc, and Trebbiano comprising the filler (Trebbiano is closely related to France's Ugni Blanc grape, which is the primary grape in Cognac, or French Brandy.) New plantings of Chardonnay vines here would suggest that the character of this wine might be changing in the near future. Soave used to be justifiably dismissed as something akin to bland lemon-water; however, the quality of this wine has improved greatly in recent years. This results from better vineyard management, and lower yields in particular (grape tonnage/acre—the fewer grapes you are harvesting per acre, the less diluted the resulting wine).

Lightly lemon-scented and flavored (but dry in terms of residual sugar), Soave delights as a thirst quencher and pairs well with citrus-tinged fish and chicken dishes. I love drinking it with chicken made with cilantro and slices of lime or orange on top, or with fish that is less meaty and less oily (vs. salmon and tuna, for example, which seem better suited to fuller-bodied white wines). Any fish dish, like catfish finished with a squeeze of lemon, also would work well with this wine. Inside the area of Soave is Soave Classico, which delineates some choice hillside vineyards that consistently produce better quality wines. If you try a Soave and like it, next time you're at the store or restaurant look for a Soave Classico; for a couple of extra dollars, you might wind up something with you'll truly savor. Some producers noted for high-quality wines from this area include Anselmi, Pieropan, and Tamellini—be sure to look for and ask for their products specifically.

For a wine with more floral and melon notes, try Vernaccia di Sangimignano from Tuscany (wherein Chianti also lies). The name of this wine is simply the name of the grape (Vernaccia) and the name of the place it is from (San Gimignano is a town in Tuscany). Pairing Vernaccia di Sangimignano with prosciutto leaps to mind, perhaps complete with some slices of cantaloupe. A word of warning: Vernaccia comes from the same root word as vernacular, and there are many other "Vernaccias" from other areas that are not at all related to the grape described above. There are roughly 1,000 different grapes grown in Italy, and namesakes such as this are inevitable.

Cortese, a grape grown in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, can make a more serious wine. I've had barrel-fermented wines made from Cortese that were neatly nuanced and fuller-bodied than most Italian whites. As a general rule, Italian white wines tend to be light-bodied (the body of a wine is simply a measure of its palate weight, i.e. a stout beer has more body than a pilsner, and orange juice has more body than 7-Up). Unoaked examples can be fresh, fruity (but dry, again), and fun. But for the California Chardonnay lover, an oak-barrel fermented Cortese offers a wonderful change of pace. Ask your local retailer for one, or in better Italian restaurants match it splendidly alongside butternut squash ravioli and cream/white sauce.

Gavi is another example of a Cortese-based wine. It is the name of a town in Piedmont, and hence you will likely encounter two wines: one named Cortese di Gavi, and another from vineyards closer to the town itself named Gavi di Gavi. They are highly regarded, sometimes showing a rounder texture (less crisp and acidic mouthfeel) and slate and/or mineral undertones. Shellfish and other seafood are possible pairings. A creamy Gavi matched with pasta and a cream/white sauce sounds good to me right now… fettuccini alfredo, anyone?

Bianco di Custoza, containing primarily Garganega and Trebbiano grapes, is another example of the delightfulness of the light-bodied style. The latest release from the winery Cavalchina is quite tasty, as it has been for several years now. Floral and citrus aromas abound and are echoed on the palate. It is low in alcohol, as are the majority of Italian whites (there is a direct correlation between low in alcohol and light in body as a general rule). Bianco di Custoza will compliment picnic fare and would be an excellent bottle to have open at the dinner table when a salad course is being served.

Tocai friulano is the staple grape of the Friuli region in northern Italy. Berton Anderson's "Wines of Italy" notes that it is the most popular and widely planted white grape in Friuli. Floral and almond qualities distinguish Tocai friulano, and it is used widely in local blends as well.

Lest I give the impression that all dry whites from Italy come from the northern areas, let us venture south and examine some of the grapes grown and wines made there. On the eastern seaboard of Italy is the Marche region, where the Verdicchio grape is grown, specifically in the two areas of Verdicchio di Catelli di Jesi and Verdicchio di Metalica. Modernization has swept through this area in the last decades, resulting in fresher, cleaner (hence better tasting) wines reaching our shores. Lemony acidity and an almond finish characterize these wines. Quality examples should be readily available now, and this trend should continue.

From even further south we get Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo. These originated with the Romans and Greeks respectively. Mastroberardino is a sizeable winery, their Greco di Tufo is equally reliable and available. Some suggest Fiano is the more noble wine of the two, but it is also harder to encounter.

Although I am focusing on DRY Italian whites here, Moscato d'Asti warrants a sentence or two due to its popularity as an after-dinner beverage. For starters, it is a sweet semi-sparkling wine. Moscato is also known as Muscat elsewhere in the world, and Asti is a town in northwestern Italy's Piedmont region. This wine tends to show peach/apricot flavors and aromas with some balancing acidity. Wonderful when served after a big meal or with dessert, perhaps perfected when the dessert is comprised of chocolate or fruit components. Just as with dry Italian whites, look for very recent vintages, and don't store it in your fridge for too many months or you'll lose those precious bubbles that help make Moscato d'Asti so enjoyable.

Finally, some guidelines regarding dry Italian white wines that will serve you well. (So read them twice if necessary!) First, the vast majority of these wines are meant to be drunk YOUNG, the younger the better. Look for vintages not more than one to two years old; there should be plenty of 2000 and 2001 examples available now. With age, most of these wines lose their freshness and fruitiness. Often, you can literally SEE this: Dry, crisp whites are quite acidic (the palate-cleansing characteristic) and accompanying this acidity is a greenish tinge to the color of the wine. These wines will lose this hue and brown in color with age. A wine that doesn't look good more than likely won't taste very good either.

Second, while I recommend trying new Italian white wines, if you are planning on having red meat, a red-sauced dish, and/or a tomato-based entrée, a red wine will most often be more appropriate. Perhaps start with an Italian white, and then move onto a red when the main course is served.

Third, when in doubt consult your local, knowledgeable retailer or restaurant waitstaff for assistance. If you give them your specifics (price range, meal plans, what you've liked and disliked previously), they will gladly steer you in the right direction, and maybe even point out some great values, recent arrivals, and personal favorites.

Finally, don't let the unfamiliarity get to you. Relax, uncork, and enjoy! Part of the pleasure of wine for many is the chance to try new and different grapes, regions, and styles. Not every bottle can be your favorite, but you can have great fun when you branch out and try new and different wines. Happy hunting!

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Copyright©2002 by Al Dereu.

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