The Unending World of Italian Wine
Italian wine is daunting. I attended Gambero Rosso's Tre Bicchieri event in San Francisco, organised by the prestigious Italian magazine to showcase the top-rated wines from the country. Walking into the old warehouse, I was confronted by over 130 importers pouring several wines from at least one of their highly-rated producers. There were more than 400 wines, white, rosé, red, sparkling, and sweet, from cool to warm climates both inland and near the sea. It's impossible to take in such a diverse range in one tasting, so I took a deep breath and decided to focus on one aspect: white wine made from unusual grape varieties.
I blogged a couple of years ago about how exciting Italian white wine is these days, certainly compared to twenty years ago. The wines are crisp and refreshing, rarely aged in oak, and are very food friendly. Tasting more of the wines confirmed that Italian producers are concentrating on quality white wine, as well as experimenting with old grape varieties to produce wines resonant of Italy's rich history and varied climates.
Wines made from Vermentino were some of the most common whites of the tasting, and it feels that Vermentino is helping to lead the drive to gain greater awareness for Italy's crisp, fresh white wines. Of course, this being Italy, it's not as simple as that. Vermentino is also known as Favorita in Piemonte, Pigato in Liguria (where it's a little heavier and fuller-bodied), and Rolle in the south of France (where it's often used in blends). Vermentino is the most familiar name, with one DOCG and twenty-two DOCs, all in central/north-west Italy and Sardinia. I think it's at its best grown near the coast, when the wines have crisp acidity and salty aromas; there can also be some nuttiness from lees ageing to give the wine weight and texture.
Pala Vermentino di Sardegna Stellato 2015
The warm island of Sardinia produces surprisingly fresh, acidic white wines, especially from Vermentino, of which this is a very good example - like nearby Corsica, which also produces good Vermentino, the coastal influence is all-important. It's made from 45-year-old wines, which gives it a concentrated intensity; the acidity, as one would expect, is crisp and fresh, and there's a creamy texture from three months lees ageing. ✪✪✪✪✪
Bellone is a variety I had never heard of before. One of the fascinating aspects of tasting these wines is that Italian winemakers are returning to obscure quality grape varieties - for red wine too, but I feel particularly for white - that had been neglected throughout the twentieth century. Bellone is now rarely planted, mostly in Lazio around Rome, but, as it is susceptible to noble rot, it once formed the backbone of good sweet wine drunk in the capital city.
Casale del Giglio Antium Bellone 2015
I tasted two wines from Lazio producer Casale del Giglio: the wines were fresh, floral, and aromatic, and noticeably acidic. Their single-vineyard "Antium" was a wine that, on top of that freshness, was weighty, gripping, and nutty. ✪✪✪✪
Carricante is the main grape variety for Etna Bianco, where some of the highest vineyards in Italy are planted. A main advantage of Carricante is that it can grow at that high altitude on rocky soils, where little else survives. It produces consistently high quality wine, with relatively low alcohol and high acidity. Sicily may be a very warm island, but it's capable of producing good white wine, with Etna Bianco among the best.
Cantine Nicosia Etna Bianco Vulkà 2016
This is a blend with another local Sicilian variety, Catarratto, named after Etna's volcanic soils. It's fresh, floral, and aromatic, that cooler altitude evident, though the warm influence of the island gives the wine body and weight. ✪✪✪✪
This is a grape with an unusual history. It's a crossing of Riesling and either Pinot Bianco or Chardonnay, created in the 1920s and 30s by one Luigi Manzoni. It's now popular with a small number of producers because of its quality despite it being a difficult grape to grow. The representative of Veneto's Italo Cescon said, with a weary yet proud look, that it took ten years to make "Madre," which is made from the variety. It lacks vigour, the berries are small, and the skins are thick but subject to sunburn. Growing such a difficult and obscure grape variety must be a labour of love.
Italo Cescon Madre 2014
Rich, inviting, floral, and aromatic, with a lifting, acidic mouthfeel, although the nose is more interesting and expressive than the palate. For what it's worth, the wine is packaged in a beautiful, long-necked bottle. ✪✪✪✪
This grape is so rare that it's barely mentioned in either Ian d'Agata's Wine Grapes of Italy or The Oxford Companion to Wine. Apparently, wines made from the grape were a favourite of the Bourbon king, Ferdinand IV of Napoli, but the variety all but disappeared until it was revived in the 1990s. The grape is indigeneous to Campania and has small berries which get very ripe.
Vini Alois Caiata 2014
I walked away from tasting this wine rather underwhelmed, as it's very acidic and rather neutral at first, but its lingering spicy finish made me rethink. That acidity and the subtle aromas make this a good wine to pair with white fish. ✪✪✪✪✪
Pecorino is a great example of how Italian wines have changed over the last twenty to thirty years. An ancient variety that was largely forgotten about, it was rediscovered in the 1980s and is now thriving, producing popular, aromatic, full-bodied wines. It's mostly grown in Marche and Abruzzo in the east near the coast.
Velenosi Offida Pecorino Rêve 2014
Offida Pecorino is a DOCG which produces the best Pecorino. This wine has an acidic backbone with a spicy bite to it; that acidity is offset with a rich, creamy, nutty mouthfeel. Rich but refreshing - another example of a wine which would be enhanced by food. ✪✪✪✪✪
Fruili is an area where outstanding white wines are made from a wide range of varieties, including international well-known grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. The whites are crisp, fresh, and aromatic. Ribolla Gialla is a little bit different, as it can be quite neutral and highly acidic. The best grapes are grown in the Colli Orientali del Friuli and Collio DOCs, in which the Rosazzo and Oslavia vineyards, respectively, stand out. Because of its acidity, many producers make sparkling wine from it; because of its neutral aromas, others experiment with skin contact, its yellow skins (gialla means yellow) giving the wine a rich gold colour. Although experimental and fashionable, these skin-contact wines are quite old-fashioned, a reminder of how Italian white wine must once have tasted: heavy, rich, and grapey.
Primosic Collio Ribolla Gialla di Oslavia Riserva 2012
With nearly a month fermenting in contact with its skins and a further two years ageing on its lees, this is a wine with a deep gold colour, weighty and nutty, and definite tannins. The grape's natural acidity lifts the wine, but this is a wine for the sommelier rather than the drinker - and one that is very different from the fresh, crisp whites being made across Italy. ✪✪✪✪
I recognised the name Zibibbo but it had been a long time since I had tasted a wine made from the variety and I couldn't remember too much about it other than it is planted in Sicily. Smelling a dry version from Sicily's excellent Donnafugata, I immediately thought it was just like a wine made from Muscat: aromatic, floral, and very grapey. It turns out, in true Italian style, that Zibibbo is actually Muscat of Alexandria (or Moscato di Alessandria), grown throughout Spain and Portugal as Moscatel - though Zibibbo is probably an older name. It's responsible for one of the great sweet wines of Italy: Passito di Pantelleria. Pantelleria is a small Mediterranean island off the coast of Sicily, while passito refers to the practice of drying the grapes after they are picked to concentrate sugars.
Donnafugata Passito di Pantelleria Ben Ryé 2014
Donnafugata's Ben Ryé is one of the leading examples and it's a wonderful sweet wine, rich, lush, and aromatic, with plenty of floral and dried fruit aromas, and a refreshing acidity. Its acidity makes it refreshing enough to drink on its own, but drink this with cheese after a meal to soak up the richness of the wine and as a contrast to a cheese's stinky aromas. ✪✪✪✪✪✪
These, of course, are just some of the many, many grape varieties grown across Italy, making increasingly interesting white wine. Traditional areas such as Soave and Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi are returning to form, while elsewhere producers are looking at once-forgotten varieties. Italian whites are marked by a refreshing acidity that makes the wines very food-friendly. As confusing as the many names and regions are, the quality of Italian white wine makes them worth investigating.