Clearly Italian

There’s a wide world of Italian white wine to explore beyond Pinot Grigio.

If a category of wines has ever needed a major public relations campaign, it’s Italian white wines. Proof of this is the fact that few consumers know much about any other Italian white than Pinot Grigio, the simple quaffing wine that has become a sales phenomenon over the past two decades. When a likeable yet lightweight wine like this is the most recognized in its category, it’s difficult to imagine many people taking Italian whites seriously.

They should, though. Winemakers are taking advantage of a multitude of native varieties planted throughout Italy to fashion some of the most individualistic white wines found anywhere today. A brave new world of Italian white wines is being created for today’s consumers. It’s time that we take notice. 

Soave, the familiar offering from the Veneto region, is a perfect example of a wine that has undergone a renaissance in quality. Local vintners are consistently demonstrating that this wine, long regarded as a basic, uncomplicated white, has special characteristics worthy of attention.

One of those winemakers is Leonildo Pieropan, one of the area’s most devoted producers for the past 25 years. A shy yet passionate individual, Pieropan knows that Soave will only reveal its true colors when it is farmed to small yields, unlike the methods practiced by several of the zone’s large cooperative wineries that make millions of bottles of Soave for immediate consumption.

The indigenous Garganega grape, which has lovely aromatics of pear and honeydew melon, is the principal grape of Soave, while Trebbiano di Soave, which features lively acidity, is often used to accentuate structure and freshness. Sourcing vineyards from the Classico district, the origin of the area’s best grapes, Pieropan produces numerous bottlings that display expressive fruit and a light nuttiness with the concentration to age from three to ten years after release, depending on the strength of the vintage.

Roberto Anselmi, a fiercely determined individual who is making some of Italy’s finest white wines, seeks to deliver on all the promises of the Garganega grape. Although the wines he produces are essentially Soaves, Anselmi stopped using that term in the mid-1990s, prompted by his belief that local wine laws permitting very large yields in the vineyards were drawn up to please the large wineries that account for about 90 percent of the wine’s production. He now labels his wines instead with the names of area vineyards.

Anselmi, an experienced helicopter pilot, speaks of a “favorable wind” when in flight. He uses a similar analogy for his winemaking philosophy. “We have a favorable situation now,” he says. “We need to show the world the potential of the Garganega grape.” For Anselmi, that means planting vineyards with a more modern training system that ensures lower yields and more direct sunshine for the grapes, ensuring richer wines.

Modern innovations in vineyard management and winemaking technology have spurred the quality surge of Italian whites, but it is the grapes themselves that represent the true identity of these wines. Nowhere is this concept more famously realized than in the southern region of Campania, where the Greeks planted indigenous varietals such as Falanghina, Greco, and Fiano more than 2,000 years ago. The wines made from these grapes have naturally high levels of acidity along with notes of minerality, particularly those from vineyards near Mount Vesuvius.

The family firm of Mastroberardino, located in the province of Avellino, some thirty miles east of Naples, has been the leading producer of the most celebrated Campanian white wines, Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino. After World War ll, when these grapes were threatened with extinction, Antonio Mastroberardino, patriarch of this historic estate, embarked on a project to save these varietals. He took cuttings from the few vines that were remaining and planted them throughout the various zones. His son, Piero, believes this was critical to the region’s viticultural heritage. “It was due to his great work that we can still drink these noble ancient wines from indigenous varieties,” he proclaims.

Mastroberardino as well as a number of other wineries (most notably Feudi di San Gregorio, Aminea, and Terredora) excel with these two whites. Greco di Tufo is more delicate with fresh lemon fruit and a distinct hint of almond in the finish, while Fiano di Avellino is slightly fuller with flavors of pear, melon, and pineapple, and sometimes a note of honey. Depending on the producer, Fiano di Avellino may age for a few months in oak, though the wood influence is slight. Sleek and understated, these two Campanian whites are among the most refined in all of Italy.

While Campania represents the southern home of Italy’s most important white wines, the epicenter for most of the premium northern Italian whites remains the two neighboring regions of Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia (commonly referred to as simply Friuli). Sharing similar cool climates, these areas have long growing seasons that help preserve the lovely aromatics of grapes such as Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon (the “blanc” is typically dropped here), and Gewürztraminer.

Alto Adige, the northern sector of the Trentino-Alto Adige region, is one of Italy’s most spectacular viticultural areas, as it seems that every available inch of this mountainous land is planted to vineyards. Crisp, fruit-driven bottlings of Pinot Bianco and Pinot Grigio aged only in stainless steel are typical here, although a few producers create offerings aged briefly in oak barrels, which tends to add more texture to the wine. Although red wines account for the majority of this area’s production, there is greater emphasis on white wines today.

“Because of the weather, we can produce very good white wines every year,” says Luis Raifer, proprietor of Colterenzio, a top cooperative winery. “We also have greater sales possibility with white wines in the marketplace.”

While the producers of Friuli also make appealing unoaked versions of aromatic whites such as Friulano and Ribolla Gialla, some elevate their craft with special cuvées lovingly referred to as “Super Whites.” Assembled from several of the area’s varietals, these blends are built to emphasize strength and aging ability while focusing on exotic aromatics such as kiwi, apricot, and Bosc pear. Marco Felluga “Molamatta” and Livio Felluga “Terre Alte” are among the most prized examples of these ambitious wines.

Thanks to their quality and individuality, these Italian white wines have the potential to take their place alongside Pinot Grigio in popularity. Beth Baye, wine director at Total Wine Bar in Brooklyn, points out that Italian whites wines are “neck and neck” with other whites in terms of sales, no doubt due to the preference of her customers for a new experience. She has sold her customers numerous styles, from Falanghina to blended whites from Friuli. “They love these wines,” she comments. “They are trying something different from Pinot Grigio and are delighted in the taste.”

At The Italian Village restaurant in Chicago, director of wine Ron Balter notes that while Italian red wines still outsell whites by more than a 2 to 1 margin, there is more interest today in these whites. He credits Italian winemakers with crafting better products. “They have gotten out of their doldrums,” he says. “The wines have more structure and have greater longevity.” Although Balter thinks a few of these wines have lost some of their characteristic qualities, he is quick to add, “You are getting a better technical product.” He is pleased with the overall quality of these wines and believes their image—and overall sales—will only increase.

“The best examples have richness and complexity to them,” he says. “They can compete on the world stage.”