"Wine Guy," I was asked recently, "You've been writing a fair bit about Italian reds...what about the whites?"
Fair question. I know I've snagged a couple of them here and there as I've gone through the world of wine, but I haven't really focused much on them. Most of what I know about Italian whites can be summed up as follows: "Italian white. Pinot grigio. Light. Dry. Tart." End of line.
I've walked past the Italian white section in wine stores again and again. I see row after row of pinot grigio, as well as "Soave" and a number of grapes ending in vowels. There's also the the Italian naming convention, by which the wines are named after the region in which they're grown -- and you've got a pretty confusing slate for a beginner to digest. There are literally hundreds of indiginous grapes in Italy, and almost all of them have ended up as white wine at one point or another.
The wine gurus haven't been much help, either. Looking to two of my go-to sources for information, Andrea Immer Robinson writes in Great Wine Made Simple, "The Italians...just do not care about white wine. Not that plenty of it isn't made, but much is for export and for cheap, refreshing drinking...The rest is meant to employ gallons of mediocre-quality juice from vineyards whose output used to go into Italy's famous reds (to their detriment) before the recent quality evolution." (p.210)
Kevin Zraly's Complete Wine Course puts it more succinctly: "The Italians traditionally do not put the same effort into making their white wines as they do their reds -- and they are the first to admit it." (p.143)
Thankfully, as Dear Andrea mentioned, the revolution in wine-producing techniques made it to Italy, just as it has given us distinct bottles of yumminess from all over the world. While Italian wines are still generally light, crisp sipping wines, a wine shopper now has a little more variety from which to choose. The main thing to remember is the basic law of Italian wine -- What's for dinner? That'll give you a pretty good idea of what to expect, taste-wise, since the wine's made to go with the food. Let's have a look at three of the major growing areas...
Anselmi 2006 "San Vincenzo" Veneto – Veneto, the northeastern Italian region home to Venice, Vivaldi, and Roberto Baggio, is best known in the wine world for Valpolicella (a light, fruity red) and Amarone (a tarry, tannic monster). The best known white grape from there is Garganega, the backbone of soave, an unoaked, uncomplicated wine. This wine is a close cousin. The Anselmi is 80% Garganega, 15% Chardonnay, and 5% Trebbiano. It has a clean nose of peaches and grapefruit. The body is medium-to-rich with an interesting mix of acidity and sweetness on the finish. On it’s own, a very enjoyable wine. However, with a pungent fish dish, this wine shines even more. Sardines and shellfish are common in Venetian cooking, and we had this wine with an anchovy-sauced & breadcrumbed pasta. The wine cut through the fish's oil, enhancing the flavors before cutting through it into a nice, fruity mellow finish. A great pairing. $7-10.
Batasiolo 2006 Gavi – I talked about Piedmont a couple of installments ago. Piedmont is home to some of the more powerful wines in Italy, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from the whites. Gavi is largely made from the Cortese grape, indigenous to the region. Considering the foods of the region – cheeses, ham, root vegetables, and mushrooms, I figured the wines would either be acidic like a pinot grigio or in the Riesling neighborhood. The verdict? Somewhere in the middle. The Gavi had a light, citrusy, grapefruity nose. It was medium boded with flavors of lemon and vanilla. It sported a crisp, tart finish. I found it to be more along the lines of a sauvignon-blanc. Very refreshing and more complex than the Veneto. Unfortunately, I didn’t cook anything up to go along with it. I had it with the leftovers of the aforementioned anchovy pasta. It had enough acidity to cut through the fish, but the tartness of the wine stood out more. It would be a very solid pairing with anything that you’d have with a sauvignon blanc. $12-14.
Fontana Candida 2006 Orvieto Classico – Orvieto is in Umbria, an inland province sitting just next to Tuscany. Umbrian cuisine tends to be boiled or roasted, with vegetables and game strongly represented. Lentils are a staple of the diet there. It has a light, flowery nose with just a little bit of citrus. The flavors and acidity are similar to a pinot grigio, but with a little more body, so it's a bit bolder at first taste. This makes sense, since a light pinot grigio would likely get buried by the heavier nature of the food. The finish is still tart and crisp. A nice alternative if you want a white wine with something a little heavier. I did a throw-together salad of creole boiled shrimp, pineapple, shallots and red pepper with cider vinegar, fish sauce, and some spices (Yes, I was cleaning out the kitchen…) It worked well – although I shouldn’t have initially put it over greens. $9-11.
On a personal note -- many thanks to John & Jean Rosenberg. On this date in 1970, the three of us responded to a request from my grandfather. He let my folks know after Passover the night before that he "did not plan to go back to North Carolina without seeing his grandson."
At 6:40 am, we obliged.