When we named Italy’s first and second growths earlier this year, the biggest surprise was that over half were primarily producers of Italy's native white wines. Still think Italy is all about reds? From stunning Soave to voluptuous Verdicchio, RICHARD BAUDAINS celebrates Italy’s native white varieties.
There was a time when Italy seemed to be defined by its red wines. Pinot Grigio has changed that. The user friendly varietal outsold Chardonnay in the US last year and has become Italy’s biggest selling wine in Britain. But is there more to Italy’s native white wines? Or, to update Nick Belfrage’s epoch-making book title, Life Beyond Lambrusco, is there Life Beyond Pinot Grigio? Thankfully, there certainly is.
Exciting things are happening in Italy today with Italy’s native white wine production. In the bad old days when Italy was struggling to promote an image of quality abroad, producers used to believe that only international varieties would open the doors to international markets. What they have since realised is that the key lies in making better wines from native grapes. ‘Where is the sense,’ says Trentino producer Mario Pojer, ‘in importing varieties which you have to pick in the first week of August, with 60 days of ripening, all sugars and no character, when you have native grapes which ripen naturally in 120 days and are bursting with aroma?’ Or, in the words of UK Italian specialist Enotria, ‘Fiano is the new Pinot Grigio.’ The corollary to this highly persuasive argument is that soils and climate really matter – that Italy’s native white wines are at least as sensitive to terroir as reds.
The following is a rundown of some of the most dynamic DOCs where the combination of a single native variety and a specific terroir produce quintessentially Italian whites.
The major playersof Soave Classico Garganega is the historic white grape of Soave. On the stony terraced hillsides of the Classico area, it is traditionally trained on high, angled pergolas. On the deep fertile soils of the plain, outside the Classico zone, the same system almost inevitably produces high yields. This is the terroir issue in Soave. Around 75% of the staggering 70 million bottles produced every year is generic DOC, which is to Soave Classico what Petit Chablis is to premier and grand cru: technically well made but ultimately rather plain. Italy’s native white Soave Classico is something else. New norms have created, on paper at least, a quality pyramid which goes from the top level of the individual cru to basic entry level, incorporating a new DOCG Soave Superiore category for wines from defined areas, grown according to particular specifications. Whether producers will adopt these new norms and whether the rest of us will eventually grasp their technical intricacies remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the leading producers set standards for themselves which have radically changed the perception of Soave over the past decade. Soave’s appeal is its ability to combine drinkability with intensity and aromas which go far beyond textbook lemon and almond notes.
Trebbiano di Soave, the traditional complementary grape currently returning to favour, adds a touch of firmness, body and acidity. The use of oak takes concentration up a notch but rarely compromises the delicacy of Soave’s cool climate, floral elegance. Overall quality has never been so high.
Avellino whites have been one of the revelations of the winemaking revival. The stars, both promoted to DOCG, are Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo. Fiano is thought to be native to the area around the village of Lapio and it was fairly certainly known to the ancient Romans. Greco, on the other hand, was introduced by the Greeks. It is more complicated to grow and vinify than Fiano, mainly because of its propensity for abundant yields. Like Italy’s native white Fiano, it is a late ripening grape and retains excellent levels of acidity. Both are grown widely in the southern peninsula, but nowhere do they find such affinity with the soils and climate as in the high, pre-Apeninne slopes of Irpinia. Fiano grows over the whole of the province, particularly in loose calcareousclay soils. Greco, by comparison, comes from a smaller area around the town of Tufo with sandy tufaceous terrain. Nervy and intense, with sweet floral aromas and a juicy fruit palate, it ages well, but is best enjoyed in vibrant youth. Fiano, in contrast, needs time to show its worth. The palate is firm, structured, bone dry and minerally. Young wines suggest hazelnuts and perhaps ripe pear; older ones acquire a Riesling-like petrol character.
Recommended producers: FIANO Colli di Lapio (HBa), Macchialupa (J&B), Mastroberardino (BWC, Cib, Pag, TRS) GRECO Benito Ferrara (FMV), Pietracupa (Ast), Terredora (Ann, IWD, Mon, Wtd) Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi/Verdicchio di Matelica.
The white grape of the Marche region is, according to recent studies, none other than the variety also known as Trebbiano (in Soave and neighbouring Lugana). The central Adriatic wine shares the defining characteristic of longevity with Trebbiano from the north, but in other respects they are very different.
The mild maritime climate offers many more harvesting options and this is reflected in the range of winemaking styles which is one of the features of Verdicchio. Picked very early, it can make for an appetising sparkling wine. A standard harvest produces wines with notes of acacia, a touch of crisp apple on the palate and a long broad finish, with the grape’s characteristic hint of grassiness. Picked late – an increasingly popular trend – Italy’s native white Verdicchio makes a unique style of dry, fleshy, complex and concentrated wine. Throw in the variants of oak versus vat, special selection Riservas for long bottle ageing, lees ageing and malolactic yes or no (or partial), and you begin to get an idea of the range of wines the highly versatile Verdicchio is capable of. The vast majority produced comes from the Castelli di Jesi DOC which lies in calcareous clay hills, near the Adriatic coast.
The other area of Verdicchio production, the Matelica DOC zone, nestles at the foot of the Appenines, 30km inland. Here the climate, with its marked temperature excursions, makes for a longer ripening period which in turn results in wines which are firmer and drier, often more closed on the nose but very tangy on the palate.
Recommended producers: Castelli di Jesi Bucci (Ali), Fattoria Coroncino (MiG), Fazi Battaglia (Cib), Garofoli. Matelica La Monacesca (Jas, Wtd), Santa Barbara (GaF, Vin), Belisario (Lib).
Small but beautiful Colli di Luni Vermentino Vermentino thrives on the hot, dry Tyrrhenian coast. The variety arrived in Liguria from Spain in the 1300s. Traditionally believed to be related to Malvasia, recent DNA studies have instead revealed traits in common with the Hungarian Furmint. The longest established DOC for the variety is the Colli di Luni, which extends south of La Spezia into northern Tuscany. Production, growing in both quantity and quality, is concentrated in the Val di Magra, with vines around 250-300m above sea level. The light, sandy, calcareous soils tend to favour aroma over structure, producing soft, fragrant wines with peach and melon fruit on the palate and a touch of spice on the finish.
Recommended producers: Ottaviano Lambruschi (N/A UK; +39 0187 674 261), Il Torchio (N/A UK; +39 01 87 67 40 75), La Pietra del Focolare (+39 018 766 2129) Colli Tortonesi Timorasso.
Of all the native varieties rescued from oblivion, Timorasso is perhaps the most exciting. Widely planted in the past but virtually wiped out by phylloxera, it now grows only in isolated pockets of southeast Piemonte, and most notably in the Colli Tortonesi, where it has recently gained DOC status. Vigorous but low yielding, Timorasso bears no resemblance to any other commercial grape in Italy. A very distinctive wine with pronounced acidity and exceptionally high extract, it is slow to evolve but assures great longevity. The wines blossom with two to three years’ bottle age, releasing floral aromas, fruit on the palate and an intense minerally finish. Current production is based on around 40ha of specialised vineyard but new plantings will bring a significant increase in output.
Recommended producers: Vigneti Massa (N/A UK; +39 01 31 18 03 02), Claudio Mariotto (N/A UK; +39 01 31 86 85 00), Franco Martinetti (WSq) Etna Bianco Superiore.
Only wines from around Milo village on the east face of Mt Etna can be labelled Superiore. Its wines have moderate alcohol and notable structure, but above all, levels of acidity which make them unapproachable in the first two years, but guarantee an evolution culminating in exceptional complexity and depth. Etna has the coolest summer temperatures in Sicily and daynight temperature ranges which can reach an extraordinary 30˚C. Here, Carricante grows on sandy black volcanic soil, planted at around 10,000 vines per hectare, and at altitudes between 600–1000m. The potential of the area is often underrepresented by primitive winemaking, but the best wines are very good indeed and new investment bodes well for the future.
Recommended producers:Vinicola Benanti (Nov), Barone di Villagrande (N/A UK; +39 095 708 2175).
Lugana Superiore Trebbiano is a component of over 80 DOC wines. Differences between the members of the family can be slight or extremely significant. If Trebbiano di Lugana is not identical to Trebbiano di Soave, it is as similar as makes no odds, but it makes very different wines to the light and vegetal Trebbiano of central Italy. The Lugana DOC hugs the south bank of Garda whose mild climate and compact clay soils curb the natural productivity of the variety, favouring wines of tangy intensity, a bone-dry palate and a touch of aniseed on the finish. Superiore wines – often lightly oaked these days – come out in the second year after the vintage and have a prodigious capacity of ageing.
Recommended producers: Cà dei Frati (FMT), Zenato (Euw), Provenza (CWF, Div, Wsm, WTr), Tenuta Roveglia (Jas)