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Vini, vidi, vici: Italian white wine beyond Pinot Grigio

A raft of interesting, characterful wines stuffed with meaty terroir-goodness is turning the image of Italian whites on its head. But, says Simon Woods, if you’re going to get the most out of them, you need to throw out the rulebook


Back in 1985, Nick Belfrage’s book Life beyond Lambrusco set out to demonstrate to a sceptical audience that Italian wine wasn’t all about frothy sweetness and fiascos. More than 20 years later, it’s surely time that Belfrage considered, not an update to his classic tome, but a sequel. There’s even a ready-made title: Life beyond Pinot Grigio.

If Chardonnay was the drink of the 1990s, then surely the noughties is the decade of Pinot Grigio. And just as hoards of people were put off Chardonnay by rather gloopy, overoaked examples, so today’s wine consumers often eschew Italian whites because of their experience with insipid examples of Pinot Grigio. That’s a shame, as they are missing out on a whole lot of appetising, diverse and food-friendly wines.

Admittedly Italian whites haven’t always been like that. Thanks to a combination of inferior grape varieties, massively high yields and winemaking that put the accent on safety rather than quality, the typical Italian white wine of the 1980s was best summed up with the letters CFDN – crisp, fresh, dry and neutral. Pale? Yes. Interesting? No.

.Today’s wine consumers often eschew 

 Italian whites because of their experience 

 with insipid examples of Pinot Grigio 

Cut to today, and the situation is somewhat different. There are several reasons why: the need to upgrade quality or go out of business; the renewed respect for local grapes; drastic yield reductions; and the desire to show that Italy is not just red wine territory, to name but four. Thanks to the combination of these and other factors, Italian white wine has never been better.

Getting it white

So where should you begin to search for quality Italian wines? Well, Bruno Besa of Astrum Wine Cellars knows where not to start. ‘There is a tendency to look for white wines where the best Italian reds are produced. So some people get exited about things such as Arneis, Cortese (both from Piedmont) and Vernaccia di San Gimignano (Tuscany) – all of which are quite poor examples of what the best Italian whites are all about,’ he says.

‘In my opinion it’s all about Alto Adige and Friuli,’ continues Becky McKevitt of the Salt Yard. ‘On the one hand, you have familiar grape varieties that consumers recognise – and can pronounce! – while on the other hand, there are new winemakers bringing indigenous varieties to new heights with the application of smarter modern techniques.’

Indeed, with dozens, no, hundreds of different white grapes in various places around the country, there’s no shortage of raw material for winemakers to work with. Not all are great but, as Besa points out, ‘I can name at least 50 native white grape varieties that can produce unique, high-quality wines from Valle d’Aosta to Sicily.

‘What’s more, grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Sauvignon have been cultivated in Italy for centuries. If someone’s family has lived in Manchester for 10 generations, doesn’t he deserve to call himself British?’

But following grape varieties can be a red herring, according to Douglas Wregg of Caves de Pyrene. ‘It’s the winemaking philosophy that’s interesting. Look for growers, not oenologists. Regardless of the variety and region, you only get minerality and concentration at low yields. Tiefenbrunner’s Müller-Thurgau is a classic example.’

Not your usual

While Pinot Grigio has been the juggernaut driving the growth in popularity for Italian whites, sales of other wines are also on the increase, albeit at a slower pace, according to Alex Hunt of Berkmann Wine Cellars. ‘Pinot Grigio is a must-stock wine for virtually any restaurant, but there’s normally room for one or two interesting options even on short lists,’ he says. ‘In top-end restaurants, there seems to be growing enthusiasm for Italian whites, reflecting their increasing quality and diversity.’

Christine Parkinson of Hakkasan echoes this cautious optimism. ‘Some wines are fairly easy to sell – Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo, and Gavi spring to mind,’ she says. ‘More unusual whites are definitely a hand-sell, unless we list them by the glass. However people are receptive to Italian wines in general and I think staff have confidence selling them as they tend to be very food-friendly wines.’

Playing away

Where once most sales would have been to traditional Italian restaurants, today the picture is different. ‘I actually find it easier to sell Italian whites to non-Italian restaurants,’ says Wregg. ‘The Italians can be rather insular – they either buy on price or want to cherry-pick top names. The British tend to be more open-minded, as do French sommeliers.’

Walter Spellar of Le Pont de la Tour feels that Italians could still do much more to promote their best wines. ‘A problem is that some of the generic bodies work more in the interest of high-volume producers than smaller, more exclusive estates. It’s easy for us to pick out the best wines, but no one seems to be doing anything to create an aura around them. The generics could also do more to show how these wines improve with time – low-yielding Trebbiano from Valentini, for example, can age superbly.’

But even without such input, Italian whites look set to continue their colonisation of UK lists. While it may be some time until top producers enjoy the acclaim given to red wine maestros such as Gaja, Antinori and Quintarelli, Italy already has a portfolio of white wines that demand attention. There truly is life beyond Pinot Grigio.


With food...

Imbibe asks those in the know for their top Italian white serving suggestions...

Alvaro Marcos Garcia, Theo Randall at the InterContinental

‘My favourite matches include a classic smoked eel with horseradish and fennel alongside something dry with high acidity like Nosiola and Tocai Friulano with carpaccio and rocket – it copes very well with the peppery edges. With a simple sea bass, I like Valentini’s Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, which is nothing like standard Trebbiano.’

Becky McKevitt, Salt Yard

‘Lightly oaked Pinot Bianco from Alto Adige or Sardinian Vermentino goes well with smoked octopus carpaccio. Alto Adige Gewurztraminer matches mildly spiced Thai fish curry. Wacky oxidised Sardinian Vernaccia di Oristano from the Contini family should be served with ceps and pine nuts pan-fried in amontillado.’

Andrea Briccarello, Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill

‘The more elegant and mineral wines are excellent with shellfish, while the more exotic ones such as dry Zibibbo from Sicily are better with crab and hake. With mussels and smoked salmon I usually recommend Vermentino from Sardinia. Ribolla Gialla and Tocai are great with sole and lobster while Albanella and Coda di Volpe are a good match for pasta with clams and turbot.’

Christine Parkinson, Hakkasan

‘Marco di Bartoli’s Grappoli del Grillo goes well with all the Asian food at Hakkasan, but it’s particularly surprising with our Pi Pa Duck dish. I also like Ocono Falanghina served with char siu cheung fun.’


Italian whites, mate? I got just the thing…

No wine list is complete without at least a couple of these old warhorses. But where do they come from, what goes into them and what should you be looking for to ensure you get a decent example? Imbibe pulls the cork on a few old classics.

Soave (Veneto) This is a much-debased name and examples of over-cropped, over-sulphured wines still abound today, which even the inclusion of a dollop of Chardonnay (30% is permitted in the blends) cannot improve. Thankfully, there are also several growers (mostly in the Classico zone) who treat Soave with much more respect, producing rich, nutty, Garganega-based wines, often with a peachy edge, that age remarkably well.

Frascati (Lazio) The jug wine of Rome seldom thrills, based as it is on high-yielding Trebbiano. But wines that put more of an emphasis on the Malvasia grape offer extra character and creamy intensity – look out, too, for the occasional wine where Viognier features in the blend.

Orvieto (Umbria) Another Trebbiano-based wine that often has a personality deficit, but, as with Frascati, is all the better when Malvasia is included in the blend. It comes in different levels of sweetness (the scale goes secco, abbocato, amabile, dolce) and where the sweetness is a result of noble rot, the wines are definitely more interesting.

Gavi (Piedmont) The most famous white of Piedmont has crisp, smoky citrus fruit to the fore and occasionally richer, peachy hints. But while this Cortese-based wine is fuller in flavour than Pinot Grigio, and has acquired a reputation that has pushed its price upwards, it never scales the heights of the region’s reds.


The Elephant in the room…

We couldn’t run a feature on Italian white wines without mentioning it, so we asked some suppliers and sommeliers the perfectly reasonable, utterly non-judgmental question: Is Pinot Grigio the Spawn of The Devil?

‘Too many restaurants say it’s necessary to stock Pinot Grigio for commercial reasons. Why? No one’s going to walk out just because you don’t have a Pinot Grigio on the list.’ Douglas Wregg, Caves de Pyrene

‘Our argument has always been that if you have a wine like Pinot Grigio that will sell wherever it sits on the list, then you should buy the best possible example, regardless of how much it costs.’
David Gleave, Liberty Wines

‘Pinot Grigio from the Veneto is crucial to us in terms of offering volume and value for money. We also do extremely well with versions from Friuli and Alto Adige at more premium prices points.’ Damian Carrington, Enotria Winecellars

‘Nothing frustrates me more than customers coming in and asking for a glass of Pinot Grigio without even looking at our list.’ Becky McKevitt, Salt Yard

‘Pinot Grigio is still an incredibly strong seller in restaurants, mostly at the cheaper end of the list, though top-end versions are still very easy to sell.’ Christine Parkinson, Hakkasan


Da bigga da match

Bongiorno, and welcome to Imbibe for this monumental clash between the two giants of Italian white wine. The Establishment, of course, has dominated most of the last 2,000 years, but there are real hopes that the Torch-bearers team could mount a strong challenge for the title over the next few seasons. Over now to Signor Simon ‘Motty’ Woods, to take us through the teams…

The Establishment (aka Fiorentasteless)

Trebbiano

The wine that defines CFDN (see main text). Trebbiano is Italy’s most widely planted white grape, largely because it’s easy to grow and produces a massive crop. Where yields are restricted, and better clones are planted – for Lugana and Trebbiano d’Abruzzo for example – suddenly some complexity emerges, but great examples are still extremely rare.

Pinot Grigio

The archetypal easy-drinking Italian white wine, popular as much for its lack of personality as anything else. It’s a must-have for most restaurants, Italian or not, but it is price rather than flavour that prompts most buying decisions. Not very much digging reveals some excellent wines, mostly from the north and north-east, which combine creamy lushness with a lightly spicy, pithy bite, and have the characteristics of their terroir shining through.

Verdicchio

One of central Italy’s white stars, grown mainly in the Marches region. As with some Burgundies, the wines can be lean and lemony when young, but acquire a nutty opulence with some bottle age. Not averse to time in barrel, either.

Pinot Bianco

Perhaps because it doesn’t have the reputation of its relative Pinot Grigio/Gris, Pinot Bianco quietly gets on with producing some very satisfying Italian wines, particularly in north-east Italy. The best wines offer crispness and nuttiness, while allowing more minerally characters from the soil to take centre stage.

Malvasia

The grape that adds flesh, fruit and flavour to the more anodyne Trebbiano in various Italian white blends, also appears from time to time as a solo performer. Friuli produces some excellent dry versions – full of honeyed, peachy flavour, while further south, sweet versions (often passito wines) can be superb, particularly those from Lipari near Sicily.

Torch-bearers (aka Inter-esting Milan)

Arneisi

A Piedmont speciality that shines in the Langhe hills. The success of the area’s reds means it hardly ever claims the best vineyard sites, but the apple and quince-scented wines, often with hints of grilled nuts and wood smoke, often outshine the region’s more famous white, Gavi.

(Tocai) Friulano

Friuli’s most widely planted grape, now officially known just as Friulano, produces light but fragrant, early-drinking wines, with apple and nut flavours backed up by more exotic hints of mint and sage.

Falanghina

Falanghina, supposedly the grape behind the legendary wine Falernian, is found mainly in Campania, where it is used for crisp, yet powerful, peachy whites with hints of straw and often a lightly savoury finish.

Ribolla Gialla

Another Friulian speciality, with exotic, almost ginger-like nuances to its nutty citrus and green apple flavours on the palate.

Fiano

Rivalling Falanghina as the best white variety of southern Italy, this spicy, pine-scented wine with its peach and ripe apple fruit has much in common with weightier versions of dry Jurançon – and thanks to its spine of acidity, it also offers the same ageability.

Vermentino

A lemon-and-nut-scented grape that produces archetypal seafood wines, often with a tang of brine and herbs. Grown in various provinces, but the finest come from Sardinia and Tuscany.

Erbaluce

A Piedmont grape know for its luscious sweet passito wines, but increasingly impressive as a dry white that is rich in texture, with green apple and citrus acidity.


Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine - January / February 2008

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