The White Wines of Italy

Move over Chianti and step back Barbaresco, because summer is the perfect time to enjoy the white wines of Italy. They really shine with straight forward foods such as a lemon risotto, but are quite delicious on their own.  Long overshadowed and outnumbered by their red counterparts, Italian whites are some of the most interesting on the market today. They are also, by far, some of the most confusing.

Divided into 20 distinct regions, with several official sub-regions or D.O.C.s, the boot grows hundreds of grape varieties in an amazing range of climates, soils and altitudes. Laws and traditions reflect the passionate and creative nature of the people, with custom trumping clarity at every turn. 

Wines may be named for the grape, for the place, or both. For example, the Prosecco grape is grown and vinified in the Venetian town of Prosecco.  However, Montepulciano D’Abruzzi, so named for the grape, has absolutely no connection to the famed Tuscan wine Vin de Nobile Montepulciano, so named for the place. With so many indigenous vines, and so many wine producing towns,  it’s often hard to tell which is the grape and which is the place, but these days the high quality of the wines makes it easy to forgive the occasional mix up.

When one considers Italian whites, thoughts immediately drift to Pinot Grigio, unless, of course, one lives in Italy.  There, the northern regions of  Fruili-Venezia, Veneto, and the extraordinary Alto Adige Trentino first spring to mind.  Fruili produces the fennel-scented Tocai Fruliano, many international varieties, and the aforementioned Pinot Grigio, while Veneto boasts a much-improved Soave (Trebbiano and Garenega) and the world’s new darling, Prosecco.

Wonderful wines for sure, but Alto-Adige Trentino stands head and shoulders above them all. This once Austrian province situated near the Alps crafts beautiful examples of Pinot Bianco, Muller Thurgau, Sauvignon Blanc, and the native Gewurztraminer. The wines are at once delicate, substantial and expressive; do not pass them by.

Pretty much all 20 regions produce whites, though reds dominate 2 to 1.  Still, only in Piedmont, land of the majestic Nebbiolo, could grapes as wonderful Arneis and Cortese be overlooked.  Arneis, often included on the label, makes powerful, full-bodied wines redolent with almonds, while the Cortese grape, tight, crisp and medium-bodied, is often named for the town of Gavi.

Umbria’s famous Orvietto section produces a lovely white based on the fruity, leafy Grechetto.  The Campagnia region, farther south, vinifies three distinctive and ancient grapes worth noting: the bone dry Falanghina, the peachy, bright Greco di Tufo, and the aromatic, spicy Fiano de Avellino.

Finally comes the most confusing trio of vines ever produced anywhere ever: Verdicchio, Vermentino and Vernaccia. Verdicchio, a grape best known in Marches, shows subtle flavors of lemons and nuts and pairs beautifully with food.  Vermentino, grown all over Italy, thrives in Tuscany and Sardinia, and offers rich, herbal flavors with a bold structure.  Most mystifying, however, is Vernaccia which translates to “local grape” (think vernacular) and refers to several different varieties throughout the country.  The finest come from Tuscany under the D.O.C of Vernaccia di San Gimignano. These yield a bright, crisp wine with a vivid citrus character, and a crowd-pleasing nature. It’s a lot to keep straight, but fear not, paired with the lemon risotto, you can’t miss.