The Other Italy - Beyond Pinot Grigio: Exploring the Varietal Whites of Italy

Sep 9, 2009

The season of Pinot Grigio, alas, is sadly and quickly slipping away from us. For many summer patio sippers, this is the penultimate white for lazy, hot afternoons. The grape, either as Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio is grown throughout the world and has become the go-to varietal wine for a hot, dusky day. You can sample its various manifestations from California, Ontario, British Columbia, Alsace (France), Germany and of course, Italy. The Italian style - based primarily in Italy’s northeast - is the driest with a zest of mineral lemon. (Sicilia offers some good value varietal Grigios with a touch more tropical fruit.)

To be honest, I find most Pinot Grigios pretty boring. You either get the over-the-top fruity tropical fiesta from California (pineapple, banana and starfruit) or the run-of-the-mill mundane steely limp lemon offerings from Veneto. For those looking to celebrate the last few weeks of summer with some unique whites, I highly recommend the following Italian varieties with corresponding food recommendations:

This white variety, grown in Alto Adige, is better known in the wine world as Gewurztraminer. The region (also known as the Sudtirol) is on the Italo-Austrian border where only a quarter of the population speak Italian (at one point this region belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire). The majority use an Austro-Bavarian dialect while a small, small minority converse in the local mother language of Ladin.

For those who enjoy Alsatian or British Columbian Gewurztraminer you can expect some typical lychee and rose notes from the Italian version of the variety but also a fascinating and surprisingly delicious dose of orange juice with a hint of strawberry.

(You can also find Riesling, Moscato, Piano Bianco – Italian Pinot Blanc - Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio in Alto Adige.)

The Cortese is a white grape grown in southeast Piedmont in northwest Italy. This variety is known for making fun, refreshing wine meant to be drunk young. It is best as an aperitif, something to start the evening off or better yet, with a light sampling of seafood and shellfish. Its taste profile is on the grapey side, with a hint of pear drop and citrus nuances.

The most famous example of this variety in action comes from the limestone-rich southern hillside around the town of Gavi. The wines are dry with good acidity and a steely fruit tone.

If you’re looking for something a-typical at your table, why not spring for a white from the Marche on the Adriatic. You can’t miss them in the liquor store as these wines are often sold in green amphora-shaped bottles. Despite what many might think to be a tacky presentation, Verdicchio is often crisp, clean and delightful.

The most famous is Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi. The styles can range widely from the light and fresh all the way to the fully-rich complex herbal white to compliment a plate of pasta primavera (some critics note a hint of fennel in Verdicchio).

Falanghina or Falanghina Greco is a ‘character-full’, ancient white grape believed to be of Greek origin. It may well have provided the basis for the classical Falernian of Roman times (a wine commanding the prices similar to our modern Bordeaux and Burgundy classics).

Today, Falanghina (from the word ‘falanga’ and suffix ‘ina’ together meaning ‘small wooden stake’) is grown on the Italian coast just north of Naples in Campania. The region is famed for its natural beauty but also its grinding poverty. Following WWII, immigration increased in the south and Campania like Basilicata and Puglia suffered from the depopulation of their regions.

The grape ripens late and therefore craves the sunny slopes of Campania. In Sannio, one of the best examples of Falanghina, the climate is continental and the terrain mountainous, providing ideal conditions for top quality wines. They are often seductively attractive, un-oaked, fragrant wines, ready to savour and perfect with seafood and light pasta dishes.

Grown principally on the island of Sardegna, Nuragus offers something more exotic and scintillating than Pinot Grigio. The wines are lemony-lime with a pleasant, ethereal hint of white flowers. Often criticized for being boring, set it beside a plate of calamari with tzatziki and both wine and food will sing.

If you like Moscato of Piedmont, either still or sparkling, I urge you check out the Sicilian/Calabrian version. Zibibbo is basically an Italian translation of Moscato of Alexandria and belongs to the same Mosato family. Best known for making the passito wines of the island of Pantelleria, (off the west coast of Sicilia), Zibibbo also makes some excellent, dry, fuller whites exuding a honey-melon-cantaloupe. They are juicier, more alcoholic and less aromatic than their Moscato cousins but wonderful to savour. Delicious with Bruschetta bread topped with prosciutto.

You can find all three of these varietal whites in Sicilia. Grillo is big, juicy and relatively plump compared to the delicate, and clean whites made with Ansonica (also known as Inzolia).

If you enjoy Viognier from France or California, Catarrato should be next on your list of wines to try. Enjoy the notable nuances of apricot and peach with a sometimes nutty, but spicy beeswax aroma. If you keep a look out, you can find Catarrato/Chardonnay blends that give the wine additional complexity and flavor.

Ansonica pairs especially well with prawns whereas Grillo needs a Greek Salad to bring out its personality. Catarrato, like Viognier can be sipped on its own but a vegetarian Calazone (stuffed with red and green peppers) would taste tantalizing. But, if you are looking to be more casual, a Hawaiian pizza would be a great dining companion.

Italy is a country known for producing an eclectic and fabulous range of red wines contrasted with gallons of unremarkable whites. However, I find this perception (prejudice perhaps?) unfair and untutored. We can find some remarkable pockets of vineyards producing excellent white wine. If we can allow our minds to stretch beyond the romance of the reds and the simple, patio pleasures of Pinot Grigio, we might see that Italy’s whites can compete with those of France, Germany and the New World.

Take a determined look-see at LCBO for these whites. Whether you choose a Nuragus or Zibibbo, say adieu to the end of the summer on a wonderful, new note.

Bastianich, Joseph & David Lynch, Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy. Clarkson Potter, New York, 2005.
Belfrage, Nicolas, Brunello to Zibibbo: The Wines of Tuscany, Central and Southern Italy. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2001. Cernilli, Daniele & Marco Sabellico, The New Italy. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2008.
Clark, Oz,
2009 Pocket Wine Guide. Harcourt Publishing, Orlando, 2008.
Robinson, Jancis (ed.),
The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2006.


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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