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Iconic Italian White Wines
By Ed McCarthy
Mar 2, 2010
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Thirty years ago, I couldn’t have written this column.  There were no great Italian white wines.  We were just discovering some Italian reds--such as Barolo, Barbaresco, and Brunello di Montalcino--that we would later regard as great.  A generation ago, for outstanding white wines we looked to Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Alsace in France, and the Mosel and Rhine regions in Germany.

Italian whites at that time had just graduated from being oxidized to being bland and neutral--often a result of being overproduced or being made from mediocre varieties, such as Trebbiano.  I never bought Italian white wines thirty years ago; most consumers who did buy them purchased these wines because they were inexpensive.  Many Italian whites were sold in 3 and 4-gallon jugs at that time.

At some point within the past 25 years, Italian winemakers started paying more attention to their white wines.  Advances in viticulture and vinification clearly helped.  Today, Italy is one of leading white-wine producing countries in the world.  And almost all of its great whites are made from varieties indigenous to Italy.

Although white wine is produced in all twenty regions in Italy, five regions stand out for their white wines: the three regions of Northeastern Italy--Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Veneto; Campania; and Sicily.  And there is one iconic Italian white wine in Abruzzo that might arguably be Italy’s finest of all white wines.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia, usually simply known as Friuli, is the one Italian region far more renowned for its white wines than its reds.  Located in the extreme northeast corner of Italy, adjacent  to Austria  in the north and Slovenia  to the east, Friuli’s white wine tradition is well-established; many critics regard Friuli as Italy’s finest white wine region.  Because it is located at the crossroads of Slavic countries--the eastern section was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire--Friuli’s wine proprietors often have Slavic or Austrian surnames.  Collio and Collio Orientali del Friuli , both in southeastern Friuli, are the two wine zones most renowned for their white wines.

The one iconic white from Friuli comes from Silvio Jermann, an exceptional Collio winemaker.  Vintage Tunina, a blended white wine made from five different varieties (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia Istriana, and Picolit), is a rich, complex, intensely flavored wine that has been one of Italy’s great whites for many years now.  Vintage Tunina usually needs about ten years to mature.  The current vintage, 2006, retails in the $60 to $70 range.  Considering its quality, I regard this price as a bargain.

Other top Friuli winemakers include Girolamo Dorigo, Livio Felluga, Gravner, Russiz Superiore, Mario Schiopetto, Venica, Villa Russiz, Doro Princic, Lis Neris-Pecorari, and Vie di Romans.  The leading varietal white wines of Friuli are Friulano (formerly Tocai Friulano), Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio, Ribolla Gialla, and Malvasia Istriana--the latter Italy’s best Malvasia wine, in my opinion.

Trentino-Alto Adige is really two sub-regions combined politically as one.  The northern part, the German-speaking Alto Adige, was in fact once a part of Austria, and is Italy’s northernmost region.  Nestled in a part of the eastern Alps known as the Dolomites, Alto Adige is primarily white wine country.

Two iconic whites hail from Alto Adige, both unique wines.  Although Müller-Thurgau is considered a rather mediocre variety in Germany, it performs well in the high slopes of Alto Adige.  And Tiefenbrunner’s Müller-Thurgau Feldmarschall Vineyard, grown in Europe’s highest vineyard (3,280 feet high) is unquestionably the world’s greatest example of this variety.  If you’ve tried Müller-Thurgau wines and have been unimpressed, you must taste Feldmarschall!  Exciting floral aromas, outstanding concentration, and lively acidity are its trademarks; according to winemaker Christof Tiefenbrunner, Feldmarschall needs five years to mature and show its stuff; the current  vintage, 2008, retails for $41.  Not much of this wine comes to the U.S. (1500 bottles, 1/3 of its total production), and it sells out rapidly.

The other iconic  Alto Adige white wine is also made from a pedestrian German variety, Kerner.  But when produced by Abbazia di Novacella --a working Augustinian monastery,and, incidentally, Italy’s northernmost winery, just south of the Austrian border--Kerner  reaches new heights.  It is very aromatic and crisp, it’s rich in extract, with a hint of spicy, floral Muscat-like aromas, plus lots of intense fruity, mineral flavors and a long finish.  Kerner, a crossing between Riesling and Trollinger (a light red variety also known as Schiava in Alto Adige), was developed to withstand cold climate.  And that it does; it can even grow in Siberia!  The beautiful Abbazia di Novacella is located 1800 feet high in the Dolomites; its hillside vineyard north of the winery, another 200 feet up, is the home of its Kerner.  Fortunately for consumers, only a few wine geeks like me know about Abbazia di Novacella Kerner, and so you can buy the current vintage, 2008, for just $20-$22.   The winery also makes a small amount of a more intensely flavored premium Kerner called “Praepositus.”  Abbazia’s current 2007 Kerner  “Praepositus” retails for $38-$39, but its standard Kerner is far more available in the U.S. in stores and restaurants.

In addition to Tiefenbrunner, other fine Alto Adige producers of white wine include Hofstätter, Alois Lageder, Elena Walch, and San Michele Appiano (an excellent  co-operative).  Other top Alto Adige white varietal wines besides Kerner and Müller-Thurgau are Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio, and Gewürztraminer (a Hofstätter specialty).

The great white wine of the Veneto is Soave Classico, and I believe it takes on iconic status in the hands of two producers, Gini and Pieropan.  A recent trip to Veneto opened my eyes as to how good Soave can be when made in the best (“Classico”) zone by top producers.  The main white variety in Soave wines is Garganega, and most of the best Soaves are in fact 100 percent Garganega.  Gini Soave Classico La Frosca is a teriffic example of how elegant and flavorful Soave is--and by the way, it can age very well for ten years or more in the better vintages.  Pieropan  Soave Classico’s La Rocca is its top single-vineyard Soave; it’s the rock star of Soave.  La Rocca has won deserved acclaim from Gambero Rosso (Italy’s leading wine publication) for many years.  You can find Gini’s 2007 and 2008 Soave La Frosca in the $24 to $28 retail range; Pieropan’s 2006 Soave La Rocca, its current vintage, is more available in restaurants, but in a few select wine shops, it’s in the $43 to $48 range.

Mountainous Abruzzo in central Italy is truly red wine country.  And yet there is a white wine produced here, from one producer, Valentini, that ranks with the best white wines in the world.  The most unusual  part of this story is that the wine is made from perhaps Italy’s most maligned white variety, Trebbiano.  But it is Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, considered a finer clone of the variety than the more common Trebbiano di Romagna or Trebbiano Toscano.  In fact there are some who believe Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is not Trebbiano at all, but possibly the Bombino Bianco variety, from Apulia--but this has not been verified.  According to the late Edoardo Valentini, it is Trebbiano d’Abruzzo. I think it’s really the fanatical practices of the Valentini winery, which uses only five percent of its best Trebbiano grapes and sells the rest to others, which accounts for the wine’s greatness.  Edoardo Valentini, who was known locally as “the lord of the vines,” passed away in 2006, but his son Francesco is carrying on his father’s work.  The currently available vintage of Valentini  Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, 2005, is intensely concentrated, and will require several more years to really mature.  It retails for $90 to $105, and is always difficult to find.

South of Rome, two regions are renowned for their white wines, Campania and Sicily.  Campania produces two fine white wines, Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo, both Greek in origin.  Of the two, Fiano di Avellino is the finer and longer-lived variety.  One producer, Terredora di Paolo, usually known as Terredora, owns 90 percent of the vineyards it uses, unusual for the region.  The Terrredora Fiano  di Avellino Terre di Dora  is my choice for Campania’s iconic white wine; it is elegant and intensely floral.  The wine will age for ten years or more and will improve as it develops.  Both the 2008 and 2007 are generally available, and retail for about $25.  Other good producers of Fiano di Avellino are Mastroberardino and Feudi di San Gregorio.

Sicily’s northeastern corner, the Mt. Etna region, is the source of its best white wines. The indigenous Carricante variety is the main grape in the region’s fine Etna Bianco wines.  One producer, Benanti, makes an Etna Bianco Superiore, “Pietramarina,” that gets my vote as Sicily’s iconic white wine.  Made from 100 percent Carricante, Benanti’s Pietramarina-- whose grapes grow on a Mt. Etna slope over 2800 feet in altitude--has zesty lemony and mineral flavors combined with floral aromas and bracing acidity.  It’s a show-stopping wine, one of a kind.  It also ages well, like Riesling, which it somewhat resembles--but Pietramarina  has more intensity of flavor.  Pietramarina is somewhat scarce, only 910 cases made (mainly available on the West Coast); the currently available 2005 retails in the $40 to $45 range.

Two other Italian  varietal white wines, Verdicchio, grown in Marche, and Vermentino, which grows in Sardinia, Tuscany, and Liguria, deserve honorable mention, but as good as they are, it would be a stretch to put them in the same category as the iconic whites that I have mentioned.

To review, these are the Italian white wines that I regard as iconic--Italy’s   finest:

Jermann Vintage Tunina (Friuli-Venezia Giulia)
Tiefenbrunner  Müller-Thurgau, Feldmarschall (Alto Adige)
Abbazia di Novacella Kerner  (Alto Adige)
Gini Soave Classico La Frosca (Veneto)
Pieropan Soave Classico La Rocca (Veneto)
Valentini Trebbiano di Abruzzo (Abruzzo)
Terredora Fiano di Avellino Terre di Dora (Campania)
Benanti  Etna Bianco Superiore “Pietramarina” (Sicily)

These wines are among the finest white wines in the world today--and considering their quality--are all reasonably priced.