Italy’s white wines have improved so much during the past few decades that today I believe they are among the best white wines in the world. The Veneto region (think Soave; Pinot Grigio) has long led Italy in white wine production, followed by Friuli-Venezia Giulia (Friulano, Pinot Bianco). But I am focusing here on three other Italian regions for their really fine, unique white wines: Trentino-Alto Adige, Abruzzo and Sicily.
Trentino-Alto Adige is the northernmost region in Italy. It really is two regions, connected for political reasons after World War I. The northern part, Alto Adige, is the home of many special white wines. Most of its wine varieties had their origins in Germany; in fact, Alto Adige was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (under which it was known then as South Tyrol). If you visit Alto Adige, you will find that almost all its population speaks German, and have Austrian or Germanic surnames--although its primary city, Bolzano, has a considerable Italian population, who migrated from points south in Italy.
The ironic point is that many Alto-Adige’s grape varieties made from “Germanic” wine varieties have performed much better in Alto Adige than in Germany. The terroir of cool, mountainous, but also dry, sunny Alto Adige apparently has proven more suitable for these varieties. Four particular white varieties that shine in the Valle Isarco--high up in the Alps and for me Alto Adige’s finest wine sub-zone--are Müller-Thurgau, Kerner, Sylvaner, and Gewürztraminer. The two Alto Adige varietal wines I especially love are Kerner and Müller-Thurgau. I believe that the wines made from Kerner and Müller-Thurgau in the Valle Isarco are clearly the best wines from these two varieties in the world.
The major winery producing Kerner in Alto Adige is the Abbazia di Novacella, an authentic working Augustinian abbey, founded in 1142, growing fruits and vegetables, and making wines since its founding. It’s the northernmost winery in Italy, and grows several wine varieties (70% white; 30 % red) on its estate in the village of Novacella in Valle Isarco; but Kerner is its star varietal wine. Abbazia di Novacella uses no oak in aging or storing its wines.
The Kerner variety, originally a cross between Riesling and Schiava (a red variety) is very unique, sometimes compared to Viognier. Abbazia di Novacella’s Kerner, made entirely from Kerner, (imported by Skurnik Wines) is dry, viscous, with aromas similar to citrus fruits and green apples. It has a spicy, nutty flavor, with vibrant acidity. You can drink it when you buy it, but it ages well and improves with maturity--at 8 to 10 years. I have tasted older Kerners in my visit to the winery. This wine is capable of aging 20 years or more. The great news is that it is surprisingly affordable, retailing in the $18 to $20 range.
If you like Abbazia di Novacella’s Kerner, you will love its limited-edition version, Kerner Praepositus. The Praepostius grapes are selected from the winery’s best vineyard parcels; the wine is more intensely flavored, with more prominent aromas. And yet, it retails in the $32 to $34 range, for me, well worth the higher price. I recommend that you decant this wine; the increased aeration will bring out its aromas and flavors. Abbazia di Novacella’s Kerner Praepositus will be more difficult to find, but it is available in the U.S.
Müller-Thurgau, a variety first created in 1882 by a crossing of Riesling and an obscure variety, Madeleine Royale, is a major white variety in Germany. However, it only shines when not over-produced--and made in cool wine areas such as in Italy’s Alto Adige. I was distinctly unimpressed when I first tasted German versions of Müller-Thurgau. You can imagine how totally surprised I was when I first tasted Feldmarschall, a 100% varietal Müller-Thurgau made by one of Alto Adige’s finest producers, Tiefenbrunner, from its vineyard high up in the Alps (3,300 feet altitude, one of the highest vineyards in the world). Feldmarschall is Müller-Thurgau at its best, fragrant, with floral aromas, and flavors reminiscent of peaches and pears. But apparently, Feldmarschall has been “discovered.” A few years ago, I purchased it for $35. Now, its average price in the U.S. is $63. But if you are curious enough to try a very “average” (to be kind) variety at its best, buy Tiefenbrunner’s Feldmarschall. By the way, it can age for decades. Imported in the U.S. by Winebow Imports.
Cantina Terlano and Kettmeir are other fine producers of Müller-Thurgau in Alto Adige. Other top producers of white wines in Alto Adige include Alois Lageder, Hofstätter, Hirshprunn, Franz Haas, Josef Brigl, and Wilhelm Walch, plus an excellent cooperative, San Michele Appiano, which makes very good white wines under the Castel San Valentino label.
A passing mention to one of Alto Adige’s neighboring Friuli’s white wines--Silvio Jermann’s Vintage Tunina. For good reason Vintage Tunina is one of Italy’s most acclaimed white wines. It is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Ribolla Gialla (arguably Friuli’s best white variety), Malvasia, and an obscure local variety. Vintage Tunina is a wine of relatively recent origin--first made in the 1973 vintage, and is much sought after. It has intense aromas, mainly floral, with a taste of honey, and is very elegant, a tribute to Silvio Jermann’s winemaking ability. Vintage Tunina retails in the $50 to $55 range in the U.S. It is at its best after about ten years of aging.
The Abruzzo region, in central Italy, on the Adriatic coast, is best known for making inexpensive red wines, mainly from the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo variety. Many years ago, I journeyed to Abruzzo because I wanted to meet a wine producer, Edoardo Valentini. The late Mr. Valentini , who passed away in 2006, was well-known throughout Italy as a great winemaker. Trebbiano Toscano, often just called Trebbiano, is one of Italy’s prolific white varieties; wines made from Trebbiano are generally regarded as mediocre, at best. But Valentine grew Trebbiano Abruzzese, now recognized as a completely different grape variety than Trebbiano Toscano. The wine Valentini made is known as Trebbiano d’Abruzzo. Valentini’s Trebbiano d’Abruzzo had received uncommonly great praise from wine critics.
Edoardo Valentini, a former lawyer, did not suffer fools gladly, for sure. You had to prove to him that you knew about wine to gain his respect. I was amazed at how good Valentini’s Trebbiano wines were! They were rich and intense, yet elegant and well-balanced. What was his secret? In addition to his outstanding, well-kept vineyards, grape selection, as far as I could tell, might be the answer. Valentini used only 5% of his best Trebbiano grapes to make his wines, and sold the remaining 95% to his neighbors. Obviously, using only 5% of one’s grapes will make your wines rather expensive--and Valentino’s Trebbiano now retails in the $125 to $149 a bottle in the U.S. I own five bottles from vintages 2007, 2008, and 2010, and never open more than one bottle a year, because replacement costs are so high. I have tasted Valentini’s 1995 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo recently and can attest to the wine’s age-ability.
Valentini wines are now ably produced by Edoardo Valentini’s son, Francesco. They are difficult to find, but are available in the U.S.
Many of you might have been wondering when I would get to that “one amazing rosé” that I promised in my headline. Valentini is the producer. In Abruzzo (and a few other parts of Italy), rosés are usually called Cerasuolo. The wine, Cerasuolo Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, must be made from a minimum of 85% Montepulciano d‘Abruzzo (the rest, usually Sangiovese). In Valentini’s case, its Cerasuolo is probably 100% Montepulciano, but Valentini and son would never reveal any aspects of their winemaking. Valentini’s Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo is dry, elegant and totally delicious, for me perhaps the world’s best rosé wine, discounting Rosé Champagne. It retails in the $105 to $145 range, and is imported by Domenico Valentino--as is Valenti’s Trebbiano. The Abruzzo producer, Cataldi Madonna, also makes a decent Cerasuolo d’Abbruzzo; Cataldi Madonna’s Cerasuolo has a deeper pink color and is fruitier than Valentini’s more restrained version. Cataldi Madonna’s Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo retails for a mere $16 to $20 in the U.S. (imported by Vias).
Two other very good producers of Abruzzo white wines are Masciarelli and Emidio Pepe. The latter producer, a throwback to an earlier time, still crushes his grapes by foot!
Sicily produces an enormous amount of wines, both red and white. But the region of Sicily that has always intrigued me is Etna. There, its white wines, mainly Etna Bianco, are dominated by one outstanding grape variety, Carricante. I enjoy Carricante white wines so much that I rate it as Italy’s best white variety. Carricante apparently is at its best in the volcanic soils of Mt. Etna. It makes lively wines with a pronounced saline flavor. Etna Bianco Superiore, which must contain a minimum of 80% Carricante, is the best appellation for Carricante wines.
The winery I first found for Carricante wines in Mt. Etna was Benanti, which produced a white called Pietramarina, on the slopes of Mt. Etna. The winemaker was Salvo Foti. But Foti now has his own winery, although he still consults for Benanti. The price is one big difference. Benanti’s Pietra Marina (now written as two words) retails in the $64 to $90 price range in the U.S. Salvo Foti’s winery, known as I Vigneri, produces an Etna Bianco called “Aurora,” which retails in the U.S. for about $35. Which is better? I have not compared them in a blind tasting yet, but I plan to do so shortly. Benanti Pietra Marina is more readily available in the U.S. The twin brothers, Salvino and Antonio Benanti, are now focusing on quality more so than their retired father.
Both Benanti and Salvo Foti make great wines. Obviously, Foti’s I Vigneri Etna Bianco, more difficult to find, is the better buy. The deciding factor might be who has the better vineyards. You must try these unique Mt. Etna Bianco wines if you have not done so yet. Often, the best Etna Bianco Superiores are 100% Carricante.
Summing up these Italian white wines--Abbazia di Novacella’s Kerners, Tiefenbrunner’s Feldmarschall Müller-Thurgau, Jermann’s Vintage Tunina, Valentini’s Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, his Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo (rosé), Benanti’s Mt. Etna Pietra Marina Etna Bianco, and Foti’s I Vigneri Etna Bianco--are some of my favorite white wines in the world…and I think some of the best.