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Italy's Exceptional, Less-Known White Wines
By Ed McCarthy
Aug 12, 2014
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Italy has traditionally been known in the wine world mainly for its red wines.  Throughout the 1970s to the 1990s, Italy produced about two-thirds red wine to one-third white.  Well, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changing!  Two years ago, in 2012, Italian white wines out-produced Italian red and rosé wines for the first time in Italy’s history: 51 percent (white) to 49 percent red/rosé.  In 2013, Italian white wines accounted for 53 percent of Italy’s wines, with red and rosé at 47 percent of the total. 

Tuscany remains a red wine stronghold (83 percent red) and, to a lesser extent, Piedmont (59 percent red) and Puglia (58 percent red).

The main reason for the surge of white wine production in Italy has been the enormous popularity of Italy’s Pinot Grigio, Prosecco, and--somewhat surprisingly--Chardonnay wines.  But I’m not going to dwell on Pinot Grigio, Prosecco, or Chardonnay here.  I have been intrigued by a number of outstanding Italian whites that remain under-the-radar commercially but are recognized by Italian wine critics as exceptional wines. 

Most Italian whites are made in the three regions of Northeastern Italy:  Friuli-Venezia Giulia  (73 percent white); Veneto (72 percent white, but by far the largest white-wine region in Italy); and Trentino-Alto Adige (64 percent white)-- along with Lazio, the region around Rome, and home of Frascati (80 percent white).

Friuli, as the region is usually called, quality-wise might be Italy’s finest white-wine region.  It is perhaps best known for its Friulano, a very good varietal white wine.  But two other varietal white wines in Friuli are superb, and relatively unknown--Ribolla Gialla and Malvasia Istriana.  I love Ribolla Gialla; it is typically pale yellow-gold in color (“Gialla” is Italian for yellow), usually un-oaked, very dry, with floral and citrus aromas and is intensely flavored, including a stony character in the best examples, with high acidity.  It is made in the Collio region along the eastern border of Friuli, and in two sub-districts of Colli Orientali--Rosazzo and Cialla; and also across the border in Slovenia.  Doro Princic in Collio is an exceptional producer of Ribolla Gialla. 

Malvasia is a rather ordinary grape variety throughout most of Italy, typically used as a blending component.  But in Friuli, along the Istrian Peninsula, Malvasia Istriana stands out, being quite different from other Malvasia wines.  It is also made in Croatia.  Malvasia Istriana is very dry, with floral aromas, mainly acacia.  Its flavors are suggestive of almonds.  The wine is at its best in the Isonzo region on the Istrian Peninsula.  Fine producers of Malvasia Istriana include Vie di Romans, Lis Neris-Pecorari and Ronco del Gelso.

Alto Adige, the northern part of Trentino-Alto Adige, produces the most interesting white wines of its region.   In the Valle Isarco, the most northerly wine district of Alto Adige (and of Italy), almost all of the finest whites are Germanic in origin:  Sylvaner, Müller-Thurgau, Gewürztraminer, Kerner and Veltliner.  This is not surprising since Alto Adige was once a part of Austria prior to World War I.  Ironically, all of these Germanic varieties seem to be more suited to the terroir in Alto Adige (especially Valle Isarco) than to Germany’s terroir. 

Kerner and Müller -Thurgau do especially well, producing some of my favorite white wines in Italy.  Valle Isarco Kerner, viscous and intensely flavorful, thrives in the area’s cool climate; I’ve never had a Kerner from this region that I didn’t like, but the best ones come from the Abbazia di Novacella Winery.  Müller-Thurgau, a very ordinary variety in Germany, also thrives in Alto Adige.  It is dry, medium-to full-bodied, and quite delicious--also inexpensive ($15-$20).  The best Müller-Thurgau in the world comes from Alto Adige:  Tiefenbrunner’s old-vine, high altitude single-vineyard wine, Feldmarschall.  It is a truly great wine, and not that expensive ($35-$40), but it’s difficult to find.

Piedmont’s Barolos and Barbarescos are famous, but this region also produces an exciting white wine, Timorasso.  An ancient variety in the Colli Tortonesi region of Piedmont, Timorasso was almost extinct, but was saved from this fate by local winemaker Walter Massa.  Timorasso makes a full-bodied white wine with good acidity; it is aromatic and minerally with complex flavors, and is age-worthy.  Try Vigneti Massa’s Timorasso ($23-$25) for an entirely different taste experience. 

Verdicchio, a varietal wine from Marche on Italy’s Adriatic Coast, has been active in export markets since the 1950s.  Verdicchio is dry, elegant rather than powerful, with notes of lemon and bitter almonds.  The trick is to buy a Verdicchio from a good producer.  Try Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi from Villa Bucci (about $18).

The Trebbiano variety makes rather ordinary wines throughout Italy, But Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, in the hands of a skilled producer, can be a great white wine.  One of my most informative trips to Italy occurred about 12 years ago, when I visited Abruzzo.  I didn’t expect much, since I knew that the Abruzzo region produced tons of inexpensive, quaffing wines.  I had heard of one legendary producer, Edoardo Valentini, and I visited him.   I was blown away by Valentini’s wines, especially his Trebbiano d’Abruzzo; it was dry, with crisp acidity, and had so much depth of flavor that I was amazed.  Valentini didn’t reveal many of his secrets, but did say that he used only the best five percent of his Trebbiano crop to make his wine, and sold off the rest of his Trebbiano grapes.  I realized at that time that Valentini’s Trebbiano was one of Italy’s greatest wines--and for that matter one of the wine world’s greatest wines.  Valentini passed away a few years ago, but his son is carrying on ably in his place.  Valentini’s Trebbiano d’Abruzzo sells for $80 to $100, and is worth it.

Another great Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is produced by the Masciarelli Winery.  Owner-winemaker Gianni Masciarelli, a very colorful character, passed away recently at a very early age.  His wife, Marina Cvetic Masciarelli, a very capable woman, is now in charge.  Masciarelli does make some inexpensive Trebbianos, but the one to seek out is Masciarelli “Marina Cvetic” Trebbiano d’Abruzzo ($48).
Of the inexpensive Trebbiano d’Abruzzos available, the one I recommend is La Valentina (about $12).

Campania, the region of Naples and Mt. Vesuvio, produces about equal amounts of red and white wine.  Its two most well known whites are probably Falanghina and Greco di Tufo, but I think its best white wine is Fiano di Avellino.  The terroir around the town of Avellino, near the Apennine Mountains, with its mineral-rich, volcanic soil, provides the best environment for the Fiano variety.  It is a dry, elegant wine with floral notes and hints of hazelnuts, along with lively acidity.   Try Mastroberardino’s “Radici” Fiano di Avellino or Terredora di Paolo “Terre di Dora” Fiano di Avellino (both about $18 to $20).

Fiano also does quite well in Sicily.  The Planeta Winery makes a very good Fiano wine called Cometa (about $35).

Talking about Sicily, its most exciting wine region nowadays is Mt. Etna, in the northeast part of the island.  High up on Mt. Etna’s slopes, the Carricante variety thrives.  Old vines and indigenous grapes are the story in the Mt.  Etna region.  The pioneer winemaker is Salvo Foti, who revived interest in this fascinating area.  He was the wine consultant to several wineries, including Benanti, but he is now on his own (his winery is I Vigneri di Salvo Foti).  His white wines have not made it to the U.S., as far as I know, but his red wines (featuring the Nerello Mascalese variety) are here. 

The most renowned Carricante wine is Benanti’s Pietramarina Etna Bianco Superiore ($37-$40).  It has been one of Italy’s finest white wines.  (The future of Benanti Pietramarina remains to be seen now that Salvo Foti is no longer working at Benanti.)  Carricante-based wines are amazing; they are naturally high in acidity, with all kinds of citrus notes--lemon, lime, sometimes grapefruit, or orange, and sometimes anise or mint aromas.  Grown on the slopes of Mt. Etna, Carricante grapes impart the minerality of the terroir to the wines.  Two other Carricante wines to look for are Calabretta Etna Bianco (about $22) and Bonaccorsi “Val Cerasa” Etna Bianco ($25).  Note that Carricante is the main and most important variety in wines labeled Etna Bianco. 

I believe that these nine exceptional Italian white wines do not get the recognition they deserve.  Look for them:  Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia Istriana, Kerner, Müller-Thurgau, Timorasso, Verdicchio, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, Fiano di Avellino, and the Carricante-based wines labeled Etna Bianco.  If you enjoy delicious, flavorful, mainly unoaked white wines, these wines are for you.