Italian White Wines II: Not the Usual Suspects

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | may 2017

This is a continuation of Italian Whites from Italy, which appeared in our September issue of 2016.

More than any other wine producing country, Italy has maintained a large variety of native grape varieties. While 80 percent of French wine is now made from just 20 varieties, Italy has at least 377 indigenous cultivars in commercial production of fine wine. The wine ampelographer (grape geneticist) Jancis Robinson estimated that there might be closer to 2,000 varieties including some existing and unidentified in abandoned vineyards. Italy's extremes of culture, weather and geography that were reviewed in September of last year have played a significant role in the survival of this diversity of riches. I have to admit that my eyes have been opened during my research and a couple of varieties, Vermentino and Soave, have become new favorites.

This Italian cornucopia of ancient varietals is a treasure trove for the ABC crowd (Anything But Chardonnay) and anyone seeking some adventure and discovery in their wine drinking. Please try these wines because many of these varieties are close to extinction.

A brief note about the importer of three of the five wines reviewed is also in order. Marc De Grazia Imports has been representing the autochthonous (ô täk THənəs from the Greek Athenians: auto, meaning self and chthôn, meaning of the earth equals indigenous) varieties of Italy since 1980. Marc works with over 60 wineries in 14 different regions of Italy to help the vintners produce high quality wine from these unusual indigenous varieties. If you see his name on the back of the bottle you can be assured that the wine is well made and rare. Marc has been working with these wineries for over 35 years to introduce these unusual and seldom seen varietals to the fine wine drinking community. The rarity of these varietals does not mean that they are expensive though.

Luca Bosio Langhe Arneis D.O.C.G. 2015, 13 percent alcohol, $20 at Sendik's in Mequon. This wine was made from grapes grown in the Roero region in the southeastern corner of Piedmont near Turin (in the foothills of the Alps). The grapes for the Luca Bosio Arneis come from vineyards in the Canale Village about 400 feet above sea level. The vines are grown on a rounded hill facing southeast and southwest, getting the full complement of sun every day. After harvesting, the grapes are cold soaked on the skins, by doing this the wine will become more complex. The wine also stays in contact with its own yeasts for five months after fermentation also increasing complexity and flavors.

Arneis has a distinct floral aroma with hints of pineapple, apricot and peach that finishes with a refreshing salinity that just screams for food. In this case, a savory gratin of fennel with a grilled pork chop would be perfect.

Poggio Anima “Uriel" 2014 Sicily IGT, 13 percent alcohol, $16 at Glorioso's. This wine is made from 100 percent Grillo, which is also known in Italy as Riddu. This is a white wine variety that can stand up to high temperatures and still maintain sensible alcohol levels and comes across as light and crisp. We drank this wine before dinner and were amazed at the grilled pineapple flavor. The smokiness was like a burnt match or struck flint. This would pair very well with more fatty fish like swordfish, mackerel or sardines. I thought it would go well with raw bluefin tuna belly. The vineyard is in western Sicily, roughly 25 miles from Marsala. The vines are planted on sandy and clay rich soil, which retains water during the searing Mediterranean summers. The vineyards are on east-facing slopes at 1,600 feet above sea level, which gives the wine its freshness. Grillo is also the primary grape of Marsala when it is allowed to ripen completely. The Italians refer to Grillo as the dry version of Marsala. This is a wine I will definitely keep my eye out for. Delicious.

Vernaccia Di San Gimignano 2015, 13 percent alcohol, $14 at Glorioso's. The Fontaleoni vineyards are in Tuscany just south of Florence. The vines are planted on calcareous (limestone) soil that originated in the Pliocene. These types of soils produce great white wines like Chablis in France and the Vernaccia is no exception. Vernaccia di San Gimignano was the first wine in Italy to be awarded the DOC status in 1966. DOC (Controlled Denomination of Origin) was Italy's early response to turning around their wine industry that had been known primarily for cheap Chianti in ovate bottles covered in straw. The Vernaccia grape is a very delicate grape with very thin skin that breaks easily when it reaches full ripeness. The grapes are harvested during the cool of the night and not allowed to achieve full ripeness. This produces a wine with higher acidity, lower alcohol and the ability to age. The grapes are soft pressed then cold clarified to let the solids settle out. It is fermented and aged in stainless steel, which retains that freshness. This is a wine for seafood. The aroma is fruity and flowery with the smell of fresh peaches and acacia flowers. It is medium bodied, dry and fresh with a nice salinity that pairs well with broiled whitefish or a vegetable risotto.

Stefano Massone 2015 Gavi, 12.5 percent alcohol, $11 at Sendik's in Mequon. Gavi is produced from the Cortese grape, which grows best in the foothills of the Swiss Alps in the Piedmont area near the city of Turin. In fact the name of the region, Piedmont, is derived from the Medieval Latin pedemontium, pedes, meaning foot and mont, meaning mountain. The early Roman saying, “Bacchus amat colles" or “Bacchus loves the hills" applies in spades to this particular variety and its surrounding red wine partners such as Barolo, Nebbiolo, Grignolino and Langhe. This Gavi is from the Masera cru and was grown at 750 feet above sea level on calcareous stony soils, which stress the grapes for lack of water and intensifies the flavors of the wine. The Masera grapes are cold macerated on the grape skins in order to intensify the aromas. In fact, when I opened the bottle, I could smell the wine before pouring it into a glass. This is also a wine for fish like braised swordfish in olive oil bay leaves and oil cured olives.

2014 Taburno Falanghina Del Sannio is 13 percent alcohol, $15 at Sendik's in Mequon. The vineyards are located in the state of Campania, which is about 70 miles west of Naples. The Falanghina grapes are grown on the slopes of Mount Taburno, which is an isolated calcareous massif that is part of the Apennine mountain chain, which runs down the peninsula of Italy from the Swiss Alps. As we learned in high school geography, this mountain range was referred to as the spine of Italy. This is an ancient variety that dates back to the days of the Roman Empire when the wine it produced was called Falernian and considered a cult wine like Chateau Petrus today. Pliny the Elder praised Falernian, while Marcus Aurelius was a bit more skeptical saying “Falernian wine is just juice from a bunch of grapes." As with many varietals in Italy, this wine is a cooperative of over 300 viticulturists working with about 1,500 acres of vines. This wine was another favorite of the tasting. The freshness of this varietal belies the hot southern climate near Naples and produces a straw yellow wine that is reminiscent of pineapple and ripe pear. Pair this with roasted halibut, shrimp scampi or a Caprese salad of mozzarella, olive oil tomato and basil.

I'll be toasting Emperor Marcus Aurelius this summer and remembering his famous quote about life, “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within you, in your way of thinking." Think white and definitely think Italian.

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