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A crash course in Italian white wine

Italian white wines are often dismissed as unserious—and relegated to drinking only during carefree summer months. But this hasn’t always been the case. This reputation largely stems from post-war technological innovations and industrialised farming, which made a diverse category increasingly homogenous. Along the way, “don’t they all taste like pinot grigio?” became a not-unreasonable question.

Today, though, the answer to that question is a firm no. I should admit my own bias, as faculty of the Vinitaly International Academy, an educational body designed to spread the gospel of Italian native grapes, but I fervently believe that there are some dynamite whites being produced in Italy.

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Unlike riesling or sauvignon blanc, most Italian white grapes are not explicitly fruity. It’s their varied non-fruit aromas—such as fennel and anise (in the case of verdicchio), hazelnuts (fiano), mint and sage (pecorino) or just an ineffable saline (vermentino), illicitly petrochemical (garganega) or mineral (carricante)—as well as their infinitely varied textures and often a refreshing hint of bitterness that make them sophisticated and unique.

In ancient Rome, it was frequently the white wines that were especially valued for finesse and longevity.  Admittedly the Romans also mixed their wine with water, spices and, occasionally, lead, so their judgment may not always be trusted.

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That storied longevity, though, may hold the key to what many of us are missing.  Though mass-market summer sippers are undeniably single-season wines, even great Italian whites are often drunk well before they’ve even begun to uncoil, their aromas literally locked away in so-called aromatic precursors. These grapes’ almost universal high acidity and phenolics (the white grape equivalent of tannins) give structure and tactile mouthfeel that seem austere in youth but allow the wines to evolve complex, almost indescribable aromas as the compounds interact over time. 

The reasons I keep harping on about grapes rather than regions are manifold. One is the Byzantine complexity of the DOC and DOCG classification system, which sometimes elevates wines of no particular distinction and disregards brilliant ones. Another is that Italy’s almost comically variable topography and geology make regional generalisations almost futile (see Sicilian whites with the delicacy of German riesling and Alpine whites oozing voluptuousness). Finally, the relative simplicity of much Italian white winemaking, with minimal new oak, gives the grapes the opportunity to shine.

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Meanwhile, one trendy category that renewed interest in Italian whites involves wines that strictly speaking are barely white at all—orange wines. Josko Gravner, from the Slavic-influenced region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, can be credited with sparking Italy’s fascination with the ancient Georgian practice of fermenting white grapes with their skins in amphorae for months to create deeply coloured, sensuously textural wines that bear as much resemblance to a spritzy Frascati as Bottega Veneta does to Love by Moschino.

However, it is the less overtly process-driven whites that probably have the most staying power. Grapes such as verdicchio, Garganega and fiano (the big three), treated to enough skin contact to extract their subtle but distinctive characters, can produce wines of great interest and, sometimes, profundity. 

Excitingly, where even five years ago Asia was virtually devoid of Italian native grape wines, especially whites, the efforts of regional promotional bodies, pioneering importers and independent event organisers such as JC Viens, whose Italian Wine Celebration and Vino Condiviso events have become Hong Kong institutions, have brought them to the fore.

These sophisticated wines prove that Italy has more to offer than the perennially popular Pinot Grigio.

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The Big Three

Gini Soave Classico Contrada Selvarenza Vecchie Vigne 2014: Never a flashy producer, Gini has been quietly growing some of northern Italy’s finest white grapes for 400 years. Made principally from garganega, the plumpest of Italy’s big three, this old vine bottling (100+ years) has the lusciousness of a honey-poached pear. It billows over the palate revealing a bituminous nuttiness on the back, though acidity pushes it away from overt heaviness.

La Staffa Verdicchio Castelli di Jesi Superiore 2017: Verdicchio, known for an energetic greenness and vivacity, comes in two distinct regional flavours. Jesi, the more famous, comes from a gently hilly stretch of Adriatic coast, yielding a less extreme, more pliant expression. This youthful version evokes white grapefruit and quartz minerals; it is pristine and radiant. Its structure is upright, its acid bracing but not aggressive.

La Monacesca Verdicchio di Matelica 2015: Matelica shows verdicchio’s other side, with extremes of fierce acidity and intense ripeness and density. Just starting to become expressive, this one is electric bright and still somewhat taut and withheld; its central spear of acid is surrounded by ripples of fruit richness that never become fully fleshy, flowing from Meyer lemon to celery root and chalk dust.

Ciro Picariello Fiano di Avellino 2016: Not yet exhibiting the toasted hazelnut character of mature fiano, this still has the dewy allure of a juicy green plum or something that dropped languorously from a tree in a tropical garden, with just a whiff of the ethereal smokiness to come. On the palate it starts a little quiet then amplifies, with a long medicinal herb finish.

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Reimagined Classics

Poggio al Tesoro Solosole Vermentino 2012: The pet project of the ambitious Marilisa Allegrini of Valpolicella, this Bolgheri white obliterates vermentino’s image as the sauvignon blanc of the Med. Wafting bergamot marmalade and smoky candle wick, the luxuriantly silky palate eventually gives way to a refreshing, bitter quinine finish. 

Selvadolce Rucantu 2016: Pigato, a Ligurian grape allegedly identical to vermentino, belies its cliffy, seaside origins with its rich yellow apple, custard and ski wax nose with a touch of petrol.  Vibrant acid elevates a voluminous outer around a tight, grainy interior; the lasting impression on the palate is of lightly salted butter.

Pietracupa Greco di Tufo DOCG 2016: Though often overshadowed by its Campanian compatriot fiano, greco is known for its characteristic mouthfeel, at its best featuring a crescendo of waxy fleshiness that converges neatly into a firm, grippy close. Here, the yellow plum fruit and trademark mouthfeel are complemented by a piercing dagger of acidity, nervous enough to make your eye twitch but betokening years of evolution ahead.

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New and Cool

Bibi Graetz Bugia Toscana 2014: Made by the iconoclastic Norwegian-Italian artist Bibi Graetz, this wine from the exotic-sounding island of Giglio (meaning lily) has a name that translates as “to lie,” a testament to its largely ungraspable character. The ansonica grape’s iodine-laced yellow fruit starts oily and broad and tapers into a narrow finish lifted by a southeast Asian blend of lemongrass and ginger.

Centanni Pecorino Offida 2018: With a popularity hopefully attributable to more than the name it shares with a beloved cheese (it was traditionally favoured by sheep herders), pecorino is an unusually friendly Italian grape. Big and oily with bold white peach and nectarine fruit, subtle white florals, sage and mint, its acidity keeps all that jollity in check, making it worth holding for a season or two.

Emidio Pepe, Trebbiano d'Abruzzo 2010: Not to be confused with more anonymous trebbiano grapes (trebbiano is a diverse group of varieties), trebbiano abruzzese is the foundation for this biodynamically-farmed, primordial-smelling, foot-trodden elixir. Gravelly phenolics, a brothy, dried fruit and boiled-ginger flavour and yet an oddly succulent texture make this slightly confusing but brilliant. 

Benanti Pietramarina Etna Bianco Superiore 2012: A wine so tightly coiled it appears totally mute in youth, at over five years of age this benchmark white from smouldering Etna contains depths of luminous yellow fruit, with a crystalline nerviness that feels like snowflakes melting on the tongue, leaving a crisp fresh fennel and lime blossom finish.

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