Italian white wines on fire!
Italian white wines are not going to set the world on fire, right? Everyone is familiar with the likes of Pinot Grigio, a restaurant wine list staple and the much the quaffed Soave. Such wines are inoffensive but predictable. But hang on, Italy makes wonderful, unusual whites. It’s a repository of hundreds of indigenous grape varietals producing a profusion of white wines bursting with Latin personality. Trouble is, the reds grab the headlines. So here are three Italian whites wines with plenty of character.
Let’s begin with the Verdicchio grape and the eponymous DOCs in the Marche which neighbours Tuscany. The Marche region may be less well known than Tuscany, but is quite as beautiful. Verdicchio is a robust grape making a white wine that tastes a little like a red with some tannic grip. It is full-bodied and often more savoury than fruity, a perfect partner for food. It would make an interesting alternative to red with the Easter lamb. It can age beneficially for up to a decade, developing more Riesling-like characters along the way. The DOC of Verdicchio dei Castelli de Jesi lies near the Adriatic sea and here the estate of San Lorenzo make a generously rounded wine with an appetising biscuit note and a touch of honeysuckle.
Second up is Nascetta Bianco from the hill top estate of Elvio Cogno in the rolling Langhe region of Piedmont in Northern Italy. Piedmont is fiefdom of Barolo, the king of Italian reds, but what about white? The Nascetta grape was skulking around, all but abandoned, when Valter Fissore, who makes the wine here, rescued it. His passion for this unusual variety has been infectious and 25 local growers have followed suit. The Nascetta Bianco transports you to a wild flower meadow. The palate has more power and density than might be expected from the pretty, floral aroma and a good balance of lime-like fruit and sweet ripeness. Nascetta’s humble status as a table wine was elevated to DOC Langhe Nascetta in 2004. Originally it may have come from Sardinia, but the Langhe has raised it up and claimed it as their own.
The third wine is Albana di Romagna Passito made by the estate of Bissoni. From the top, Albana is the grape varietal, possibly introduced by the Romans to the area of Romagna in Northern Italy, capital of which is Bologna. Now if you have ever visited Bologna, you’ll know the Bolognese have a grand passion for gastronomy which they are not shy of indulging, the pasta, the mortadella sausage, the cheeses and so on. Albana di Romagna is a decent aperitif with a touch of almond and peach with the acidity to cut through the richness of the regional Parma ham and Parmigiano cheese.
It benefits from a hilly location or a cooling breeze from the Adriatic to retain that acidity. However it hits star status as a sweet wine, passito, berries dried on the vine, in boxes or on slats. The wines are gorgeously fruity with sweet succulent greengage flavours. Not just ripe, but properly sweet for this is a wine made from botrytised grapes. Humidity encourages noble rot in September and shrivels the grapes, which are kept healthy by the drying wind. The pickers pass through the vineyard several times, from late October to the beginning of December, selecting the shrivelled grapes. Botrytis gives the wine a rich apricot and honeyed aroma. The palate is tangy and fruity with oranges, quince and greengage. It is not at all heavy, but fresh and energetic. This would be lovely with parmigiano, with any salty or savoury nibbles, not only with the more obvious sweet suspects including frangipane and fruit tarts. In short, you may be forgiven for thinking Italian whites are a little innocuous but you would be wrong. Pass by the Pinot Grigio and get stuck into the more interesting offerings.