Pleasant White Wines from Italy
By David Ehrenfried | Lighthouse Point Magazine Columnist
With summer winding down, perhaps you’ve had your fill of Rosé or familiar white wines like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Maybe it’s time to try something different. Alternatives to consider are Italian white wine, particularly those made with uniquely Italian grapes. Fortunately, there are plenty of good ones that are both easy-drinking and budget-friendly. Some have well-known names like Pinot Grigio and Soave. Others are less familiar, such as Falanghina, Roero Arneis, and Vermentino.
These Italian white wine choices come largely from grapes grown in Italy for centuries. Some, like Pecorino (no relation to the cheese), originally grew wild and were first cultivated in ancient times. The wines are in a sort of Italian wine comfort zone of dry, light to medium-bodied, easy-to-drink white wines that are neither very fruity or buttery, like some Chardonnay wines, nor very tart or acidic, like many Sauvignon Blancs. When made well, these wines are wonderfully pleasant and refreshing, and they work for many occasions and a wide variety of foods. They complement cheese and light appetizers as well as a range of pasta, fish, chicken, and vegetable dishes. As for affordability, many excellent bottles of these wines are available for under $20. Several we tried cost under $15.
These wines come from all over Italy, including Sicily and Sardinia, the large islands off Italy’s west coast. I’ll highlight a dozen notable examples and skip over sparkling wines like Prosecco and Moscata d’Asti and Italian versions of Chardonnay, Gerwürtztraminer, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc. Let’s start in the north, move south, and finish with notes on the wines I tasted for this column.
Generally, white wines from northern Italy tend to be lighter, crisper and more citrusy than those from central and southern Italy. That’s to be expected, since Italy’s northern wine regions are generally cooler.
Let’s start with Pinot Grigio, a wine that’s become a staple at many restaurants and bars. Italian versions are made principally from Pinot Grigio grapes (aka Pinot Gris in France and other places) grown mainly in the Veneto, Friuli, Alto Adige, Trentino, and Lombardy regions that lie north of Venice and Verona and extend into Italy’s Dalmatian Mountains and Tyrolean Alps. Worthy chilled Pinot Grigio from these regions should taste crisp, clean, delicious and refreshing with delicate to mild aromas and flavors, such as apple, lemon, melon and nectarine. Some might have a spicy or peppery finish, but Pinot Grigio should never taste harsh, sweetened, vegetal, or sour. Beware, then, of some cheap Pinot Grigio wines! They may be made with grapes harvested too soon, leading to wines with these characteristics.
A few companies, such as Santa Margherita and Cavit, mass produce literally hundreds of thousands of cases of basic Pinot Grigio wines. Without disparaging these established producers, I encourage trying wines made by smaller wineries. Some I’ve liked over the years include Attems, Livio Felluga, Jermann, Alois Legader, Poggiobella, Terlato, Tiefenbrunner, and Torre Rosazzo (which we tasted for this column). There are many others.
Some of these wineries also make white wine from other grapes, as well. Pinot Bianco wines, for instance, are tangier and racier (and a bit pricier) than Pinot Grigio. In Lombardy, Trebbiano grapes are used to make Lugana, a lovely wine that is softer and more mineral than Pinot Grigio.
Another familiar wine to try is Soave from the area by the same name in Veneto. It’s made from at 70% Garganega grapes and, when young, should be light, precise and mouthwatering. It can have lemon, melon, peach, and almond flavors along with some spice and racy acidity that make good Soave great for sipping. (Aged Soave, by the way, is typically rich, honeyed and floral.) We didn’t drink any Soave for this column, but some of my favorites are Anselmi San Vincenso, Ca’ Rugate, Monte del Frá, Gini, Inama, Pieropan, and Graziano Prá.
The Piedmont region in northwestern Italy is known for its fabulous red wines, especially Barolo and Barbaresco. The region also makes two delightful white wines, Gavi and Roero Arneis. You’ll likely not see many of these wines, even in the most diversely stocked wine store, because there aren’t many producers and production is modest.
Gavi is made from Cortese grapes, and Roero from Arneis grapes. Both Italian white wine options are special for being light, refreshing, upbeat, smooth, and full of mild to subtle citrus, peach, apple and other fruit combinations. Gavi, I’ve found, is leaner and more austere. I prefer Roero Arneis wine, which I think is a bit richer and rounder. We tasted a totally pleasant and deliciously enjoyable Roero Arneis from Vietti, a leading Barolo vintner. Other quality producers to look for are Ascheri Bra, Bruno Giacoso, Damilano, and Montezemolo.
The central Italy wine regions each have their special grapes and wines: Orvietto in Umbria south of Tuscany and Verdicchio in Marche, to the east, for instance. Marche also is home to the ancient grape, Pecorino, which is often used in a blend called Falerio (which we tasted). South of Marche, wineries in Abruzzo make easy-drinking light-to-medium weight, often lemony wines with Trebbiano, a widely planted Italian grape. Abruzzo Trebbiano wines, by the way, tend to be richer and fuller than Lugana, which I mentioned.
Let’s turn to Tuscany, specifically to the beautiful medieval hilltop town, San Gimignano south of Florence. San Gimignano is famous for more than its spectacular views and well-preserved tower-dwellings and other buildings. The surrounding countryside grows an indigenous grape called Vernaccia. The wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano can be abundantly pleasant with a soft, rich texture and apricot, honey, melon or almond flavors. And, it’s a great value. Producers include Tenuta Le Calcinae (which we tasted), Mormoraia, and Montenidoli, among others.
South of Rome is the is the Campania region, home to Naples, the spectacular Amalfi Coast, and Pompeii and Herculaneum, both famously buried by Mt. Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 AD. Campania also is home to numerous outstanding wines. Three whites very worth seeking out are Falanghina, Fiano d’Avellino, and Greco di Tufo. Made with grapes by the same names, these wines are thirst quenching, light to medium-bodied wines. Falanghina and Greco, I think, are richer and rounder than Fiano, which seems to be more racy and acidic. They can have similar peach, nectarine, pineapple, pear or apricot flavors in addition to ginger or other spices. Some producers to look for include Donnachiara, Feudi di San Gregorio, Cavalier Pepe and Nativ. You may not find many choices, but their prices shouldn’t break the bank.
Another Italian white wine I highly recommend is Vermentino di Sardegna. Vermentino wine is made elsewhere in Italy, but the Sardinian version is well-priced, delicious, and perfect for serving with light appetizers, grilled fish or vegetables on a warm afternoon or evening. The two Sardinian Vermentino wines we tried for this column were among our favorites. They were fresh, light, mellow, and almost creamy, with tasty fruit. They also were not noticeably tart or acidic—just right, as they say. Argiolas, Dolianova, Pala, and Santa Maria La Palma are among the notable producers.
I have to admit, there are so many different kinds of Italian white wines, it’s difficult to keep their names and tastes straight. But here are my notes on what we tried. We’d like hear about the Italian white wines you try.
2018 Vermentino di Sardegna Costamolino, Argiolas ($11-15). Pale yellow with floral, pineapple and apricot flavors and very slight effervescence. Thoroughly enjoyable with nicely balanced acidity.
2017 Vermentino di Sardegna Dolia, Cantine di Dolianova ($12-14). Very nice. Rich and mellow with pleasant citrus, other fruit and mineral tastes. Good length and finish.
2018 Falerio, Saldini Pilastri, Marche ($10-12). Organic. Pecorino, Chardonnay and Passarino blend. Gentle floral, citrus and pear aromas. Prickly, dry; nice acidity without being tart. Straightforward but refreshing.
2018 Pinot Grigio, Torre Rosazzo Friuli Colli Orientali ($19-24). Delicious and fun. Crisp, light, racy with very slight carbonation. Melon, apple, lemony flavors. Peppery finish.
2018 Roero Arneis, Vietti ($18-24). Lovely and very enjoyable. Floral and fruit aromas. Crisp and fresh but smooth with delicate acidity and green apple and subtle citrus. Perfect with sauced fish, chicken and pasta dishes.
2018 Vernacci di San Gimignano, Simone Santini Tenuta Le Calcinaie ($14-18). Floral, apricot, honey, almond and mild citrus. Well balanced. Mouthwatering.
2018 Falanghina, Donnachiara ($14-16). Medium to light weight with an intense spark of dried fruit and floral aromas. Smooth and nicely structured with a tasty balance of tartness, fruit and minerality. Enjoyable!
2017 Greco di Tufo, Donnachiara ($16-20). Dry, smooth and thirst-quenching with subtle pear, pineapple and apricot. So drinkable…