Free Chapter on Italy’s White Grape Varietals from “Decoding Italian Wine”
We recently published a beginner’s guide to Italian wine, and we are currently working on a new book about Spanish wine that we’re super excited to release later this year. I wanted to share a sample chapter from our current book about the white grape varietals of Italy as we enter the summer months.
These wines are so under recognized, and they offer incredible value consistently across the board. In addition these wines are super friendly with almost any summertime cuisine, and can of course be thoroughly enjoyed on their own as well. – Andrew, Editor
[Excerpts from “Decoding Italian Wine: A Beginner’s Guide to Enjoying the Grapes, Regions, Practices and Culture of the “Land of Wine” by Andrew Cullen, and Ryan McNally]
The Key White Grape Varietals of Italy
Arneis (“are-nayz”) is an excellent white grape to start off with. It’ s generally floral on the nose, sometimes with scents of honey. It has decent body to it and exudes ripe fruit, apple, pear and peach flavors.
Arneis is grown primarily in the Piedmont region, where many of the country’ s powerhouse red wines (such as Barolo and Barbaresco) are also produced. For that reason, it’ s sometimes referred to as “Barolo Bianco,” which is a nod both to its quality and the finicky nature of its growth. Arneis literally means “little rascal” because the grape ripens late and is susceptible to rot.
Roero is a top area known for producing world-class Arneis, and many of the excellent whites coming out of Roero are starting to gain a larger following outside of Italy. Years ago Arneis was thought of as a blending element for bigger red wines to help add complexity and depth (a similar technique is used in Australian and northern French Rhone wines), but today’ s Arneis wines possess the finesse, elegance and body to stand on their own.
Fast Fact: Arneis is offered from a handful of California producers, such as Jacuzzi vineyards, which specialize in a range of different Italian varietals grown in Sonoma County. We’ ve found Jacuzzi wines to be very good, and their tasting room is free, making it a must-stop winery on any trip through Sonoma.
Everyone seems to have their opinions when they talk about Pinot Grigio (“peeh-no gree-jo”), and many aren’t favorable, largely due to the bland and boring connotations wine drinkers tend to have with the varietal. But Pinot Grigio (or Pinot Gris as it’ s known in other parts of the world) varies in character significantly depending on where it’ s grown. And Italian Pinot Grigio is known as some of the best in the world, especially when you explore regions such as Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia where Pinot Grigio thrives.
Italian Pinot Grigio is usually crisp and light, with subtle citrus flavor and mild floral notes. Sometimes these wines can be drier than Pinot Grigio from other parts of the world. We find them to be very food-friendly, particularly for starters or lighter fare, including a lot of salads, chicken, pork and white fish dishes.
There are three regions where you’ ll commonly find good Italian Pinot Grigio:
Located in the northernmost part of Italy, Alto Adige borders Austria and Switzerland. The wines from Alto Adige are minerally with natural acidity, resulting in a bit more of a complex Pinot Grigio, and one favored by many white wine fans in the know.
Pinot Grigio from Friuli-Venezia Giulia, located in the northeastern part of the country, is right on par with Alto Adige. It’ s full-bodied and noticeably heavier in the mouth than the lighter style from other regions, and it possesses strong apple, apricot and peach flavors with a good dose of acidity.
Lombardy is a smaller player in the Pinot Grigio scene but a growing wine region overall that’ s known not only for a lot of different white varietals, but also for its sparkling wines and top-notch reds.
Verdicchio wine (“ver-deek-kee-oh”) is made from the grape of the same name, and it’ s rising in popularity around the United States. Grown primarily in the Marche region of east-central Italy, it’ s often confused with Trebbiano, both in taste and in the vineyards themselves, and it’ s easy to understand why since they share many characteristics.
Verdicchio bottles can be scored for a pretty good price (frequently $10 to $20). Case in point: We enjoyed a beautiful $16 Verdicchio before writing this section (the 2012 Fontezoppa Verdicchio, if you’ re curious). Like many Verdicchios, it had a somewhat muted nose but developed on the palate with strong acidity and flavors of citrus, lemon and lime.
These wines are excellent picks when you’ re looking for something a little bit different. Plus, they pair well with food. You owe it to yourself to try some of these wines as part of your Italian wine journey. We think you’ ll get hooked.
“It’s a celebration / clap clap bravo / lobster and shrimp / and a glass of Moscato”– Drake, “Do It Now”
If Arneis and Verdicchio are just beginning to grow in popularity outside of Italy, then Moscato (“mos-cot-oh”) is the grape that’ s been blazing a path for them the past few years. Moscato, or Muscat as it’ s commonly known, has seen an atmospheric rise in popularity lately, driven in part by the hip-hop community, which can elevate products to mass audiences with a single tweet or photo. In some hip-hop circles, Moscato has become the new Cristal.
Moscato is grown primarily in Piedmont and is used to make Moscato d’Asti, a semi-sweet, semi-sparkling wine that’ s found a loyal following in the United States. It’ s generally pretty inexpensive, low in alcohol and an interesting alternative to the regular white wines many consumers find too familiar or boring.
It’ s a distinctive grape with notable fragrance and flavors of citrus, lemon and stone fruit. Moscato is used to make many different wines, even brandies and sweet dessert wines. Like Prosecco sparkling wines, it can be a great aperitif or digestif.
A likely reason Moscato d’ Asti has taken off is because it’ s designed to be fun. You can drink it first thing in the morning (if that’ s your gig) or late at night, and the slight fizziness combined with the low alcohol make it something to enjoy and talk about with friends. It’ s a versatile wine that’ s frequently priced less than $20, with some bottles less than $10. Next time you’ re looking for something a little different to take to a dinner party, try bringing a Moscato d’ Asti along and see how it goes over.
Garganega (gar-gah-neh-gah) is the primary grape used to make Soave wine, which is another outstanding white wine value in Italy. Soave wines must be comprised of at least 70 percent Garganega. You can expect wines made from Garganega to be light to medium in body and pretty dry, with citrus flavors and often almond and vanilla notes on the finish.
It’s the second most widely planted grape in the world and is used in more than a quarter of Italy’ s DOC wines, yet Trebbiano (“treb-ee-ah-no”) flies under the radar. The reason? It’ s most commonly employed as a blending component, and its moniker rarely appears on labels.
In a few notable cases, though, the Trebbiano grape is the foundation for wines that are pleasantly fresh and fruity with the right amount of acidity to balance everything out. Popular examples include Umbria’ s Orvieto wines and Abruzzo’ s Trebbiano d’ Abruzzo, both available at very reasonable prices.
Fast Fact: Trebbiano grapes are also used to produce balsamic vinegar. During the course of aging and fermentation over many years, the Trebbiano grape juice syrup gradually turns its trademark dark brown color and develops the unique balsamic vinegar flavor loved by many.
You don’ t have to be on island time to enjoy Vermentino (“ver-men-tee-no”), but its origins and crisp acidity make it perfect for pairing with seafood, oysters and calamari, regardless of whether you’ re dining oceanfront or sipping a glass in more humble surroundings.
Grown primarily in Sardinia, the large island in the Mediterranean west of the Italian coastline, Vermentino is a white wine varietal that’ s gaining in popularity with restaurant insiders and consumers in the know. Newer plantings are emerging on the Italian mainland in parts of Tuscany, Piedmont and Umbria, and you’ ll also find bottles hailing from Corsica Island.
Vermentino wines are clean, dry, light in color and packed with tangy acidity. The wines offer citrus fruit with lemon and orange notes, sometimes more nut and almond flavor, and generally exude a good deal of mineral and stoniness on the finish.
With many Vermentino bottles priced in the $10 to $15 range, we highly recommend working this scrumptious varietal into your white wine rotation.
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