Every communique on great Italian wines kicks off with a litany of reds: Piedmont’s Barolo and Barbaresco, Tuscany’s Chianti Classico Riserva and Brunello di Montalcino and so on. While I’m happy to stipulate that those bottles deserve icon status, they do suck the oxygen out of the room for another noteworthy cache of Italian wines—the country’s exciting whites. Made from a myriad of broadly unfamiliar indigenous varieties, as well as international knowns like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, the whites in this powerhouse of a wine country offer a taste adventure without the usual reference points. Audrey Frick, Italian wine reviewer for , puts it well. “I love the indigenous white wines of Italy for their ability to pivot just outside our comfort zones of more familiar varieties,” she says. “They’re packed with great value and versatility at the table.”
So a highlight reel on Italian whites is overdue, but even the CliffsNotes explainer of varieties and regions would be encyclopedic. According to Wine Folly, Italy is “rumored” to grow more than 2,000 grape varieties, about 350 of which are “official.” Of those, Wikipedia (that font of accuracy, but hey, we’re talking about Italian rumors here) reports that 33 are major white grapes. Who can say about minor?
Frick offers the briefest of cheat sheets, just to get started on styles you might like, beginning with “fresh and salty, from the coast—Vermentino from Liguria, Verdicchio from the Marche.” Or you might like “volcanic, textured and herbal”; look to Fiano di Avelino from Campania, Carricante and Grillo from Sicily, Garganega (the grape behind Soave, which has gotten very good) from the Veneto. Fancy fresh and lifted? Go for Alpine whites—Kerner, Müller-Thurgau, Grüner Veltliner, or Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige, for instance, or Prie Blanc from Morgex et de la Salle (that one rolls off the tongue, no?). And finally, take a good look at Friuli, for many things—richly textured blends or single-varietal wines made from Friulano, Ribolla Gialla (for the mineral lovers), Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Then there’s Arneis from Piedmont, Verdecca from Puglia…
“Salty,” “herbal,” “minerally”—those descriptors are clues to the earthy, savory adventures Italian whites dish up (the “pivot outside our comfort zones” that Frick describes), especially the indigenous varieties but on the international front as well. We’ve included both here—impressive bottles from recent tastings. Those at the top of the price spectrum are some of the country’s benchmark whites. But don’t write off those priced for a Tuesday night—Italy offers is a treasure trove of delightful, affordable whites.
Elvio Cogno 2019 “Anas-Cëtta” Nascetta di Novello Langhe DOC
This aromatic white from Elvio Cogno is a rare example of Nascetta, an indigenous variety that was almost extinct until the Cogno family found and revived it in the 1990s. White blossom aromas are touched by a salty sea breeze mixed with grapefruit and wet-stone minerality. Fresh, resiny herbs wrap around citrus on a vibrant, savory palate—mouth-filling and long, with a zap of lime zest adding a kick.
Feudo Montoni 2019 Catarratto del Masso Sicilia DOC
The Catarratto fruit for this pretty white from Feudo Montoni, from 55-year-old vines, is vinified in cement with some skin contact and 6 months on the lees, resulting in terrific texture and a rounded mouth-feel. Pink grapefruit, acacia blossom and fresh-cut grass aromas lead into a delicate but structured palate full of peaches and fresh-squeezed citrus, plus a kick of puckery lime zest on the finish.