Italy’s 10 leading fine white winesBy Rupert Millar
The sheer scale of Italy’s wine landscape, its extraordinary array of native grape varieties and the head scratching confusion caused by eerily similar producer names, DOC names and yet more grape names all combine to bog down and frustrate newcomers.
This embarrassment of riches is bad enough for those seeking to determine which of Italy’s reds merits a place in the pantheon of “most expensive” or “most investable” etc.
However, at least with recent market moves and the growing interest in Italy as an alternative to the escalating prices of the Bordeaux scene, the red wines are falling into some semblance of order; led of course by the Super Tuscans.
For the whites though no such luxury exists. It is fairly true to say that, beyond cheap Pinot Grigio, Italy isn’t renowned for its white wines.
“First off,” says Berry Bros’ Italian buyer, David Berry Green, “Italy for me is the land of reds! Tell me the last time you saw a white Ferrari (except possibly in France…famous for whites!)?”
Nonetheless, both he and other merchants prompted for suggestions on the best white producers did not take long to reel off names spanning the entirety of the peninsular from Sicily and then up through Puglia and Campania via Le Marche and Tuscany to Piedmont and Alto Adige.
The majority of wines suggested were native Italian grapes, Greco di Tufo, Timorasso, Garganega, Buriano and Catarratto among others.
However, it was surprising, with a little digging, just how many of the top rated and lauded Italian whites use Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot and Sauvignon Blanc.
Then again, perhaps because of their association with France and to an extent Germany, it is easy to forget that these grape varieties have long been part of Italy’s winemaking heritage.
Nice as it would be to list only native Italian grapes, the wines listed here are those who may conceivably be considered market leaders.
As such, they are arranged by their average price per bottle on wine-searcher.com
For more on Italian white wines, see the February edition of the drinks business.
10. Azienda Agricola Zidarich, Vitovska
Grape variety: Vitovska
Classification: Carso DOC
Average price per bottle: £22
Berry Green states that some of the more interesting Italian whites hail from the Slovenian/Croatian border, or even across it, though Slovenes and Croats would be bound to argue that the Italian border was pushed a little too far east in the last century and these “Italian” wines are in fact no such thing.
This wine though displays all the hallmarks of this Adriatic cultural intermingling, produced in (what is now) Italy using a Slovenian grape that is also planted in the neighbouring region of Kras.
Vitovska is thought to be a crossing between the definitely Italian Prosecco Tondo and the rather more Balkan Malvasia. It is quite “meaty” for a white grape, commonly described as having herb, prune and cherry characters as well as the more common citrus, apple and floral (jasmine) notes of a white variety.
Run by Benjamin Zidarich, the winery only produces some 10,00 bottles of Vitovska annually.
The wine is fermented on its skins in open vats and given a good dose of pigeage every day.
It is then aged in medium to large barrels of Slovenian oak for two years before being bottled without filtration.
Antonio Galloni of the Wine Advocate gave the 2009 93 points and called it a “generous, fleshy vintage” and recommended drinking it up until 2019.
9. Cantina Terlano, Nova Domus Terlaner
Region: Trentino-Alto Adige
Classification: Alto Adige Terlano DOC
Average price per bottle: £25
Another contentious border region but another beneficial one for white wines. Alto Adige, or Südtirol if you prefer, displays more of a Germanic influence thanks to neighbouring Austria (indeed German is often the first language) and the region is home to some of Italy’s foremost Pinots and Rieslings.
This wine however is a Pinot Bianco/Chardonnay mix and is one of Cantina Terlano’s site specific bottlings, which it also does for a Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer and Lagrein (a red grape).
Nova Domus is selected form a 42 hectare plot located 250m to 500m above sea level.
The first vintage was produced in 1990 and around 18,400 bottles are produced annually.
The grapes undergo alcoholic and partial malolactic fermentation in oak, before half is aged in large wooden barrels and the other half in tonneaux. The wines are then blended three months before bottling.
The wine should age quite happily for at least 8-10 years, with Galloni calling it a “big, rich, expansive wine” and gave the 2008 93 points.
8. Villa Bucci, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Riserva
Grape variety: Verdicchio
Region: Le Marche
Classification: Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOCG
Average price per bottle: £25
This wine was name-checked fairly consistently by various merchants, Berry Green even hurriedly emailing back to add it to his list hoping it wasn’t too late to include it in any line-up.
If the previous two wines were “rich” and “fleshy” because of skin and oak contact fermentations, then the Verdicchio takes a different course in texture.
One of the newest DOCG titles in Italy (only created in 2010 and formerly a DOC), Verdicchio often takes on a fresher but slightly waxier character.
The 2001 vintage was given 18 points by the Purple Pages Italian expert, Walter Speller, who described it as having “savoury orange and mandarin notes, quince and lemon”.
The wine is aged for six months in oak and at least a further six months in bottle.
Verdicchio di Matelica produced just a little further south is similar but usually tougher in its youth than the more rounded examples from Jesi.
7. Marchesi Antinori, Castello della Sala “Cervaro della Sala”
Grape variety: Chardonnay/Grechetto
Classification: Umbria IGT
Average price per bottle: £31
Hopping over to the western side of the Appennines now to the stables of the famous Antinori.
Without doubt better known for red Tuscan wines, the Antinori family purchased the achingly beautiful mediaeval Castello della Sala (pictured) in neighbouring Umbria in 1940 – though winemaking there did not really take off until 1979.
A number of wines are produced, largely white and including a pudding wine called Muffato della Sala which is often highly rated on WA, and a 100% Chardonnay, Bramito del Cervo.
However, it is the Cervaro della Sala, which rules the roost. The Chardonnay in the blend is macerated on its skins for four to six hours prior to undergoing alcoholic fermentation in French oak.
The wine is aged on its lees for a minimum of six months during which it goes through a complete malolactic fermentation. It is given a further 10 months of bottle age before being released.
Jancis Robinson MW noted that the 2007 (16.5 points) was, “not quite as like white Burgundy as it used to be!” but it is clearly the driving inspiration.
Doctor Wine, a.k.a Daniele Cernilli, notes a comparison vertical tasting of the Cervaro and Drouhin’s premier cru Clos du Mouche last year, which was organised by Piero Antinori and Frédéric Drouhin, in which the Italian wines more than held their own.
The first vintage was 1985. Grechetto makes up usually no more than 10% of the final blend and it plays a bigger role in the dessert wine.
Nonetheless, it is one of the chief grapes in the nearby white wine area of Orvieto, where it is sometimes known by that name also.
6. Miani Colli Orientali del Friuli Tocai Friulano Buri
Grape variety: Friulano
Classification: Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC
Average price per bottle: £36
Back to the north-east for this wine and a wine which drove Galloni to rapture. He gave the 2009 95 points, picking out its “kaleidoscopic fabric of finely-knit honeyed apricots, jasmine and crushed rocks,” as well as its “supremely harmonious finish”.
He describes winemaker Enzio Pontoni as being “on another planet” and in the best years his wines “have no peers in Italy”.
Friulano is other wise known as Sauvignon Vert and, as with several grapes, some Hungarian origins have been claimed, perhaps with Furmint, hence the “Tocai” appendage, but this is disputed.
The grape does, however, share many characteristics, particularly the honeyed, waxy flavours that develop with a little age.
It is one of the most widely planted varieties in the region although the better known Pinot Grigio, mass produced but perennially popular, has stolen a lot of the limelight.
5. Agricola Querciabella, Batàr
Grape variety: Chardonnay/Pinot Bianco
Classification: Toscana IGT
Average price per bottle: £44
As with Cervaro della Sala, Batàr is designed to be a Burgundy-killer, albeit with Cantina Terlano’s Chardonnay/Pinot Blanc blend.
Between 1988 and 1991 the wine was known as Bâtard-Pinot and mixed both Pinot Bianco and Grigio.
To avoid confusion with more famous Burgundian AOCs and to reflect a change in blend, the name was changed to simply Bâtard from 1992 to 1994 (when Chardonnay was added in place of Pinot Grigio) and then to today’s Batàr in 1995.
The wine has been certified biodynamic since 2000 and was organic from 1988. The must is fermented in barrique and undergoes full malolactic fermentation as well.
Ageing is done in French oak, 30% new, 70% one year old, for nine to 12 months. The wines are then blended and given a further six months bottle age before release.
Cellaring of three to four years is recommended as the wine apparently has a tendency to “shut down” between its release after 20 months and maturity at around 42 months.
Galloni called the 2004 (92 points) “sublime” and said that there was “no doubt” that, in general, it was a wine capable of developing greater complexity with age.
The 2007 and 2008 were both given 91 points by Galloni and the 2005 and 2006 90 points. From 1995 to 2010 the wine has consistently scored between 16.5 and 17.5 on Purple Pages.
4. Azienda Agricola Valentini, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo
Grape variety: Trebbiano
Classification: Trebbiano d’Abruzzo DOC
Average price per bottle: £47
Poor, unloved Trebbiano. “Bland”, “boring”, “good only for use in distillation”, it does come in for a hard time.
As ever though, when given a little attention and patience it can prove itself capable of greater things, and this is was no more aptly demonstrated than by the late Edoardo Valentini, widely regarded in his day as Abruzzo’s best winemaker.
Since 2006 the torch has been taken on by his son, Francesco Paolo, and with similarly enthusiastic reviews.
The first “Best Italian Wine Awards” held in Milan last year, named the 2007 the overall winner.
Sassicaia came third while Zidarich’s Vitovska and Villa Bucci’s Verdicchio, already mentioned in this list, came 19th and 32nd respectively out of the 160-strong shortlist.
Valentini’s Trebbiano turns all preconceptions about this grape on their heads. Apparently capable of ageing for 25 years and unexpectedly complex, it is produced in miniscule quantities.
It is said that stockists have to take a lot of olive oil if they want to get their hands on even a few bottles.
Galloni described the 2005 (92 points) in 2010 as having ripe apricots, flowers and peaches on the palate, and that it was “rich and enveloping”.
He scored the 2008 and 2004 with 92 and 90 points respectively.
Robinson added that the 2003 (17 points) would need a careful food match to counter the, “twangy fruit” and background acidity.
On a related red note, the Montepulciano, of which only some 4,000 bottles are produced a year is also meant to be wonderful.
3. Ca’del Bosco, Chardonnay
Grape variety: Chardonnay
Classification: Curtefranca DOC
Average price per bottle: £48
Curtefranca is the still wine cousin of the slightly better known Franciacorta in the east of Lombardy.
Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco dominate the whites planted here, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon the reds.
The grapes are harvested from seven select vineyards and whole pressed.
Robinson describes the vinification technique as including alcoholic fermentation in small barrels and then 10 months ageing on the lees with bâtonage.
The wine is blended before bottling.
The end result is: “Sleek and round. Very good texture and depth of flavour.”
Galloni, meanwhile, thought that the 2008 (92 points) was, “the finest I have ever tasted (from the winery).”
2. Gravner, 1993 Sauvignon Blanc
Grape variety: Sauvignon Blanc
Classification: Collio Goriziano
Average price per bottle: £103
A final return to the Slavic/Germanic borderlands of Friuli now for a winemaker whose entire range is held in a mixture of awe and mild confusion.
Owner Josko Gravner was well known in the 1990s for his long maceration times and in 2001 he released the first of his wines macerated on their skins, in amphorae, a la Georgia’s winemakers, and then aged for a further six years in barrels and another year in bottle.
Gravner also works entirely in accordance with phases of the moon.
He resulting wines are, therefore, “unique” in every sense of the word. Robinson politely declares that they are “not for her”, while acknowledging their potential with food and gave the 1993 Sauvignon 17(!) points, while Galloni tends to be more positive in his reviews while simultaneously acknowledging that the huge following Gravner has in Italy can mean that the prices are “grossly out of line with respect to their quality/price rapport”.
Other fears rest on the notion that the thick, slightly oxidised characters – if not the slightly alarming orange hues – these wines exhibit obliterate any hint of terroir.
The Sauvignon takes the lead as it is the most expensive but there is similar enthusiasm among admirers for the, slightly cheaper, Breg (a mix of Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc/Riesling and Pinot Grigio, averaging £40 a bottle), Ribolla Gialla (from a Slavic/Mediterranean grape called Ribolla, £40 a bottle), and Pinot Grigio (£80), both their pre- and post- amphorae versions. These wines tend to gain better points.
From the website (which is just in Italian) and the review sites of Purple Pages and WA, it does not appear that the Sauvignon Blanc is made anymore, with only the 1993 making any kind of appearance.
If this is the case then that is likely the reason why it is so expensive.
1. Gaja, Gaia & Rey Chardonnay Langhe
Grape variety: Chardonnay
Classification: Langhe DOC
Average price per bottle: £117
Angelo Gaja, revered for his Barolos, has gone on record before as saying that Italy’s wine future would owe much to white wine.
This is largely disputed – viz Berry Green at the beginning of this piece – but there is no doubt that Gaja is out to raise the profile of Italian whites and is prepared to give outside varieties a chance among the plethora of native Italian ones.
The Chardonnay was planted in 1979 and was, yet another, project of which his father disapproved, the first being the planting of Cabernet Sauvignon in the subsequently named Darmargi (“What a shame”) vineyard that had traditionally been reserved for Nebbiolo.
Gaja argued at the time that he wanted to make a white wine but the local variety, Arneis, wasn’t allowed in the Langhe DOC.
Chardonnay was so he planted it – still against his father’s advice that all Italian wine should be made with native grapes.
Then again he had also said that Italian wine should all be red, so that particular caveat had already been disregarded.
The vineyard and wine, is named after Gaja’s daughter, Gaia, and grandmother.
Robinson praised the 1994 (17 points) when she tasted it in 2009, which, while not as complex as white Burgundy after 15 years, was considerably fresher.
Galloni meanwhile has called various vintages, “refined” (2006 – 92 points), “blockbuster” (1990 – 93 points) and “Meursault-like” (2001 – 91 points).
It’s average price is in direct correlation to the family’s well-founded viticultural prestige.