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Friday, July 29, 2011

Italian White Wines: Our Favorites

Preparing for cocktail hour in Buffalo.  Dianne prefers the
small, fluted Italian glass.
Not the least of the customs we’ve inherited is the “cocktail hour.” Not the sort of ongoing, all-day, workplace cocktail hour practiced in the 1950s ad biz, at least according to Mad Men. Rather, the end-of-day, conversational, finally-get-to-talk-to-your-wife, cocktail hour. Our parents’ version meant Bloody Marys on one side, Rob Roys on the other. For us it’s white wine, usually Italian.

Italian white wines are easier to understand—easier than their French counterparts, that is. That’s because the French insist on labeling wines only by region and place—Burgundy and Sancere, for example—so that the grapes used to make their wines are obscured (a Burgundy is a Pinot Noir, a Sancerre a [fine and relatively expensive] Sauvignon Blanc).

Although Italians care very much about where wines come from, most—but not all—Italian white wines are known by the grape each is made from, often followed by the place of origin. Hence Greco di Tufo is a wine made from the Greco (a name that refers to the origins of the grape in Greek antiquity) grape and is from the area around the town of Tufo, just east of Naples.

Working against tradition, we’ll begin in the Italian South and move northward toward the Alps.


Most of the grapes grown in Sicily are either Trebbiano or Catarratto, both “boring” according to David Gleave’s The Wines of Italy (1989)—excellent but out of print and hard to find--which we’ll quote from liberally. It’s well known that the best white grapes of Sicily are the Inzolia (also the name of the wine) and Grillo, a current favorite. Grillo is native to Sicily and prone to oxidation, so don’t let it sit. According to Gleave it’s got “hints of green,” “elegant floral bouquet,” and a “unique taste of exotic and citrus fruits.” Just what we were thinking. BTW, it’s also known as Riddu, though we’ve never seen that name on a label.


For a while last year, our local Rome grocery store had a large supply of Vermentino di Gallura. Over a few weeks we bought it all. Gallura is a zone or area of Sardinia, and the grape is Vermentino. But it’s not the Vermentino you’ll get up north in Liguria. A different grape with the same name. Not an elegant wine, but substantial and drinkable. We wouldn’t call it exotic. Goes good with pizza.


We’ve already introduced Greco di Tufo, which is from the town of Greco (NOT!!!!). It can be “dry and elegant” as one of our sources says, and we used to buy it frequently when invited to dinner by our Roman friends. Our current thinking is that it’s a dependable dry wine, but not so interesting. Most of Calabria’s white wines are built on a Greco base.

We prefer another Naples-area wine, Fiano. Most of it comes from around the town of Avellino, also near Naples, hence Fiano di Avellino. In a recent New York Times piece extolling the virtues of Fiano, Eric Asimov called it “vivacious” and noted its “smoky, nutlike, spicy quality,” perhaps a result of new techniques, including “lees-stirring,” which involves using detritus from the fermentation process. Fiano is an ancient vine, known to the Romans as Apianum, because it tempted the bees. Lots of good bottles for under $20 in the US, if you can find a store that carries it. The other white mainstay of the Campania region is Falanghina—not an especially distinguished or dry wine, but seconda noi absolutely Italian in taste.

Rome Environs

Make sure it's "Superiore"
Much (too much) of the wine served in Rome restaurants is Frascati.  Frascati’s one of our exceptions, because it’s not a grape but the name of a town in the Colli Albani (Alban Hills), about 25 kilometers from the city. Writing in 1989, Gleave described it as having “little or no character,” a conclusion based on the fact that most Frascati was made from the Trebbiano grape—easy to grow but not the stuff of which great wines are born. Today, there’s more Malvasia in Frascati, and that, and real focus on quality, means that some Frascati is very good. Look for Frascati Superiore.

West of Rome in the Abruzzi mountains the basic white wine is Trebbiano d’Abruzzo. That would suggest that it’s made from the Trebbiano grape, but that isn’t so. Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is made from the Bombino Bianco grape. A rose by any other name. Drink this wine if you’re in Abruzzo.


There was a time when Grechetto was widely planted in the land-locked province of Umbria, to the north of Rome. But the low-yielding grape proved frustrating, and most of it died out, save for a few villages—around Todi and Foligno—where growers apparently have more patience or deeper pockets. The grape is the same as the Greco. Gleave labels it “rich, nutty, appley.” Not so dry. It gets a “B” on our report card.

The Marches

The Marches’ white wine of note is Verdicchio. It’s easily spotted in the stores, with its amphora-shaped (and now not so hip) bottle. It’s sometimes called the Adriatic Muscadet, which means it’s a bit sweeter than some. Tasty but seldom elegant, Verdicchio is meant for lunch with a panino.

North from Rome, into Tuscany

Another exception to our rule is Orvieto, named after a lovely hilltop town. Another lunch wine, only occasionally suitable for the elevated space of the “cocktail hour,” but serviceable nonetheless. A “neutral wine,” according to most accounts, its relative mediocrity traceable to large amounts of Trebbiano (again). The best of it is mixed with a healthy portion of Grechetto. Please! Please! Please! avoid the best-known brand of Orvieto: Est! Est! Est!, which is 80% (that is, too much) Trebbiano. Trebbiano is also grown in quantity in the hills south of Bologna, where it makes a “neutral” wine, sometimes and dry and freshing but “seldom distinguished.”

Vernaccia di San Gimignano is an old favorite of ours, as dry, light and flinty a wine as you’ll find it Italy—something like the New Zealand sauvignon blancs, though with more flavor. What’s the grape? Where’s it made? The best-known producer is San Quirico. We drank a lot of this wine for years, and we still do. It’s surprising that the grape hasn’t migrated.

The North

We’ve skipped Emilia Romagna (Bologna, Parma, etc.—the Northern Appenines). As you can sense, we’re not Trebbiano admirers, and that seems to be the hegemonic white grape of the region. Further north and to the east, Pino Grigio dominates. It’s good enough, Hillary, and we’ve certainly had our share, but we’ve come to think of it as a simple, rather ordinary wine, the lowest-common denominator if you will, of fine wine and good taste. A “trainer” wine. So we’ll skip it.

The northeast is also known for Tocai, a native grape that can result is truly excellent wines. A recent dispute between Hungary and Italy over the right to label a wine simply “Tocai” had Hungary emerge the winner, so exactly what the Italian version is now called remains a mystery, to us. Still, if it’s on the menu, try it; it’s always good.

We used to say that about Gavi, too. Another exception to the naming rule, it’s made in the hills near the town of Gavi in the SE Piedmont, and it’s from the Cortese grape. It’s referred to as a “Gavi” and you’ll often see “Gavi di Gavi,” which to us makes no sense. Gleave describes it as “dry, neutral and acid,” “at best a decent fresh white wine” but very “fashionable.” We couldn’t have said it better. Always presentable but never exceptional. Probably overpriced.

We were once also fans of Muller-Thurgau, another SE Piedmont wine. Light and perfumed, it’s made from Riesling and Sylvaner grapes. Then we read that it was a rather pedestrian white and, not wanting to consider ourselves pedestrian, we stopped drinking it. Not a great wine, but pleasant enough.

Our current favorite is also from Piedmont, but it has a French name, from the grape: Arneis. Native to the region, Arneis is low-yielding and in other ways problematic, a characteristic reflected not only in its price, but in the name: in dialect, Arneis means “little difficult one.” Some of the best are from the Roero region, though the one we're drinking appears to be from Langhe.  According to Gleave, Arneis is light and dry, powerful yet delicate. We’ve never seen it in Rome, but then we haven’t looked; it’s that new to us. A great wine to take for dinner with friends; chances are they’ll never have heard of it—always good—and it’s a sublime wine.

P.S. See photos and info below on wine shops selling a good variety of Italian whites in Buffalo and Los Angeles (where else?).  And when in Rome, check out the "wine bar" section of Rome the Second Time, plus one or two of our wine bar posts.

City Wine Merchant, where many of the wines mentioned in this post can (and have been) purchased.  Corner of Main and Tupper, Buffalo, New York. .   Dave Cosentino, the proprietor at Vino Aroma, on Main Street in Williamsville, has first-hand knowledge of Italian whites, and the store carries an ample selection--as well as copies of Rome the Second Time.  Vino Aroma is 2 doors west of Trattoria Aroma.

In Los Angeles,
our source for Italian whites is Domaine LA, at 6801 Melrose (don't miss the ceiling; photo below).


Ken and Laurie-Ann said...

I am unsure as to why you would rely so heavily upon a treatise that is appears fairly dated in the wine world. You mention that there is some good Frascati out there, and I want to echo that, and comment that one should not be too fast to judge a wine by the grapes used in the production alone. The produce can make a huge difference. I had a wonderful Frascati the other night. I did a little bit of research on the wine and found that Wine Spectator gave it a 91. Not bad.

Dianne Bennett and William Graebner said...

You're right. Gleave's Wines of Italy is a bit long in the tooth. But it's still an excellent general guide: beautifully organized, opinionated at just the right level. And we haven't, yet, found anything as to replace it. Anyway, it appears we agree on Frascati.

Ken and Laurie-Ann said...

Yes we do agree on Frascati. By the way, I meant to say "producer" not "produce." I have a new keyboard and it is not as tactile as my old one. Letters are often left off words. I know, I should be proofreading better. In any event, I hope this does not result one day in a very embarrassing and unintended consequence! :)

Montepulciano wine Italy said...

Without any doubt, the Italian Wine is one of the best in the world!