Twenty-odd years ago, in a small café in western Milan, I asked a waiter for the wine list. He simply said, “Non carte di vini, solo rosso e bianco,” and on speaking that last word, he winced and slowly shook his head.
As if to say, “Forget the white.”
Today, if I asked 1,000 American wine consumers to describe an Italian wine, probably 700 would say “Chianti” and about 300, the most sophisticated, would say something about it being red.
I’m guessing that even dedicated wine lovers would never describe an Italian wine as being white. Indeed, until recently, white wine from Italy was such an afterthought that almost no one ever ordered it. (Except for a lot of blah Pinot Grigio…)
But when it comes to red, Italy is filled with the stuff. And a lot of it is really good for aging in a cellar: Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello, Aglianico, Sagrantino, Barbera, Amarone and more.
There was a good reason for poor quality bianco for decades. Most were afterthoughts, fermented too warm, shipped to market without care.
It wasn’t until about 1970 that temperature-controlled stainless-steel fermentation tanks became widely used in Italy, giving winemakers control over fermentation temperatures, allowing wines to be made fruitier and thus display more of their distinctiveness.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a few northern Italian white wines (like the Cortese-based Gavi) tried to gain traction in the U.S. wine market, but the effort collapsed. Part of the reason: Some importers refused to ship the product in refrigerated containers, so the wine was “cooked,” partially deteriorated when it got here.
Since about 2000, viticulture, wine-making methods, and import tactics all markedly improved. Today, many Italian white wines are far more reputable than ever. Today there is quality Arneis, Verduzzo, Fiano, Grechetto, Favorita, Greco, Picolit, Malvasia...
However, sales of many of these wines remain problematic partly as a result of the flood of very ordinary Pinot Grigio that has blemished all Italian whites.
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Moreover, high-quality Italian whites began to arrive here about the same time (late 1990s) that other imported products hit these shores at decent prices. Many whites from Spain, Portugal, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, and Europe challenged Italian bianco, which has made life rough for Italian importers like Don Chigazola.
His small Sonoma County-based import firm (Chigazola Merchants) has invested a lot, allowing him to specialize in the finest Italian wines, both red and white. Yet he still has a hard time getting restaurants and retailers to pay attention to many of his whites.
He ships every wine in cold refrigerated containers (called reefers), and of the whites he carries, most are among the most highly regarded throughout Italy.
But you would never know it unless you sat down to chat with Don. His eyes simply light up when he speaks of his latest whites.
One is from the highly regarded Verdicchio grape that is native to the Marche in the coastal/eastern edge of central Italy. Verdicchio is a variety unique to high-altitude Marche (mar-kay), where cold nights keep acids high, and permit this grape to display a minerally/stony aroma with hints of citrus.
Chigazola’s 2017 Tenuta dell’Ugolino Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, “Vigneto del Balluccio” ($27) is a stunning achievement with a ripe and complex aroma from some aging on lees and extra time in the bottle. Its aroma is complex with a nuance that reminds me slightly of Riesling.
Ian d’Agata, whose new book “Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs” ($50, UC Press), says Marche growers of Verdicchio didn’t understand how great this grape was. Until recently, he said, they didn’t realize “they had a Ferrari in their hands and were driving around at 40 miles per hour.”
Another grape Don offers is a stunning white that’s not unlike a superb Sauvignon Blanc. It’s our Wine of the Week.
Wine of the Week: 2018 Madonnabruna Pecorino, Marche, Maree DOC ($25): An aroma has acacia, jasmine, and other spiced notes. The succulent entry is offset by bracing acid in the finish. This Pecorino isn’t a cheese, but a local grape. one I never heard of until I saw d’Agata write about it: “Italy’s hottest white cultivar and wine for the last five or six years.”
Consumers can order direct from Don off his website, Chigazolamerchants.com.