Exploring Wine: Italy's Top White-Grape Varieties

Seventeen white grape varieties compose Italy's major varieties for white or sparkling wine production. Following are five particularly key varieties in their rough order of importance.

Trebbiano

If any single factor is to blame for the lackluster quality of the white wine category in Italy, it is the Trebbiano grape. Trebbiano (trehb bee AH noh), known as Ugni Blanc in France, can make characterful white wines when it is grown carefully, but to a population that takes wine as casually as the Italians do, this variety is a cheap ticket to bland, neutral-tasting, light-bodied, crisp wines.

Trebbiano is the most common white variety in Italy (in both senses of the word), grown almost everywhere but particularly prevalent in the central regions. It has several sub-varieties, or clones, of which Trebbiano Toscano is probably the most planted; other clones include Trebbiano di Romagna, Trebbiano d'Abruzzo (which might actually be Bombino Bianco), Trebbiano Giallo, Trebbiano di Soave, and the relatively fine Procanico. In one manifestation or another, it's the backbone of numerous classic Italian white wines, such as Frascati.

The main aroma and flavor descriptor of Trebbiano-based wines is "vinous" — a fancy way of saying that they smell and taste winey. These wines are usually dry and high in acid, but in recent years many producers seem to be making them with some sweetness, which to our taste eliminates their one virtue — their crisp, refreshing, food-friendly style — without improving the wines' quality one iota.

Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio (pee noh GREE joe) is the Italian name for the French variety Pinot Gris. Like other varieties of French origin, Pinot Gris immigrated to Northeastern Italy more than a century ago; its production has increased since the late 1970's, however, because its wines have found such commercial success.

Because of high crop levels and popular taste in Italy, Pinot Grigio most often makes light-bodied, pale, high-acid wines; some producers make more characterful styles, with concentrated flavors of peach or mineral, but none as rich as Alsace Pinot Gris wines. The best Pinot Grigios come from Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

Verdicchio

Verdicchio (ver DEEK kee oh) excels in the Marche region, on the Adriatic coast. It has far more potential for flavor and character than Trebbiano does, making wines with medium body, crisp acidity, and aromas of lemon and sea air. It's used mainly for un-oaked wines that are variedly labeled.

Vernaccia

Two distinct white Italian varieties go by the name Vernaccia (ver NAHTCH cha), one in Tuscany and the other in Sardinia. (There's also a red Vernaccia from Marche!) The Tuscan Vernaccia is the finer of the two whites. Although its wines have the trademark Italian high acidity and light to medium body, the best examples show depth and character, with mineral nuances. Vernaccia usually makes un-oaked wines, but can sometimes age quite nicely in oak barrels.

Tocai Friulano

While Pinot Grigio gets the lion's share of attention, many fans of Friulian wines favor the Tocai Friulano (toh KYE free oo LAH no) grape — and this variety is the most widely planted white variety in Friuli. Tocai makes light- to medium-bodied wines with crisp acidity; the best of them have a rich, viscous texture and are more flavorful than the Italian norm.

Some experts believe Tocai to be Sauvignon Vert, a variety that often passes for Sauvignon Blanc in Chile, although Italy's Tocais are quite different from Chile's Sauvignons. Whatever the variety actually is, it will soon go under a different name, yet to be determined: The European Union has required producers to desist from using the name Tocai by 2007, to avoid confusion with Hungary's classic wine zone, Tokaji.

Other important white varieties

Twelve white varieties are also quite important in Italy; here they are in alphabetical order:

  • Arneis (ahr NASE): This old, Piedmontese variety is newly popular in the wine zones around the city of Alba. It is low in acidity and fairly flavorful, making soft and round wines with notes of melon, almonds, and flowers.
  • Chardonnay (shar doh nay):In the late 1970s, winemakers in northeastern Italy "discovered" that they had Chardonnay in their vineyards (misidentified as Pinot Blanc) and began making Chardonnay wines. In more recent times, Chardonnay has become popular all over Italy, from Piedmont to Sicily, as winemakers try their hand at making world-class white wine with a world-class grape. In general, the Italian versions are leaner and crisper than the Chardonnay norm, and many don't have enough fruit character to sustain their oak aging.
  • Cortese (cor TAE sae):Grown in various parts of northern Italy, but a specialty of Piedmont's Gavi zone, Cortese makes crisp, light-bodied wines with citrus and appley flavors; the best have mineral character and even notes of honey.
  • Fiano (fee AH no): A perfumed and flavorful variety that's probably the finest white variety of Southern Italy, grown mainly in Campania. Its wines are medium-bodied and capable of aging, developing aromatic richness as they do.
  • Garganega (gar GAH nae ga): The main variety of Soave, this is one of Italy's unsung native white grapes that's finally earning respect. Producers such as Pieropan have proved that it's capable of making rich, unctuous wines with character and class.
  • Greco (GRAE co): Grown throughout Italy's South, this fine variety makes crisp, fairly aromatic (citrusy, floral) wines that have good weight, viscosity, and character.
  • Malvasia (mahl vah SEE ah):This variety grows throughout Italy. Several white sub-varieties exist, including the better Malvasia Toscana, the ancient and flavorful Malvasia Istriana, and the weaker Malvasia di Candia. It's often paired with Trebbiano, to lend wines a bit of richness, but it has the downside of oxidizing easily. Malvasia produces innocuous whites as well as the rich Vin Santo. A red Malvasia, called Malvasia Nera, also exists.
  • Moscato (moh SKAH toh):The Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains grows all over Italy, making all sorts of wines, from delicate Moscato d'Asti to rich dessert styles; its most famous version is the sparkling wine, Asti. The floral, perfumed notes that Moscato attains in the North are among the most finesseful expressions of this variety anywhere in the world. The golden and red types of Moscato are also used to make certain Italian wines. Another Muscat, Muscat of Alexandria or "Zibibbo," makes some of Southern Italy's dessert wines.
  • Pinot Bianco (pee noh bee AHN coh):Known as Pinot Blanc in France, this variety has grown in Northeastern Italy for more than a century. In Alto Adige, its wines attain a character and richness unknown from this variety elsewhere in the world.
  • Riesling Renano (REES ling rea NAH noh): "Renano" means "Rhine," and this name represents the classic Riesling grape, which grows throughout Northeastern Italy. (Riesling Italico is Welschriesling, a different variety.)
  • Sauvignon (soh vee n'yahn):Italians call the Sauvignon Blanc variety only by its first name; it grows throughout the Northeast, where it makes herbal, intensely flavorful wines; some growers are cultivating it in less traditional areas, such as Piedmont and Tuscany, to make internationally styled wines.
  • Vermentino (ver men TEE noh):This variety is at home in Sardinia, Liguria, and coastal Tuscany, where it makes crisp, light- or medium-bodied wines. It has solid potential for fine wines.
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