A decade ago, if you said “Italian wine,” consumers thought you were speaking of chianti or barolo — tart red wines meant to go with pasta. Italy, then the world’s largest producer of wine, made mostly red; white was really an afterthought. Red was so much a part of the Italian wine culture, in fact, that Piero Antinori, the splendid producer from Tuscany, once was quoted saying, “White wine is just white wine. Red wine is wine.”
Yet about that same time, white wine from Italy quietly began to make inroads into American’s wine consciousness. It wasn’t a major trend, but it did represent a huge change in American drinking habits when Bolla Soave — the simple, crisp white wine from Verona — became incredibly popular in the U.S.
So much a staple in the American diet was Bolla Soave that people would order it in restaurants and not even know which word was the brand name. Indeed, it was its status as a “call” wine in restaurants that made Bolla’s Soave so successful and left it far ahead of all other soaves.
Unlike French wine, which gained its greatest share of growth first at retail shops and later in restaurants, Italian wine was growing in retail stores due to the overwhelming success of Italian cuisine. Today, Italian white wine has truly come of age. Bolla’s fresh, clean soave has continued to grow in volume, and so have several other well-known Italian whites. Brands such as Folonari, Canei and Cella all have seen high percentage increases in the last decade, and a good portion of the growth recently has been at retail.
And, as for the world-famous Marchesi Antinori winery, it has just introduced a lineup of 1996 vintage white wines, underlining the continuing impact of Italian whites in the U.S. marketplace. Light and refreshing, the Marchesi Antinori line features a Villa Antinori Bianco (suggested retail $8.50) from Tuscany, which is the winery’s flagship white; and from the Umbria region Antinori Orvieto Classico Campogrande ($9), Castello della Sala Chardonnay ($11.50) and Castello della Sala Sauvignon Blanc ($11).
“One of the big reasons for the recent popularity of Italian white wines is that they maintain their varietal characteristics without wood,” said Dr. Giovanni Minetti, general manager of the Piedmont-based winery Fontanafredda. “That’s the secret of their success.”
An example of this success is the tremendous popularity of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, which now commands a price close to $20 in many retail shops, and seems to be on the wine list of just about every Italian restaurant in the U.S. The Santa Margherita phenomenon continues to lead a huge pack of pinot grigio producers, and today there are more brands of pinot grigio coming into the U.S. market than any other white wine of Italy. Folonari and Fontana Candida (better known for a delightful, crisp frascati) both have entered this market with appealingly fresh pinot grigios.
Even more telling is the rise of Italian-grown chardonnay. Once it was thought that gavi di gavi, especially from La Scolca and Banfi, would become the chardonnay alternatives in the U.S. Although they have a good share of the market today, they are being out-run by another chardonnay alternative: chardonnay!
Italian vintners have begun to grow chardonnay, especially in certain areas where the government’s DOC laws now permit it to officially be grown, such as in Lombardy and Piedmont. Here and even in certain areas of Tuscany and Umbria many producers are making chardonnay-based wines that are stealing the thunder not only of gavi, but also of the once more popular pinot bianco — the same wine as the pinot blanc that has become a staple from Alsace in France.
The flavors of Italian chardonnay are not as close to French or California as they are unique to Italy, and at prices that normally don’t exceed $20, these are fine substitutes for those seeking a new version of an old friend. Antinori’s lovely chardonnay, at about $11-$12, is soaring in popularity at stores, and his Cervaro della Sala, an oak-aged chardonnay with a bit of grechetto, is a winner at restaurants.
The lean, fresh wines of Collio near the Slovenian border are represented in the U.S. market most strongly by Livio Felluga, whose brother Marco has exceptional wines under the Russiz Superiore label.
From the nearby Colli Orientali del Friuli comes a series of stirring sauvignon blanc wines including the successful Torre Rosazza.
Perhaps the best known white other than soave from Italy is its muscat-based sparkling wine called asti spumante. Martini and Rossi and Tosti, the two leading producers, once were the only brands you could find in the U.S.
In the last two years, as the Italian government has increased the image of asti spumante by permitting the quality statement DOC on the category’s best wines, more producers are coming in to challenge Martini and Rossi’s national lead.
For example, Fontanafredda just released a 1996 asti made with 100% moscato. It will be available in only limited quantities in the U.S. and sells for $2-$3 more than Martini & Rossi Asti. The winery has long been known for its premium barolos, but it has also recently released a new gavi and a DOC designated chardonnay. Also available in limited quantities in the U.S., the chardonnay sells for $12 to $14 retail, and accents varietal characteristics while maintaining a wonderful balance.
With literally dozens of different wine types in Italy, getting a handle on the best wines isn’t easy. Generally speaking, though, what seems most appealing about Italian white wines is their relative freshness without overt use of oak (except in some high-end chardonnays and recently pinot bianco); their faint earthiness; and their honest, assertive acidity levels. Indeed, the first time you try, for example, an orvieto from a top producer, you may be shocked at the crispness.
But then, the whole phenomenon of Italian whites may still be shocking to some people.