Regardless of the ubiquity of pinot grigio and Prosecco, the antiquated notion of Italy as solely a red wine culture retains its tenacious grip on the imagination. It was not true 20 years ago, and it’s not true today.
Italy makes more wine than any other country on earth, and it might surprise you, as it did me, to learn that it makes more white than red.
In 2018, the last year for which figures are available, 57 percent of Italy’s wine production was white, including Prosecco, a sparkling white, according to Italian Wine Central, an online provider of information and education.
Historically, it was the other way around, with Italy producing far more red than white. But white wine production in Italy surged past red for the first time in 2011, according to Italian Wine Central, and the proportion has grown almost every year since.
True, much of that production is pinot grigio and Prosecco. Both are largely generic, bland wines that are nonetheless highly popular. But just as the best-selling big-brand American wines do not suggest the potential for quality in the United States wine industry, these genres reveal little of how far Italian white wine has come in the last 30 years.
From Sicily, south of the Italian mainland, to Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia in the northeast and the Valle d’Aosta in the northwest, Italy is overflowing with fascinating, distinctive white wines.
Many of these wines are reasonably priced and great values. As the weather warms up and diets adjust to the season, these wines will make for wonderful summer drinking.
Shopping online from my pandemic isolation in Manhattan, I picked out 10 excellent bottles priced at $25 or less. Each wine is made from a different grape or blend, which maybe is not so easy to imagine. Can you think of 10 American white wines without duplicating grapes? Really good ones, all under $25? I didn’t think so.
Yet, I look at the 10 wines I chose, and then consider all the Italian whites that I did not include. I easily could have picked another 10 great bottles without duplication if I were making my usual rounds through the city.
My choices included a trebbiano Abruzzese and a pecorino, both from Abruzzo; three from Sicily, a carricante from Etna, a grillo from western Sicily and a blend of insolia and grecanico from the Vittoria region; a zibibbo from Calabria and a verdicchio from the Marche; a grechetto from Umbria, a cortese from the Piedmont and a kerner from Alto Adige.
Not surprisingly in a country where rigid organization is rarely evident, many of these grapes have multiple names depending on the region they are grown.
Grecanico in Sicily is the same as garganega in Veneto, the primary grape of Soave. Trebbiano Abruzzese is different, and superior, to the myriad trebbianos grown elsewhere in Italy. Zibibbo is the same grape elsewhere in the world known as muscat of Alexandria. Insolia, also spelled inzolia, is known in other parts of Italy as Ansonica.
Confusing? You bet. It’s enough to make Italian marketers plotz, as we say in New York. They would prefer Italian wine to be simplified. Make it all pinot grigio and Prosecco, and they’d be very happy.
But the diversity of Italian wine is its glory. I’ve said nothing of ribolla gialla from Friuli-Venezia Giulia or vitovska from the Carso area; fiano or falanghina from Campania, or prié blanc from the Valle d’Aosta; vespaiola from Vicenza or nosiola from Trentino.
I could go on, but you get the idea. And, by the way, there’s chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and riesling to be had as well, if you were missing them.
As a general rule, these wines are leaner than American or French whites, but not always. They are more acidic and less oaky. And despite the habit of pouring pinot grigio and Prosecco at so many gallery openings and happy hours, they are at their best with food.
What kind of food? Summer foods. Salads, pestos, dishes incorporating fresh tomatoes and cooked clams. Seafood and sunlight. Drinking these wines has made me feel less cooped up.
Here are 10 suggested Italian whites, in no particular order.
Antica Tenuta Pietramore Abruzzo Pecorino Superiore 2016 $17.99
I have come to really enjoy wines made of pecorino — the grape, not the cheese. This one, made from biodynamically grown grapes, is absolutely delicious: rich, textured, high in acid but substantial and concentrated. I think the extra year or two of aging (most pecorinos on the market now are 2018s) helped to round the sharp edges. This was terrific with a pasta dish of garlic, anchovies and cherry tomatoes, based on a David Tanis recipe. (Communal Brands, Long Island City, N.Y.)
COS Terre Siciliane Ramí 2018 $24.99
You could call this an orange wine if you wanted, though the color is closer to yellow. The grapes, half insolia (also known as ansonica) and half grecanico, are macerated with the skins for seven to 10 days, which gives the wine a mild tannic backbone. Otherwise it’s pure, lively and refreshing, tangy and textured. A terrific bottle from a leading producer in the Vittoria region. (Polaner Selections, Mount Kisco, N.Y.)
Collestefano Verdicchio di Matelica 2018 $17.99
The grape is verdicchio, and the area is Matelica in the Marche region, not nearly as well known for its verdicchio wines as its Marche neighbor, Castelli di Jesi, which is closer to the Adriatic. This wine is vibrant and energetic, with aromas of flowers and almonds, and a spine of electric acidity, typical of the inland, higher elevation Matelica area. Collestefano is a top-flight producer there. It farms organically, and makes this wine straightforwardly and simply. Drinking it is a wake-up call. (Polaner Selections)
Benvenuto Calabria Zibibbo 2018 $24.99
It’s no wonder that this wine is pungent and perfumed. Zibibbo is the southern Italian name for muscat of Alexandria, one of a notoriously fragrant family of grapes. Mostly, it is made into sweet wine on Sicily and on the island of Pantelleria, but I’ve seen more dry versions recently. I can’t remember seeing zibibbo from anywhere but Sicily, but this one comes from Calabria, the toe of the Italian boot, where Giovanni Benvenuto farms organically. The wine is fragrant, naturally, and goes down easily. Like many muscats, it’s a great summer refresher. (Jan D’Amore Wine, Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Feudo Montoni Sicily Grillo Timpa 2018 $18.99
Like zibibbo, grillo is another Sicilian grape better known for sweet than dry wines. It has been an important constituent of the fortified wine Marsala, but recently I have seen it used to make attractive dry white wines. These grillo grapes are grown organically on a steep slope in the Agrigento region of southern Italy. The aromas and flavors are earthy and nutlike, floral and harmonious. (Wilson Daniels, Napa, Calif.)
Raína Umbria Grechetto 2018 $19.50
The most common white from Umbria is Orvieto, named after the charming town that is the center of the region. But Orvieto is a blended wine, and more and more producers recently have been focusing on one of the components, grechetto. This unfiltered wine, from Francesco Mariani of Raína, is biodynamically grown. It’s uncommonly golden, as if it were oxidized, but it’s decidedly not. Rather it’s fresh and assertive, dry and spicy, with just a light tannic touch from a brief period of contact with the skins. (Panebianco, New York)
Benanti Etna Bianco 2018 $24.99
The carricante grape is one of the great discoveries that has come with the emergence to the world of the Mount Etna region in Sicily. Its distinctive salinity makes a wonderful partner for all sorts of seafood. This is the entry-level bottle from Benanti, which also makes Pietra Marina, perhaps the greatest example of carricante’s potential, a wine capable of aging and evolving for years. (Wilson Daniels Wholesale, New York)
Tiberio Trebbiano d’Abbruzo 2018 $19.99
I’ve written about this wine several times, but it’s so good it deserves the attention. The siblings Christiana and Antonio Tiberio run this excellent estate, and they are good spokespeople for the trebbiano Abruzzese grape. Other strains of the trebbiano grape are more common, and Trebbiano d’Abruzzo may be made of either trebbiano Toscano, trebbiano Abruzzese or a combination. But the trebbiano Abruzzese grape is superior. For evidence, try this wine. The 2018 is dry, aromatic and richly textured, with bracing saline and floral flavors. Tiberio also makes a wonderful single-vineyard Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, Fonte Canale, which is considerably more expensive, and an excellent pecorino, which is not. (The Sorting Table, Napa, Calif.)
La Mesma Gavi del Comune di Gavi Indi 2018 $24.99
Years ago, Gavi di Gavi was one of the best known Italian white wines, along with Soave and Frascati. The reputation of each of these sank under the weight of a profusion of insipid wines. But examples like the 2018 Indi are helping to resurrect the reputation of Gavi. La Mesma, run by three sisters, uses organic cortese grapes to make the wine. It is fragrant, with earthy lemon flavors, rich and textured, and balanced by lively acidity. (Bacchanal Wine Imports, Port Chester, N.Y.)
Abbazia di Novacella Alto Adige — Valle Isarco Kerner 2018 $19.99
Abbazia di Novacella is a functioning Augustinian monastery that traces its winemaking activities back to the 12th century. All that experience has paid off, as the Novacella wines are reliably delicious. The kerner grape, a Germanic cross that is right at home in Tyrolean Italy, offers an earthy citrus richness that is balanced and refreshing. (Abbazia di Novacella U.S.A., Sausalito, Calif.)