NORTHERN EXPOSURE

The white wines of Italy's Friuli and Alto Adige are worth a new look—and Pinot Grigio is only part of the story.


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The white wines of Italy's Friuli and Alto Adige are worth a new look—and Pinot Grigio is only part of the story.

In keeping with the glorious chaos that is Italy, the white wines from the northeast of the country reveal just about every style of vinification conceivable. There are aromatic whites, fruity and crisp whites, oaked and unoaked whites, dry whites and sweet whites. There are oceans of whites so neutral that they make supermarket chicken seem packed full of flavor. But most of all there are a large number of exciting whites.

Italy's best white wines come from Friuli-Venezia Giulia (Friuli for short), the region in the far northeast of the country. Other great whites come from the Trentino-Alto Adige in the far north. And an increasing number of delicious nuggets can be found in the Veneto, Italy's third largest region.

"In the 1970s in Italy, white wines were rather light," says importer Neil Empson, who has been buying Italian wines for the American market for 30 years, "but Italians wanted white wines that were easy to drink. The red was the 'serious' wine. Then along came [full-bodied white] wines from California and Australia, and producers in Italy started saying, 'I can do that, too.'"

Winemakers in these regions went through the New World phase of "if it's a grape, oak it," trying to give their wines more character. In the last decade, though, they've focused their attention on what's happening in the vineyards. The best winemakers are lowering the yield per vine and increasing the number of vines per acre. In doing so, they are punching up the taste of terroir, while delivering consistency and value.

This is true for some of the region's largest producers, as well as the smaller wineries. The giant Cavit cooperative, responsible for 70 percent of Trentino's wine production, makes both America's bestselling Pinot Grigio and an exciting new range of single-vineyard wines called Maso. Ca' Montini has supplemented its vividly colored Luna di Luna line (yellow for a Pinot Grigio and Pinot Bianco blend; blue for Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay) with the premium L'Aristocratico Pinot Grigio, a limited-production wine that sells in the mid-teens. That's still less than the pioneering Santa Margherita, which has ridden an aggressive ad campaign to become one of the nation's top-selling restaurant wines.

The 2002 vintage, a disaster in many ways for reds in Italy, was kind to whites. The cool weather favored acidity and crisp flavors. Lower yields gave greater concentration to the most familiar grape of northern Italy, Pinot Grigio. But these whites aren't, by any means, created equal. The producer and the appellation are what make a Pinot Grigio wine worth seeking out. Expect to pay between $10 and $20 for a Pinot Grigio from the Alto Adige, while in Friuli, where domestic demand is huge and production low, $25 or more for a Pinot Grigio is normal.

Why the Border is Better
It is curious, but maybe perfectly logical, that these two regions for great whites—Friuli and Alto Adige—are ones that are closest to, and have the strongest links with, other countries. Friuli is next to Slovenia (once part of the former Yugoslavia), and its culture bridges those of western and eastern Europe. For a thousand years, Friuli and the Veneto were under the control of the Venetians, whose civilization was a unique blend of Oriental and Byzantine.

The Alto Adige and Trentino just to the south were part of Austria until 1918—the Alto Adige is still known by its inhabitants as the Südtirol, being closer geographically and viticulturally to Austria than to the rest of Italy. Both regions deliver white wines that have a northern European aromatic character rarely found elsewhere on the peninsula.
The other prime factor influencing the winemaking of these vineyards is that they're dominated by mountains. In the north lie the strange rock formations of the Dolomites; spreading east are the Alps, joining the mountains that form the boundary between Italy and Slovenia. The best vineyards are in the mountains and the foothills.

Alto Adige Altitude
By far the most spectacular vineyards in Italy are those of the Alto Adige. The mountains tower above the narrow valleys, the vines clinging to the steep slopes. The highest vineyard in Europe, the Feldmarschall, owned by Tiefenbrunner, lies at 3,000 feet. The vines are surrounded by green alpine meadows that are like a set from The Sound of Music.
In addition to the established family wineries such as Tiefenbrunner, Hofstätter and Lageder, there are also some relative newcomers. Elena Walch runs her husband's Castel Ringberg and Kastelaz vineyards while he concentrates on the merchant side of the business. Her finest wines are not the usual single-variety wines of the Alto Adige: The wood-aged, creamy Beyond the Clouds is a blend of Chardonnay and a selection of four other varieties that Walch keeps a secret.

Blends are also Franz Haas's forte. A seventh-generation winemaker, Haas has broken with the local tradition of high yields and gone for high-density, low-yield vineyard plantings. His Manna (50 percent Riesling, 20 percent Chardonnay, 20 percent Traminer, 10 percent Sauvignon Blanc) is a complex fusion of French, German and local varieties.
One of the major factors in the success of Alto Adige wines is the high quality of the cooperatives. The Colterenzio cooperative regularly wins top awards in the authoritative Italian wine guide, Gambero Rosso. Winemaker Wolfgang Raifer believes that this is because of "the huge changes we have made in the vineyards in recent years. Everything changed in the mid-1980s, when we moved from wanting quantity to demanding quality. We wanted to capture the terroir. We looked for varietal expression rather than neutral flavors."

Friuli's Fruit
Trentino-Alto Adige white wines are made mainly from non-Italian grape varieties (apart from Traminer), such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Bianco. Friuli, by contrast, has a wealth of local white varieties, such as Tocai Friulano and Ribolla Gialla. Most of the best Friulian vineyards, planted on steep hills, do not lend themselves to mass production. That means that the general standard of winemaking is high, as well as expensive.

There is a built-in complication in Friuli because of the large number of DOCs. Leonardo LoCascio, CEO and president of Italian wine importer Winebow, believes that consumers find the DOC system very confusing. "The same varietals are produced at very different price levels in the appellations of Collio, Colli Orientali, and Grave del Friuli," he says. "And then there is often insufficient varietal distinction between the various white wines produced by an estate."

Giorgio Schiopetto is the winemaker at the Schiopetto winery in Collio, on the Slovenian border. His father, Mario, was a major presence and influence on Friulian wines until his death earlier this year. Giorgio is responsible for the large range of wines made at the family winery. One of its specialities is Tocai Friulano, an astonishing, ripe, concentrated wine that ranks among the great whites of the world.

This is also the region where Pinot Grigio reaches its greatest heights. Friulian Pinot Grigios such as Borgo Conventi, Volpe Pasini or Conti Formentini are stunningly spicy, rich wines, closer to wines of Alsace in character than to the wines of the rest of Italy. Franco Giacosa, director of winemaking at Zonin, which owns Cà Bolani in Aquileia del Friuli, remarks "Great Pinot Grigios are born out of great terroirs."

Inevitably, some wines break all the rules. At the forefront of the iconoclasts are Silvio Jermann and Josko Gravner. Jermann's flagship wine, Vintage Tunina, is a blend of varieties including Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Very ripe fruit is picked and fermented. No wood is used. The wine is extraordinary: tropical and summer fruits abound, as do aromas of alpine flowers and exotic spices.

Gravner's unusual approach has been to return to basics, fermenting wines in clay amphoras sealed with beeswax, and avoiding any modern aids to winemaking. His Breg (a white wine blend) and his Ribolla Gialla are dense, intense wines.

Soave Makeover
From such rarefied heights, it might seem ridiculous to move on to Soave. But Soave is not as it once was. "The Soave today bears no relationship to the style and quality of the seventies," says Zonin's Giacosa.

If you pass the Soave vineyards on the train or the main freeway between Verona and Venice, on the plain to the right are acres of high pergola-trained vines stretching into the distance. This is industrial Soave, neutral in taste, mildly alcoholic, totally undistinguished. Once the train passes through Monforte d'Alpone and the silhouette of the castle of Soave emerges on the left, it is here that great Soave is made from the indigenous Garganega grape.

The authorities in the Ministry of Agriculture are in the final stages of recognizing this. From the 2002 vintage, Soave from the classic zone around the castle is Soave Classico Superiore DOCG, the highest category of Italian wine. The rest has become the more basic Soave DOC. The DOCG implies lower yields (down from the 940 gallons an acre to a still-high 625 gallons per acre), higher-density vines and better maintained, often hand-picked, vineyards.

"We now know for sure that the wines from this area can consistently produce some of the very best whites in Italy," says LoCascio. "About a half dozen or so producers are turning out really exciting wines. The best examples have a great mineral character almost reminiscent of Chablis and can age gracefully as well."

Top producers would certainly include Teresita Pieropan, Claudio Gini and Stefano Inama. Roberto Anselmi should be included as well, except that he left the Soave DOC in 2000, and now makes super Venetians classified as IGT. Some of the big producers—Masi and Bertani are two—also make excellent Soave. There is still an ocean of mediocrity, however. The rule, then, is to pick a top producer in order to enjoy the wonderful green plum and almond flavors of Soave at its best.

Beyond Soave
Soave isn't the only white wine made in the Veneto. Many of Soave's producers also make wine in neighboring Gambellara. Around Lake Garda, to the west of Verona, there is Bianco di Custoza and Lugana (although its vineyards are mainly in Lombardy, it is considered a Veneto wine). There are the extraordinary wines of Maculan in Breganze, which a range of white grape varieties including Vespaiola (so called because the sound of the bees around the grapes sounds like one of those tiny Vespa motorcycles) and Moscato Fior d'Arancio.
Italian white wines have been transformed in the past 25 years. "We have returned to value the ancient traditions," says Zonin's Giacosa. "We have demonstrated that they let the wine express the climate and the territory where the grapes are grown." As established producers are joined by new ones, so the range of flavors and styles is increased and embellished. Watch out—we could be in for an exciting ride.

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