Southern Italy's New Wave Whites
Italy is a land of contradictions, and as Italians love to declare, this is part of the country’s fascino, or charm.
The country’s new breed of white wines is a perfect example.
At first glance, you’d expect whites from the country’s deep south, known for its Mediterranean climate and constant sunshine, to be powerfully structured, with superripe fruit, high alcohol levels and low acidity.
While this used to be true of many bottlings, today the whites from select denominations in Campania and Sicily boast the complexity and minerality often associated with cool climates.
Winemakers now focus on indigenous grapes, which have adapted to the region’s climate over hundreds or thousands of years.
“Rather than make wines geared for international palates that taste like they could be made anywhere, we want to make wines that express Campania’s native grapes and our unique terroir by identifying the best vineyard sites, harvesting at the right moment and using less invasive cellar techniques,” says Antonio Capaldo, president of leading Campania firm Feudi di San Gregorio.
Here’s a breakdown of Italy’s southern whites that should be on your table this summer.
Featured Wines (left to right):
89 Fattoria La Rivolta 2012 Falanghina (Taburno). This is packed with intense tropical fruit sensations, lemon zest and crisp acidity. T. Edward Wines Ltd. abv: 13.5% Price: $19
88 Cantine Astroni 2012 Colle Imperatrice Falanghina (Campi Flegrei). Fresh and floral aromas are accompanied by grapefruit, thyme and mint flavors. The Vine Collective. abv: 12% Price: $17
90 Mustilli 2013 Sant’Agata dei Goti (Falanghina del Sannio). With its floral and fruit aromas, exotic fruit and citrus flavors, this boasts structure and finesse. Casa de Case. abv: 13% Price: $17
Grown throughout Campania, this grape produces dry wines with tropical fruit and floral sensations, structure and freshness.
Revived in the late 1970s, its success encouraged other local winemakers to focus on the region’s native varieties, but this wasn’t always the case.
According to Anna Chiara Mustilli, whose father, Leonardo, is credited with the grape’s rebirth, growers were ripping up native vines to plant international grapes. Her father was part of a local committee of farmers and researchers who studied native Campania grapes to help save local viticulture traditions.
“My father was impressed by the Falanghina grape, which he began vinifying on its own, and in 1979, we bottled our first,” she says.
Before this, Falanghina had never been made as a varietal wine. It was blended with more delicate northern wines to inject fruit and structure.
There are two distinct types of this grape: Falanghina Beneventana, used in Falanghina del Sannio, and Falanghina Campi Flegrei.
Falanghina del Sannio generally has more structure, with higher acidity and somewhat higher alcohol. Campi Flegrei wines are lighter-bodied, with more floral aromas.
“We actually planted both types in our vineyards to achieve body and fragrance,” says Mustilli.
The differences in their respective growing zones lend to the flavor diversity. Vineyards in the Sannio denomination have higher altitudes as well as calcareous and clay soils, while the vineyards in Campi Flegrei near Naples are lower and have sandy, volcanic soils.
Featured Wines (left to right):
92 Feudi di San Gregorio 2012 Pietracalda (Fiano di Avellino). Made from organically grown grapes, this boasts a floral fragrance of chamomile along with citrus and mineral flavors accented with aromatic herbs. Palm Bay International. abv: 13.5% Price: $37
91 Ciro Picariello 2012 Fiano di Avellino. Delicious and linear, this has sensations of white flowers, grapefruit, and nectarine accented with rosemary, sage and mineral. Polaner Selections. abv: 14% Price: $23
Fiano produces full-bodied whites whose floral aromas and rich fruit flavors are accented by smoky mineral sensations and fresh acidity. The best have great energy as well as gripping complexity.
Unlike Campania’s other native white grapes, Fiano has spread to other areas, including Sicily, where some producers are experimenting with it. But hilly Irpinia, the ancient name for the area comprising the Apennine mountains around the inland town of Avellino, is the grape’s spiritual home.
“Fiano excels in this environment, thanks to the high amount of rainfall, marked differences between day and night temperatures, volcanic soil and clay deposits,” says Pierpaolo Sirch, general manager, agronomist and enologist at Feudi di San Gregorio, who transferred to Campania from Friuli, long considered Italy’s white wine capital.
If winemakers across Italy, even in the north, now have trouble retaining fresh levels of acidity, according to Sirch, Campania’s winemakers have the opposite problem.
“Campania’s native varieties and growing conditions yield fresh wines naturally high in acidity, and we must work to keep it under control,” he says.
Featured Wines (top to bottom):
92 Mastroberardino 2012 Novaserra (Greco di Tufo). Structured but elegant, this offers rich peach, apple and citrus flavors accented with mineral, spice and herbs alongside crisp acidity. Drink 2017–22. Winebow. abv: 13.5% Price: $28
90 D’Antiche Terre 2012 Greco di Tufo. Here’s a crisp, juicy wine with sensations of nectarine, grapefruit, ripe peach and mineral alongside racy acidity. It ends on an almond note. Villa Italia. abv: 13% Price: $19
92 Benito Ferrara 2012 Vigna Cicogna (Greco di Tufo). This delicious wine opens with aromas of stone fruit and white flowers. The rich palate delivers peach, grapefruit and mineral alongside vibrant acidity. de Grazia Imports LLC. Editors’ Choice. abv: 13.5% Price: $18
Arguably southern Italy’s most noble white grape, Greco di Tufo yields wines with ripe fruit and intense mineral sensations. Its acidic backbone gives these wines the structure and complexity usually reserved for reds.
Despite its current fame, Greco was on the verge of extinction when Antonio Mastroberardino and his brothers took over the family winery in Irpinia after World War II.
Instead of focusing on quantity-driven production from other Italian grapes like Sangiovese or Trebbiano, Mastroberardino chose local varieties, including Greco di Tufo, for white wines. He later resisted planting international grapes when they became popular in the 1980s and ’90s.
Greco di Tufo is named after the town of Tufo, an area rich in sulfur due to chalky topsoils and subsoils of volcanic rock.
“The grape thrives in the Tufo denomination, thanks to a cool, continental climate, frequent rain, snowy winters and volcanic soil that yield wines with intense aromas and finesse,” says Piero Mastroberardino, Antonio’s son.
The grape’s long growing season—one of the longest of any Italian white variety, with a harvest normally in late October—generates further complexity.
Featured Wines (top to bottom):
88 Baglio del Cristo di Campobello 2013 Lalùci Grillo (Sicilia). This sleek wine offers sensations of honeysuckle, hay, stone fruit, green apple and citrus. Fresh acidity gives it a clean, crisp finish. Maritime Wine Trading Collective. abv: 13% Price: $27
91 Alessandro di Camporeale 2012 Vigna di Mandranova Grillo (Sicilia). This vibrant wine is made from organically grown grapes. It has fragrant white flower, juicy white peach and mineral sensations alongside bright acidity. Panebianco. abv: 13.5% Price: $29
91 Marco de Bartoli 2011 Grappoli del Grillo (Sicilia). Fermented with native yeasts and aged in French oak barrels of varying sizes, this structured wine offers lemon drop, apricot, honey and mineral flavors. Louis/Dressner Selections. abv: 13.5% Price: $40
Native to the western coast of Sicily in the province of Trapani, Grillo is one of the main grapes in Marsala, the fortified wine that was once celebrated and later despised as quality plummeted.
Winemaker Marco De Bartoli, whose family had long been Marsala producers, had a hunch about this ancient grape. In 1990, he made the bold decision to vinify the variety on its own and bottle pure Grillo.
His intuition was correct, and today, a number of producers are making wines from 100% Grillo. The best are full-bodied and fresh.
“Grillo has been traced back to the Phoenicians, but because it isn’t a very productive variety, it was nearly abandoned in the ’60s and ’70s in favor of more vigorous grapes like Cataratto and Trebbiano Toscano,” says Renato De Bartoli, Mario’s son.
“But Grillo is the best white grape for the low-lying, hot plains around Marsala because it thrives in the heat and doesn’t become cooked and jammy as do international varieties like Chardonnay.”
Featured Wines (left to right):
95 Benanti 2010 Pietramarina Bianco Superiore (Etna). This stunning wine is perfumed, full-bodied, elegant and delicious. It will age extremely well. Drink through 2025. Multiple U.S. importers. Editors’ Choice. abv: 12.5% Price: $50
93 Cottanera 2012 Bianco (Etna). This beautiful, full-bodied wine boasts floral aromas and juicy grapefruit, green apple and mineral flavors. Already delicious, it will develop more complexity. Drink through 2020. Cottanera USA. Editors’ Choice. abv: 12.5% Price: $22
90 Planeta 2012 Carricante (Sicilia). Made from Carricante and a small amount of Riesling, this bright, sleek wine has intense floral and stone fruit aromas that carry over to the juicy palate. Palm Bay International. abv: 13.5% Price: $36
Grown on the high, steep slopes of Sicily’s Mount Etna, at altitudes ranging from 2,200–3,100 feet above sea level, this is the main grape in Etna Bianco, one of today’s most exciting Italian white wines.
Just a few decades ago, most of Etna’s vineyards lay abandoned. The area’s fortunes changed in 1988 after Dr. Giuseppe Benanti, who was running his family’s pharmaceutical company in nearby Catania, decided to restore the family’s ancient Etna vineyards and introduce modern winemaking techniques.
His wine, Pietramarina, fast became a cult favorite among wine lovers and helped resurrect the nearly forgotten Etna denomination.
Over the last decade, producers have flocked to the area. Although there are many young vineyards, a number of old plants remain, some 80–100 years old.
Due to the sandy volcanic soil, the phylloxera parasite didn’t destroy Etna’s vines, and the oldest, cultivated as freestanding bushes, are on ungrafted, original rootstocks.
Etna’s continental climate, with abundant annual rainfall tempered by a Mediterranean influence, plays a crucial role in Carricante’s performance.
“Carricante needs high day and night temperature excursions as well as abundant sunlight during the growing season,” says Antonio Benanti, of Benanti Winery.
Carricante can produce mineral-driven wines with mesmerizing complexity and finesse, and the best will continue to develop well for at least a decade, longer in top vintages.
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