The Delights of Italian Whites

Don’t overlook the lighter-hued varieties of this great wine nation.

WHEN YOU THINK OF ITALIAN WINE , DO YOU SEE RED? If so, you’re not alone. Perhaps because of the ubiquity of Chianti, most people associate Europe’s “boot”—home to the world’s oldest wine-producing regions—with red wines. And if whites do come to mind, it may be with a dismissive sniff at the ultracommon pinot grigio, which is sometimes fine and sometimes (let’s face it) mundane. But some Italian whites these days are demanding a second look— and they’re not all rated PG.

“When customers come into the store asking for pinot grigio, I usually tell them they’re missing the train,” says Tawfik Farajin, wine manager at Total Wine & More in River Edge. “Italy produces so many different white wines that people aren’t familiar with. So I try to introduce them to another style. Many times, customers will take a bottle home, try it and then come back the next day and walk right past the pinot grigio.”

These days, certain producers are giving new refinement and distinction to whites from Italy. Take, for example, the offerings of Marco Felluga and Russiz Superiore, sister wineries in the Friuli region in the country’s northeast corner, near Venice. “We’re looking for fruit, minerality and good acidity,” says Roberto Felluga, Marco’s son, who’s in charge of both wineries. Indeed, his wines have a remarkable freshness and liveliness, a result of Friuli’s cool climate— with summer days just warm enough to bring good ripeness to the grapes.

Standouts here include Marco Felluga Collio Bianco Molamatta 2009 ($23), which has delicate lemon and peach flavors. It’s a great choice for chardonnay lovers who want to branch out. There’s also the round and shapely Russiz Superiore Collio Sauvignon Riserva 2005 ($35), which features the tastes of melon and rhubarb, retaining the racy acidity of sauvignon blanc even with its touch of oak aging. And yes, Felluga does pinot grigio, and does it right: Marco Felluga Collio Pinot Grigio Mongris ($18) has a lovely elderflower character, but a complex finish.

Another stellar producer, Mastroberardino, was established in the 1750s and is one of the most renowned wineries in the Campania region in southern Italy. The company’s Fiano di Avellino Radici, 2007 ($25) traces its antecedents back to the Middle Ages. (Centuries ago, fiano di avellino was said to be a favorite of the King of Naples.) This wine has a smoky, subtly nutty flavor, and the lively acidity of the fiano grape makes it an excellent counterpoint to high-fat foods such as cheese and sausage.

Also from Campania is Cantine Antonio Caggiano Greco di Tufo Devon 2010 ($26), which features aromas of citrus, melon and almond and a finish with a slight scent of peach. It’s a good choice to quaff as you dine on such dishes as seafood and San Marzano tomatoes.

Finally, there’s Gattavecchi Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2012 ($15), “a beautiful wine from Tuscany that’s absolutely delicious,” says Farajin. “It’s dry and crisp, with a hint of spice and citrus. It goes great with seafood, salads and appetizers.” (Vernacciabased wine from San Gimignano has a long history; the grape was mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy.)

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