The White Wines of Italy

Once known as ‘Oenotria’, or the ‘land of trained vines’, Italy grows an estimated 2000 different grape varieties and makes as much as 60 million hectoliters of wine a year. Much of the Italian peninsula is covered with vines, from the Alps in the north to the island of Sicily in the south. Many of Italy’s best known wines are red – Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti, Amarone, Super Tuscans, etc. – however, they also produce large quantities of very tasty white wines that are worth putting on your dinner table, as they are very versatile with food.

While the white wines of Italy tend not to be huge blockbusters, they can be very refreshing and food friendly. Most have subtle flavours and a good streak of cleansing acidity, and some can be quite aromatic.

Some Italian white wines to look out for are:

Soave DOC

Soave is a dry white wine from the Veneto region of northern Italy. The wines must have at least 70% Garganega grapes in the blend. Trebbiano di Soave, Chardonnay, and Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc) can make up the remainder. While some Soave is thin and dull, the best can be excellent. Garganega, when grown properly, can be both delicate and structured, with flavours of almonds, greengage plums, and citrus fruit with an alluring gentle spiciness. The best Soave comes from the Soave Classico region.

Pair Soave with fresh salads with slightly bitter greens such as endive, raddichio, and arugula. It can also be a great match with poached chicken and herbs, and linguine with clam sauce.

Masi Levarie Soave Classico DOC (LCBO 266221, $12.45) is a great value Soave currently available at the LCBO.   Pleasant aromas of white peach, melon, citrus, pear, almond, and white blossoms. It’s medium bodied and juicy on the palate, with a good length and a nutty finish.

Gavi DOCG

Gavi was awarded DOCG status, Italy’s highest quality wine category, in 1998. The wines are made with 100% Cortese grapes. Cortese is favoured because of its ability to retain its zesty acidity, even in the hot summers of Piedmont in northern Italy, where Gavi is made.

Gavi can be an aromatic and fruity wine, with notes mineral and occasionally grass, with a clean citrus finish. It tends to be a fuller-bodied wine than some of the other Italian whites. Gavi can pair well with pastas with a cream sauce, grilled calamari with garlic, and Prosciutto wrapped shrimps.

Pio Cesare Gavi 2011 (VINTAGES 952523, $19.95) Juicy citrus fruit, white blossoms, and mineral.  Light-bodied and refreshing.

Fiano di Avellino DOCG

From southern Italy, in the region of Campania, Fiano di Avellino was promoted to DOCG status in 2003. The wine is made with at least 85% Fiano grapes with Trebbiano Toscano, Coda di Volpe, and Greco making up the rest of the blend.

The wines can have subtle aromas of flowers and spice with an attractive waxy texture. The best have the potential to improve with some bottle age.

Fiano di Avellino can pair beautifully with salmon canapes, and baby octopus salad.

Keep an eye out for occasional Vintages releases of Fiano di Avellino at the LCBO.  Currently, I could only find one Fiano di Avellino at the LCBO, Terredora Fiano di Avellino 2010,(VINTAGES 120048, $18.95), but  it may be difficult to track it down as there’s not much left.

Greco di Tufo DOCG

Also from Campania, Greco di Tufo is made with at least 85% Greco grapes and up to 15% Coda di Volpe. Greco has been grown in southern Italy for more than 2,500 years after being imported from neighbouring Greece. Slightly more aromatic than Fiano di Avellino, the best have aromas reminiscent of a good Viognier along with zesty minerality and peachy notes.

Greco di Tufo is a great match with raw shellfish, baked fish, and pasta with vegetable sauces.

Again, not much at the LCBO, but watch for occasional Vintages releases.

Falanghina

Falanghina is a high quality, ancient grape grown in Campania. It is thought to be the grape of Falernian, the prestigious wine of the ancient Roman Empire. The grape is used to make excellent dry and sweet white wines. The dry wines are usually vinified in stainless steel tanks and see no oak treatment at all. They are attractive, fragrant, and quite full-bodied, with aromas of white peaches, honeysuckle, green apples, citrus, and almonds.

Falanghina is quite versatile with food and pairs well with a number of seafood, poultry, and vegetable dishes.

There is still some Vesevo Beneventano Falanghina 2010 (VINTAGES 289538, $15.95) available at the LCBO.  Lots of lemon, grapefruit, celery salt, and white blossom aromas.  Light to medium body with a clean, bright finish.

This is a slightly altered version of an article first published on Suite101.com.

1997 Barolo Tasting

Last Wednesday, I attended a Winetasters Society of Toronto tasting featuring Barolos from the 1997 vintage.  When first released, the 1997 Barolos were highly praised by many critics for their ripeness and approachability at such a young age.  It was interesting to taste these wines now at 12 years old, but I have to say I was somewhat disappointed.  I have fallen in love with many Barolos in my life, but I can’t say many of these even made my heart skip a beat.

The 1997 growing season in the Barolo region in Piedmont, Italy was hot and dry.  The hot, dry weather started in early January and continued through to the harvest.  Budding was 20 to 30 days earlier than usual.  Rain in June replenished depleted water levels and July, August, and September continued to be hot.  The water supply was again replenished with occasional rain storms in August.

As a result of the weather the Nebbiolo grapes had uncharacteristic low acidity and high sugar levels which produced atypical Barolos with overripe flavours and aromas.  While Wine Spectator gave the vintage a near perfect score of 99 out of 100, the growers and producers don’t consider it to be such a great year.  Danilo Drocco, winemaker for Fontanafredda says that the 1997 vintage is not a great vintage and is not for long aging.  In fact, Fontanafredda bottled only about half of its normal production in 1997.  Click here for notes on the Fontanafredda Serralunga d’Alba Barolo Vertical Tasting.

From what I tasted the other night, I can see that the wines are not aging as gracefully as Barolos of some other vintages (1990, 1999).  A word that keeps coming to mind when I think about the wines is “muddy”.  There seemed to be a lack of focus and purity in the wines, and the beautifully complex aromas of rose petals, violets, spice, red fruit, and tar, typical for Barolo, were not evident in many of them.  Now, don’t get me wrong, these wines weren’t bad (in fact some were very tasty), many of them just weren’t what I expect a Barolo to be.

My favourite wine of the tasting was Giovanni Corino Vigna Giachini Barolo.  Vigna Giachini is a vineyard in the La Morra area in the northwestern section of Barolo.  Wines from this area are usually very aromatic and perfumed.  The 1997 has intense aromas of black licorice, dark fruit, spice cake, and tar.  It has a velvetty, mouth-filling texture with flavours of spicy dark fruit and a lingering finish.  I thought this wine was the most complex of all of them.

Fratelli Revello Barolo 1997 was my second favourite wine of the tasting.  It was a beautiful mahogany colour with pronounced aromas of black cherry, strawberries, licorice, spice, and….rose petals and violets.  The wine was quite concentrated with firm tannins and good acidity.  Flavours of spice, cherry, and roses filled the palate and the finish was long and pleasant.

The next several wines are in no particular order.

M. Marengo Brunate Barolo 1997:  Brunate is also a directly south-facing vineyard located in the La Morra region of Barolo.  Many producers make denser than average wines from this site, but I’m afraid this isn’t one of them.  This wine had medium intense aromas of chocolate, licorice, earth, and stewed dark fruit.   I found it a bit thin on the palate – almost watery.  There were flavours of cherry and dark fruit and fuzzy tannins.

Fratelli Revello Vigna Giachini Barolo 1997:  This wine seemed very closed at the moment, but I could pick out aromas of earth, mint, and a somewhat savoury note.  The spicy palate had a smooth texture with an almost salty finish.

Azelia Barolo 1997:  Aromas of licorice, chocolate, tea, plum skin, and orange peel.  There were flavours of silky red fruit, but the length was disappointingly short.  It just disappeared.

Mauro Molina Barolo 1997: A very spicy nose of cloves and nutmeg, dark fruit, roast beef and a slight barnyardy character.  This wine had higher acid than some of the others giving it a more angular texture.  Lots of spice, dark fruit and earth flavours on the palate.  I liked this wine.

Seghesio La Villa Barolo 1997:  Spicy aromas of allspice and cloves, coffee, and rubber.  Big, fuzzy tannins on the palate with flavours of stewed dark cherries and chocolate.

Mauro Veglio Vignetto Arborina 1997: A distinct rubbery, band aid note with aromas of licorice, chocolate, and coffee.  On the palate it had an angular texture with tart red fruit.  Unfortunately, the band aid flavours followed through onto the palate and lingered too long on the finish.

Fontanafredda Barolo Serralunga d’Alba Vertical Tasting

Yesterday, I attended a tasting of 10 vintages Fontanafredda Barolo Serralunga d’Alba, the oldest being a 1967 Barolo, which was not labelled as Serralunga d’Alba as it may have been a blend of more than one village.  The tasting was led by Fontanafredda’s very passionate and entertaining winemaker, Danilo Drocco.  With few exceptions, the wines were very complex with great structure and destined for a long life.  Some of the younger wines need more time to soften their edges and mature a bit, but with time, they too will be very pleasurable.

Fontanafredda is located in Serralunga d’Alba on land that was previously the hunting preserve of the king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II, and his royal mistress.  Their first born son, Count Emanuele Alberto de Mirafiore turned the land into vineyards in 1878 and began making wine.  Perhaps this association helped cultivate the saying that Barolo is the “wine of kings, and the king of wines.” In 1932, the bank Monte dei Paschi di Siena took control of the estate and renovated both the vineyards as well as the cellars.  Fontanafredda, with its distinctive black and white, modern-style label, has since become one of the most important producers of Barolo and continues to promote Barolo throughout the world.  In July 2008, Fontanafredda was purchased by a local man who has brought new energy and ideas to the winery.  There is now a big focus on eco-friendly practices and even packaging.  They do not use any chemicals in the vineyards and are using less sulphur during winemaking.

The commune of Serralunga d’Alba is located in the heart of Barolo and makes very intense, structured, and long-lived wines.  The soils here are predominantly compressed sandstone making them poor soils with low fertility.  This commune contains some of the areas highest vineyards, but enough warmth is built up to suitably ripen the Nebbiolo grapes in most years.

Barolo is 100% Nebbiolo.  Nebbiolo buds early and ripens late requiring a very long growing season.  Grapes typically aren’t picked until into October and harvest can last until the end of the month.  It is a beautifully aromatic grape with aromas reminiscent of roses, violets, and an abundance of fresh fruit.  Naturally high acidity and substantial tannins provide excellent structure and add to the longevity of the wines.

Tasting Notes of Fontanafredda Barolo Serralunga d’Alba DOCG:

2005:  The wine is a medium ruby colour with slight garnet appearing on the rim.  The nose is intense with aromas of red and black cherry, licorice, chocolate, spice, and rose petals.  Flavours of red and dark fruit dominate the palate.  The texture is smooth with ample acidity and firm tannins that appear balanced, but could use more time to mellow.  This is a big wine with a good length. Definitely not ready to drink yet.  Give it at least 5 years.

2004:  The weather in 2004 was a bit cooler than 2005 so the grapes were picked much later.  This wine is more delicate and refreshing than the 2005.  There are aromas of licorice, herbal tea, and a distinctly balsamic note.  The wine has a very silky texture up front, but the velvetty tannins are quite drying on the finish.  The wine is refreshing with zippy acidity and plentiful fruit.

2003: The 2003 growing season was very hot requiring the grapes to be picked in mid-September, which is very early for Barolo.  The wine is a typical medium garnet colour.  Aromas of overripe and stewed fruit dominate with a slight animal or gamey character.  The abundant tannins are still very drying and austere.   There are flavours of dark overripe fruit and black cherry. This wine is definitely less elegant than the ’05 and ’04.

2000:  This was another very hot vintage.  The wine is starting to show some maturity with aromas of leather, dried fruit, tea leaves, tobacco, and dried flowers.   Up front there is sweet fruit but it finishes dry and slightly bitter. The tannins are still quite aggressive.  We were told that this is because during the summer the vines shut down and stopped growing for a long period due to the extreme heat, preventing the tannins from maturing as well.  The tannins did not have enough time to catch up by the time the grapes were harvested leaving them aggressive and a touch austere.

1999:  Considered an outstanding vintage and produced wine of great Barolo typicity.  This wine had a complex nose of flowers (roses, violets), chocolate, dried red berries, black cherry, licorice, leather, and dried mushrooms.  The tannins were much softer than the previous wines we tasted and were well integrated.  The wine is still quite fresh with a distinct floral note on the long finish.  Surprisingly, the finish also had a saltiness to it.  A really beautiful wine that can age for another 20 to 25 years.

1998:  This was not a great vintage according to Danilo Drocco, but it is one that gave hugely satisfying wines.  Complex aromas of licorice, black cherry, dried rose petals, violets, dark berries, black olives, spice, and vanilla emerge from the glass.   The texture is silky with soft, integrated tannins.  There are flavours of red plum, mushroom, and tar on the long finish.  This wine is ready to drink now.  Very enjoyable.

1997:  While this is hailed as an outstanding vintage by many, Danilo Drocco, winemaker at Fontanafredda, claims that this was another hot vintage that caused difficulty for producers.  Grapes tended to be overripe when picked with aggressive tannins.  As a result, Fontanafredda bottled only half their usual production in 1997.  This wine has darker aromas than the ’98 and is not as elegant.  Aromas of stewed fruit from the overripe grapes dominate the nose.  The wine’s lower acidity is also an indication of a hot vintage.  There are substantial, but integrated tannins and the wine has a shorter finish than most of the others in this tasting. Danilo Drocco suggests that this wine be drunk within 10 years.

1996:  This was a nail-biter of a vintage.  The weather was very cloudy, and by the end of August there was still no veraison.  Fortunately, the sun came out in full force in September and October and this late abundance of sunlight saved the vintage.  The wine has dusty aromas of dried leaves and pencil shavings, along with flowers, spice, leather, tar, and mushroom.   There’s a firm structure here with high tannins and acid.  It certainly shows its muscles.  I liked it.

1990:  This is a beautiful wine and still has many more years of life in it.  Beautiful and complex aromas of mushroom, leather, tar, chocolate, black fruit, licorice, violet, tobacco, dried leaves, herbs – one could go on forever describing the scents in this wine.  On the palate is it silky, beautifully balanced, and according to Drocco, “in perfect condition.”  The fruit is still fresh and is supported by mushrooms, leather, and a floral character, and a very long length.  Gorgeous!

1967:  A light garnet colour with tints of orange and brown.  It’s still very much alive with aromas of mushroom, damp soil, dried leaves, game, dried fruit, olives, spice, tar, leather, and cigar tobacco.  Beautifully complex!  Everytime I smelled the wine I got something different. There is a delicate texture, silky tannins, and a long finish.  Flavours of dried fruit (almost like dried orange peel), dried leaves, leather, and mushrooms were evident on the palate.  Really amazing for a 42 year old wine!

Amarone Amore – Luigi Righetti Amarone 2005

On Saturday night, my sister, brother-in-law, nephew, and I found a nice little restaurant, called Verona, on King St. West near Spadina in Toronto.  We didn’t really have a destination in mind and were just wandering looking for a place to eat.  We had discussed the possibility of Italian food.  As we passed the restaurant the hostess asked if we would like to see a menu.  I had never been there before so we stopped to have a look.  We liked what we saw so we got a table.  It was a very pleasant surprise.  My sister and her husband both started with the wild mushroom soup, which was excellent, and I had a very nice grilled calamari dish.  Then I had a very tasty grilled lamb tenderloin.  My sister had the striploin steak, which she seemed to enjoy much more than the steak she had had the previous night at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.  My nephew liked his spaghetti and meatballs, and my brother-in-law had the linguine.  Overall, the food was very good and the prices were quite reasonable.  I will definitely be back to Verona.

I also found the prices on the wine list very fair.  I selected the Luigi Righetti 2005 Amarone della Valpolicella.  I had never had this wine before but I was intrigued by the inexpensive price for an Amarone. 

The Luigi Righetti winery was founded in 1909 in Valgatara in Veneto in the heart of the Valpolicella Classico region of Italy.  It remains a family run business with Giam Maria Righetti as the 5th generation of winemakers.  The winery focuses on making high quality wine at affordable prices.  The wines have the potential for aging, but are also very approachable and enjoyable when young.  

The Amarone is a blend of Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara.  The fermentation lasted 30 days and it was then aged for 15 months in oak.

The Luigi Righetti Amarone della Valpolicella 2005 is a deep ruby colour with intense aromas of black cherries, plums, earth, and spice.  It has a very velvetty structure with ripe tannins and explodes with dark fruit flavours.  The slight leathery, earthy and dark spice flavours add to the complexity of this well-balanced wine.  A very enjoyable wine at a very reasonable price for an Amarone.

Collemattoni Brunello di Montalcino 2003

I’ve had a great food and wine weekend!  My sister and her family were in town for the weekend and we were able to dine at two very good restaurants and drank some excellent wine.  My weekend was so full of good food and drink that I had to write about it in this wine blog!

On Friday night, my brother-in-law had a hankering for a big steak, so we headed over to Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse at the bottom of the Hilton in Toronto.  My steak was excellent, as was David’s, but my sister, who had ordered the Shrimp and Steak with Cajun spices, was not as happy with hers.  She thought the spices were way too salty.  Overall, the meal was good, but I found it a bit pricey.  Another criticism is with the very hot plates.  They are heated in a 500 degree oven and we found that the extreme heat from the plates actually overcooked the bottom of our steaks a bit as they sat on the plate.

Perhaps the best part of the meal was the wine.  I was happy to introduce them to Brunello di Montalcino as they had never tried it before.  I knew they’d like it because they prefer big, full-bodied reds, so I ordered the Collematoni Brunello di Montalcino 2003.

The 2003 vintage was a challenging one for Brunello due to the very hot and very dry conditions.  Many grapes were sun-burnt and over ripe when harvested, producing heavy, flabby wines.  This wine was different.  It was fresh and elegant with no over ripe character at all.

The Collemattoni winery is owned by the Bucci family who have 7 hectares of 100% Sangiovese vineyards located in the southern part of Montalcino in San Angelo in Colle.  Montalcino is located in Tuscany, Italy.

The Brunello is fermented in stainless steel tanks at a controlled temperature of  28-30°C.  The wine is macerated on the skins for 20-25 days and then aged in 32 hl Slovenian oak barrels for 30 months.  It then ages for an additional 4 months in bottle before release.

The 2003 Collemattoni Brunello di Montalcino has pronounced aromas of blueberries, which my 5 year old nephew pointed out (a budding sommelier), with black cherries, plums and a host of other dark fruit.  there are also hints of earth, tar, and spice.  It’s a full-bodied wine with the sweet dark fruit flavours lifted by a good streak of acidity.  There are ample, yet velvetty tannins, and a long, luxurious finish.  Definitely a beautiful wine!

I’ll talk about Saturday night in my next post.

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