In the last few years I have travelled extensively in Italy and have been fortunate enough to explore a great many wine regions. Italy is a fascinating wine producing country and it’s not only full of world famous wines styles and grape varieties either. Everywhere you go there are constant surprises and new discoveries to be made.
I have travelled to Campania, Sicily, the Marche, Veneto, Friuli, Emilia-Romagna, Umbria, Trentino and the north of Piemonte, as well as the more famous regions of Tuscany and the south of Piemonte. In all of these places I have found wines that have really excited me.
All of these regions are full of wine, sometimes famous and often less well known. Even in the most prestigious regions such as Piemonte and Veneto you can find wines that have almost no presence on the export market and are appreciated almost solely at home.
Italy is most known for her red wines and Italians, like the Spanish, often hold white wine in very low esteem. I expect this view became fixed because Italy, like Spain, is on the whole a hot country in the summer when the grapes are growing. So in the past – before cold fermentation, modern knowhow and clean wineries – the white wines would have been somewhat ropey – especially when compared to the more full-flavoured red wines.
In my formative years Italy’s reputation for white wines – in the UK anyway – was based upon cheap Soave, Frascati, Verdicchio dei Castello di Jesi and Orvieto. However good those wines can be now – and they can be very good indeed – in the 1970s and 1980s they were often less than interesting. Usually based on the high yielding and rather bland Trebbiano, rather than the more interesting grape varieties that had made these wines famous in the first place, they slowly fell out of favour when compared to the competition coming from elsewhere, especially the New World.
It is interesting to note that Frascati was the wine that gave birth to the phrase that a wine ‘didn’t travel well’ and so you should only drink it where it was made. Like most of these white wines it was not regularly bottled until after the Second World War, so until the late 1940s – often much later – it was served by the carafe straight from the barrel or demijohn.
This allowed another Italian white wine to force its way onto export markets and to enjoy success – Gavi. Coming from Piemonte and made from the quite acidic Cortese grape, Gavi – certainly when I first tasted it in the 1980s – seemed more distinguished and refined than those other white wines from Italy at the time. Gavi continues being successful to this day and what helped Gavi create a name for itself is surely the timing. It emerged later than the likes of Frascati, when wineries were already using modern techniques of being ultra clean, using stainless steel fermentation tanks and fermenting at low temperatures. Much of Europe had to play catch up you see as the new world, with less wine making tradition, had often gone the high tech route from the start.
It might be the downward spiral of sales or the example of Gavi, but Italian white wines have fought back and are today in a quite different place from where they were just 20 years ago. Indeed I would say that the white wines of Italy are some of the most exciting you will find from anywhere. This story by the way is repeated in Spain, Portugal and even the less well know corners of France.
Many things have changed how the white wines of Italy taste, but the most important, apart from clean wineries and cold fermentations, are carefully sited vineyards to make sure the grapes do not bake – this retains acidity. Lower yields ensure more concentration and so more flavour, while later picking also gives more flavour – as long as the vines are in a good place to retain freshness and balance.
So I have tasted my way through astonishingly good Vermentino from Sardinia, Verdicchio dei Castello di Jesi from the Marche, Lugana from Veneto and Lombardy, Soave from Veneto, Tai from the Colli Berici in Veneto, Fiano, Greco, Falanghina, Coda di Volpe and Caprettone from Campania, Carricante from Etna in Sicily as well as world class sparkling wines made by the Traditional Method from Trentino (Trento DOC), Lombardy (Franciacorta), Campania (Falanghina), Marche (Verdicchio dei Castello di Jesi ), Lugana and Piemonte (Gavi and some Nebbiolo sparkling too).
Which brings me on to my theme for today, the white, rosé and sparkling wines of northern Piemonte.
Piemonte’s fame almost all rests on the wines produced south of Turin, which is a great shame as there are wonderful wines made to the north in more Alpine conditions. Most of these wine making areas are actually older than the likes of Barolo and Barbaresco in the south and were much more famous in the past. For many reasons – I wrote about them here – the modern wine revolution passed these places by and so they have had a much harder job getting their wines onto the world stage.
I loved a wide array of the red wines from these fascinating outposts in northern Piemonte and wrote about them here, but the area produces some pretty exciting whites and sparkling wines too, most of them made from a grape variety that was totally new to me – Erbaluce (pronounced Urr-ba-luch-eh). Rather fascinatingly Nebbiolo also gets a look in for the rosé wines, both still and sparkling.
This intriguing grape is indigenous to Piemonte and doesn’t seem to grow anywhere else. The most ‘famous’ wine made from it is Caluso DOCG – often known as Erbaluce di Caluso – and they must be 100% Erbaluce, as must the whites of the nearby Canavese DOC, Coste della Sesia DOC and Colline Novaresi DOC. It is known as a high acid grape and certainly the best examples for me were the ones that retained refreshing acidity.
The nose is attractive with nice herbal, oily creamy notes and a touch of olive oil and vanilla.
Gianluigi Orsolani is the winemaker at the family estate today, but it was his father Francesco who made the region’s first traditional method sparkling wine back in 1968. This wine is named for that first vintage and is aged on the lees for 60 months to give even more depth and complexity60 months on the lees. Again there is no dosage, just the sweetness of the ripe Erbaluce grapes.
Pietro Cassina is a charming fellow who farms 6 hectares and makes lovely wines in a fabulous new winery in Lessona, another place that I had only heard of before this trip. As well as Nebbiolo, he grows some Erbaluce and makes this lovely traditional method sparkling wine from it. He ages it on the lees for 36 months. His reds are DOC Lessona or DOC Costa della Sesia, neither of which permit sparkling wines, so his fizz is simply labelled as Vino Spumante di Qualità.