Italy’s great white hopes

After years of being seen as a red wine country, Italy is making a big impact with its white wines. Wojciech Bońkowski analyses the trend. 

Giuseppino Anfossi, Marilena Barbera, Italy's most planted white grapes
Giuseppino Anfossi, Marilena Barbera, Italy's most planted white grapes

Gianni Lovicu smiled. “How deep do you want to dig? I have got 130 of them.” It’s the summer of 2017 and he’s showing rows of vines growing in the experimental vineyard of Ussana, central Sardinia. A viticulturalist working for Agris, Sardinia’s research institute, he is the author of 50 scientific publications on grape varieties, including Akinas: Uve di Sardegna, an in-depth study on local grapes. Ussana is the result of that research: from the ubiquitous Nuragus to the little-known Licronasciu, it is a veritable ampelographic cornucopia. 

This research is already changing the market, with vintners approaching Agris for cuttings of the most promising recovered varieties. And this is just Sardinia, which produces 1.5 percent of Italy’s wine. According to the American Association of Wine Economists, Italy is one of the world’s most diverse wine countries in terms of grape varieties. Only 11 percent of its acreage is dedicated to the leading variety, Sangiovese, versus 30 percent for Shiraz in Australia, for example, while Robinson, Harding, Vouillamoz’s seminal Wine Grapes book lists no fewer than 377 cultivars from Italy. Long ignored because of small quantities and an international market thirsty for recognisable names, many of these varieties are now emerging with major market appeal. 

Turning white

Several factors are driving that trend. A younger consumer base today looks for authenticity and uniqueness rather than a narrow set of global varieties. Vintners’ work on quality and clonal selection is paying off: Italian whites are now crisper with better definition than a decade ago. The country’s strong export and marketing position on key markets such as Germany, Britain and the USA also helps. The success of Pinot Grigio has given companies, large and small, resources and intelligence they can now channel into creating and consolidating consumer trends.

Take Arneis; once an obscure grape from central Piedmont, it has gone a long way since it was pioneered in the 1960s by Bruno Giacosa and Vietti. Following the commercial success of Ceretto’s Blangé, with its crisp reductive style, dollop of residual sugar and striking clear glass bottle, it has become a Northern Italian aperitivo favourite. Arneis is now planted as far as California and Australia’s King Valley, and accounts for more than two-thirds of the production of Roero, essentially financing the more traditional, Nebbiolo-based red wine — a paradox in a region famous for its reds. 

Alongside this rise in popularity, Arneis has become more stylistically diverse. Many examples follow the light-bodied, low-alcohol, pear-scented, unoaked pattern, but there are now excellent sparkling versions made by Angelo Negro, oak-aged Arneis such as Malvirà’s Trinità, and mineral, age-worthy interpretations such as Ghiomo’s Inprimis. “Superficially, Arneis is a simple grape, but when you tweak variables such as harvest time, pressing regimes and lees ageing, it is capable of great depth,” says Giuseppino Anfossi of Ghiomo. 

Veneto is the country’s largest exporter and, of course, home to both Prosecco and Pinot Grigio. Yet this large region has many other white specialities, from Durella, a sparkling wine made north of Verona, to Garganega, the leading grape of Soave. But the real success story is Lugana, made from the Trebbiano di Lugana grape on 2,000 ha south of Lake Garda. Long in the shadow of Soave, Lugana has boomed in the past two decades, with production almost trebling and the average price rising by 50 percent to €4.70 ($5.43) per bottle — the highest of any Italian white appellation.

Seventy-five percent of Lugana is exported, mostly to Germany. The large number of German tourists on Lake Garda is surely an explanation, as is the stylistic affinity with Germanic whites, with their high acid and reductive style. Yet Germany is a very competitive market so consistent sales at such high prices have needed quality and a recognisable profile. The grape has now been renamed Turbiana to weaken its association with the mediocre Trebbiano grown elsewhere in Italy. Turbiana is in fact a different grape, identical to Marche’s Verdicchio.

Further south, the Adriatic region of Marche is often considered central Italy’s hidden gem. Its principal white wine, Verdicchio, has emerged as of Italy’s leading whites, with a wide range of styles available. But Marche has two other aces up its sleeve: the aromatic Passerina as well Pecorino. Ian d’Agata, a writer and expert on Italian grape varieties, believes Pecorino is “the next big thing… the password to success” on the American market. Crisp like Chardonnay, textured like Pinot Gris and savoury like Loire Chenin Blanc, Pecorino is certainly contemporary.

Two other white grape varieties are growing by double digits on the domestic markets: Friuli’s Ribolla Gialla, helped in part by its position at the centre of the orange wine movement, and Vermentino. Tuscan Maremma is now increasing its acreage of this white grape at the expense of Bordeaux red varieties, but the real epicentre of Vermentino production is Sardinia, with nearly 3,000 ha. From the granite-grown mineral examples in northern Gallura to the fruitier styles from the south, Vermentino is extremely versatile. Its capacity to retain acid and freshness in hot climes has drawn the attention of New World producers: Oliver’s Taranga in McLaren Vale makes a successful example and other producers are following suit.

The other big success in South Australia is Fiano. With Falanghina and Greco, it is one of three major grape varieties originating from Campania, the southern Italian region around Naples. Fiano is another Mediterranean grape retaining fresh acidity even in hot conditions, while Greco boasts a voluptuous, Viognier-like texture. Saline, sea-like minerality is cited as a unique selling point for the Sicilian grape Inzolia by producer Marilena Barbera, who says: “After years of strong demand for reds, we now see a steady increase in interest for our whites. Even China is drinking our Inzolia.” 

Reductive-vinified Grillo and Inzolia also illustrate a successful reorientation by swathes of vineyards that used to supply neutral base wine for the fortified Marsala, now out of fashion. Barbera emphasises that for once, Inzolia’s success is not a matter of fashion or name: “There has never been any communication around Inzolia; it is purely a matter of flavour profile.”

On the rise

The domestic demand in Italy for those styles is strong, even though Italy has never been at the forefront of creating styles. In fact, Italian whites are on the rise almost everywhere else. The Wine Society in the UK stocks more than 40 Italian white wines. As well as Pinot Grigio, the catalogue also includes Garganega, Pecorino, Zibibbo, Arneis, Grillo, Verdicchio, Cortese, Grechetto — sometimes also known as Pignoletto — and even Guardavalle from Calabria. 

Wine Society buyer Sarah Knowles MW says: “Our members buy these wines because they trust us and Sebastian Payne MW, the buyer for Italy, to champion great wines. But they re-buy them because they offer character and value for money.” Lauren McPhate of New York’s Tribeca Wine Merchants echoes her point: “It often starts with price, but when quality is good, people feel they get value and come back.” She adds holidays in Italy and easily pronounced names, like Pecorino, among the incentives. 

Even on less mature markets, Italian indigenous whites are growing dynamically. Kamil Wojtasiak, working at Butchery & Wine in Warsaw, says one of his sales leaders is Ghiomo’s Langhe Arneis Inprimis. “It simply offers great value. Many people are moving away from classics such Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay, and are looking for new ideas. This is where Italy comes in with some really strong offerings,” he explains.

Exotic, easily remembered Italian names at the right price points sound like a recipe for success. But the reasons for this surge could actually be deeper. Many Millennials are turning to lighter unoaked white styles, often from semi-aromatic grapes. A rare local grape championed by small family estates, rather than yet another Chardonnay from anywhere, is exactly the narrative that resonates with that demographic. 

But a brandable name and a story behind the wine are not enough; what many of these emerging Italian varietals have in common are characteristics of a ripe fruity profile, crisp acidity and texture on the palate. Conveniently, they are also eminently gastronomic, fitting Mediterranean but also south-east Asian cuisines with ease. 

Ivano D’Alicandro, export consultant for the large Cantina di Venosa co-op, emphasises the potential of aromatic whites, which are plentiful, especially in the south of Italy: “Our Malvasia was designed for the German market, but is now hugely successful in Italy, too. The combination of volcanic minerality and Malvasia’s fruitiness is a show-stopper.” This is a clear change from the previous generation of Italian whites, such as Orvieto, Frascati or Gavi, which were neutral and often phenolic.

As this grass-roots demand grows and starts showing in sales statistics, larger producers join the trend, effectively strengthening it. It is no coincidence behemoths such as Santa Margherita or Zonin are now championing lesser-known Italian appellations and varieties. Diversification is the order of the day and serves as an insurance policy should the category leaders such as Pinot Grigio lose momentum. In fact, it is already happening. Despite a poor 2017 harvest and the introduction of DOC Pinot Grigio delle Venezie, bulk prices this year did not reach the expected €1.40 per litre. This is because Pinot Grigio has now become an international commodity, produced in large quantities in other countries, chiefly California. The challenge for Italy is to get ahead of that trend and launch alternative varietals. 

Andrea Lonardi of Bertani Domains, which produces both Soave and Lugana, says: “Minor grapes occupy niche markets — the challenge is when a grape outgrows that niche. Two Italian whites with major potential are Verdicchio and quality Soave — if we can craft a consistent style. Pinot Grigio has achieved success because of its name but also of its style: fresh, mineral and lightly aromatic. That is a lesson for the future.”

A decade ago, Anything But Chardonnay was in vogue. Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Albariño and Grüner Veltliner were all hailed as the next big thing. Italian whites waited patiently in the shadow. Now they are out with a vengeance.  

Up-and-coming white grapes to look for:

Pignoletto (Emilia)
Albana (Romagna)
Pallagrello (Campania)
Minutolo (Puglia)
Nasco (Sardinia)

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