A big steaming bowl of pasta Bolognese or Osso Buco with a glass of Chianti still might be what comes to mind when many think about Italian food and wine. But just as Italian cuisine, both in Italy and around the world, has evolved so have the wines coming out of the country with many lively, lighter styles ideally suited for spring and summer. The high natural acidity in most Italian wines, both white and red, make them perfect for when the temperatures start to rise, with many of the reds also benefiting from a slight chilling down.
By Janet Dorozynski
The wine columnist for Luxe is also a reviewer and contributor to winealign.com and gismondionwine.com. She has been tasting and studying wine for two decades and reviewing and judging at wine and sommelier competitions since 2001. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @winetrackmind
Italy, along with France, is one of the two largest wine producers in the world and ranks number three in terms of planted vineyard area. Although usually admired and known for red wines, almost half of Italian wine production is white. The country is also home to the most diverse and numerous indigenous or native grape varieties in the world, with lesser known grapes like carricante, falanghina and schiava, while not exactly household names, being embraced by a new wave of winemakers who are keen to explore Italy’s rich vinous history and make exciting and distinctive wines. Still, looking at the copious amounts of uninspiring Pinot Grigio and Prosecco, or over the top Amarone (made from partially dried grapes to concentrate flavours) that occupy shelf space and restaurant wine lists, not to mention the growing number of Italian wines made from international varieties such as Merlot and Chardonnay, you cannot be blamed for not knowing that Italy is home to eight or nine hundred grape varieties at last count.
For those ready to venture beyond the Pinot Grigio glut, there are a slew of crisp white alternatives that are food-friendly and flavourful such as Vermentino from Sardinia, aromatic Arneis grown in Piedmont and Alto Adige, along with Cortese which is the main grape variety in the whites from Gavi DOCG.
According to Michaela Morris, a Vancouver-based wine writer and educator and one of the few certified Vinitaly International Academy Italian Wine Experts in the world, Verdicchio, although not necessarily ‘new’, is truly one of Italy’s best white grapes, demonstrating a broad range from simple yet delicious to complex and age worthy, which are sometimes enhanced with a light touch of oak. The overall high level of quality from producers in the Marche means that there are plenty of great examples from which to choose.
The ankle of the boot, Campania, also offers whites such as Falanghina, an ancient grape native to the area around Naples which has seen a renaissance due to the recent interest in native grape varieties and improved viticultural techniques in the region. Wines from this grape are often fragrant and floral with fresh acidity that makes them a perfect match for grilled fish or seafood. Greco di Tufo is another grape that produces full bodied aromatic wines with herbal and stone flavours.
While Prosecco’s bubble is unlikely to burst anytime soon, if you’re in the mood for something more complex though still reasonably priced, it is worth seeking out one of Italy’s traditional method sparkling wines from Franciacorta. While not unknown, Franciacorta does tend to fly under the radar, but is certainly good value and delicious. The first Franciacorta wines were made in 1961 in Brescia in Lombardy and the region was granted DOCG status in 1995. The wines are made from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot blanc and produced using the same traditional method as Champagne, with secondary fermentation and aging in the bottle. They can be vintage dated or non-vintage and while Franciacorta tends to be drier and less fruity than Prosecco (made from the neutral glera grape), it is also riper and richer than Champagne as the growing area is much warmer than the Champagne region in France.
Italy excels in making a wide range of red wine styles and this is certainly no exception for lighter and refreshing styles. Although it has been on the market for years, wines from the reliable and underrated Barbera d’Alba, which is essentially the Gamay of Italy, are juicy, medium bodied and highly quaffable wines, in particular when popped in the fridge for 15 or 20 minutes before serving. Another alternative is Schioppettino, an indigenous grape variety found in Friuli in the north, which is a medium light, juicy red with lively acidity that stands up well to richer Italian fare.
Morris also believes that Italy is a veritable treasure trove of appetizing light reds and cites Rossese di Dolceacqua (both the DOC and name of grape) from Liguira near the border of France, with saline notes on a red currants and cranberry frame, along with Frappato from Sicily, which is essentially red berries, flowers and herbs in a glass that is “highly chuggable when given a slight chill.”
Finally, if you are having a hard time deciding on whether to have a red or a rosé, Schiava is the light-bodied red grape from Alto Adige (also known as Trollinger or Vernatsch) which makes soft and fruity wines with light tannins that make them perfect to sip on their own or with a charcuterie platter on the patio when the weather starts to warm up.
With so many regions and wines to explore, make this spring the time that you embark on an Italian wine discovery tour without even having to leave home.
Four wines to Rethink Italy
Available: LCBO Vintages # 385731
A dry, light and lively white with medium intense stone fruit and citrus flavours overlaid with almond and herbal notes. Crisp with balanced acidity and a lingering nutty finish. Chill and enjoy on the patio.
Majolini Franciacorta Brut 2009
$35.90 (750ml) through The Small Winemakers Collection in cases of 12
From 100 per cent Chardonnay, this is a dry, expressive sparkling wine made in the traditional method. A fine creamy mousse and nose and palate of citrus and dried fruit are complemented by a lively, complex palate and long but fresh finish.
Terre Stregate Svelato Falanghina Del Sannio 2015 $17.95 (750ml)
Available: LCBO Vintages # 486076
The falanghina grape is highly aromatic with floral, herbal and, at times, candied citrus notes. This wine displays all of the above and is fresh with vibrant acidity and a fleshy texture. Lots of character and great for sipping on its own or paired with grilled fish.
Ca’Tullio lo Schioppettino 2015
Available: LCBO Vintages # 539072
While the grape is not common and the name certainly doesn’t roll off your tongue, this lighter medium bodied red has a nicely balanced package of red berry fruit, floral and herbal notes with a slight saline character on the mid-palate. Savoury and appealing, this will pair well with both grilled meat and poultry.