ITALIAN WHITES

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Adecade ago if you said “Italian wine,” Italians thought you were speaking of chianti or barolo, tart red wines meant to go with pasta. Italy, then the world’s largest producer of wine, made mostly red; white was really an afterthought.

Red was so much a part of the Italian wine culture that Piero Antinori, the splendid producer from Tuscany, once was quoted saying, “White wine is just white wine. Red wine is wine.”

Yet about that same time, quite quietly actually, white wine from Italy began to make inroads into Americans’ wine consciousness. It wasn’t a major trend, but it did represent a huge change in American drinking habits when Bolla Soave, the simple, crisp white wine from Verona, became incredibly popular in the U.S.

So much a staple in the American diet was Bolla Soave that people would order it in restaurants and not even know which word referred to the company. In fact, it was its status as a “call” wine in restaurants that made Bolla’s Soave so successful and left it far ahead of all other soaves.

Today, Italian white wine has really come of age. Bolla’s fresh, clean soave has continued to grow in volume, and so have several others well-known Italian whites. Brands such as Folonari, Canei and Cella all have seen high percentage increases in the last decade, and a good portion of the growth recently has been at retail.

And, as for the world-famous Marchesi Antinori winery, it introduced a lineup of 1996 vintage white wines, underlining the continuing impact of Italian whites in the U.S. marketplace. Light and refreshing, they feature a Villa Antinori Bianco (suggested retail $8.50), from Tuscany, which is Marchesi Antinori’s flagship white; and from the Umbria region Antinori Orvieto Classico Campogrande ($9), Castello della Sala Chardonnay ($11.50) and Castello della Sala Sauvignon Blanc ($11).

“One of the big reasons for the recent popularity of Italian white wines is that they maintain their varietal characteristics without wood,” said Dr. Giovanni Minetti, general manager of the Piedmont-based Fontanafredda. “That’s the secret of their success.”

Dan Palmer, general manager of The Wine House in West Los Angeles, CA, pointed out that “a few years ago, we started seeing a demand for Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio. Today, people are discovering the Veneto, which is primarily a white wine region, and they are finding alternatives to chardonnay.”

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To most Americans, Italian wine starts and ends with chianti; for the vast majority of Americans, there is no other Italian red.

Fact is, more than 90% of the wine made in Italy is red and there are literally hundreds of different types.

From the north, where red wine grapes growing in the shadow of the Alps yield high acidities for crisp wines, to the south, where warm Mediterranean breezes make for bold, rich wines such as those from Sardinia and Sicily, Italy makes a wide range of red wines that focus on their friendliness with food. Aging is generally not a major requirement.

To be fair, however, a huge percentage of Italian rosso is light, simple, quaffable and perfectly suited to the olive, tomato and mushroom sort of foods you find there.

These are the wines that have gained the most favor in America, such as Riunite’s popular lighter red wine that takes a chilling and keeps on thrilling. Lambrusco isn’t the only wine that pleases this way. So do the companion wines bardolino and valpolicella.

But hearty red wine has come of age in the U.S., led by an old favorite. Chianti, of course, is the most familiar of the Italian wines, being the one you’d find in all Italian trattorias and cafes in which spaghetti (or today, pasta) is the focal point. Chianti is rarely dark, weighty and concentrated, so it is clearly not like bordeaux. But its aromatic structure is not like that of the lilting pinot noir of Burgundy.

Crisp acidity and an anise, dried rose and dried cherry aroma is what make chianti best with food and rarely sipped alone. The major firms of Ricasoli, Antinori and Ruffino are among the dominant names in American sales of chianti today, making exemplary wines at fair prices.

Barolo has become the collector’s dream. A rock-hard wine of density along with its sister wine, barbaresco, barolo ages very well and in the last decade American wine collectors have seen this wine really come into its own as a collectible. Old versions are exposed to wine lovers, who taste them, fall in love, and pay nearly anything for great examples. Aldo Conterno’s latest 1990 Gran Bussia Barolo came out at $160 a bottle and soon had a shelf price of $200!

Amarone, a wine made from intentionally dried grapes, has recently become a wine of excitement for a small but growing list of consumers. This dry but very bold, full-bodied red wine more or less resembles port, with huge flavors and an almost sweet finish.

The “super Tuscan” wines of many producers have now also gained considerable recognition. The names Tignanello, Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Solaia and a dozen others now sell for many multiples of standard chianti, and are gracing the wine lists of some of the nation’s finest restaurants and upscale beverage alcohol stores.

On the East Coast, the trend is similar, according to Carlo Russo, owner of Carlo Russo’s Wine and Spirit World, with stores in Hohokus and Fort Lee, NJ. “People are looking for anything that doesn’t say chardonnay on the label,” he said.

Russo has long been an expert on Italian wines and noted that Italian whites started selling successfully in his stores about a decade ago. “They are all now arriving on the tail of pinot grigio, which is the most recent wine to really break the Italian white wine barrier,” Russo explained. “Now Santa Margherita is in every Italian restaurant in the United States.”

The Santa Margherita phenomenon (it now commands a price close to $20 in many retail shops) continues to lead a huge pack of pinot grigio producers, and today there are more brands of pinot grigio coming into the U.S. market than any other white wine of Italy. Folonari and Fontana Candida (better known for a delightful, crisp frascati) both have entered this market with appealingly fresh pinot grigios.

At the $5 end of the pinot grigio scale are sound and successful wines from Bertani, Cavit and Morassueti, he said.

“Obviously there is more Italian white wine at a quality level than we ever saw a decade ago,” said Palmer. “It’s not just Bolla Soave any more.”

Palmer said that a decade ago The Wine House might have carried perhaps a dozen white Italian wines, representing 5% of his Italian section. “We probably stock 40% white [Italian wine] and my personal house wine is Italian.” That would be a gavi di gavi from Orzsola, which sells for about $15.

“At The Wine House; we’ve tried to get people away from chardonnay, which today is all oak and butter, and people are getting tired of that. They’re looking for more fruit flavor. We have to educate the consumer, give people a chance to taste these wines. When they do, they really love them.”

Russo explained that “Italian white wines have a crispness and a lot of them have a bit of bitterness, which goes great with food. Besides the acidity, they are not fat wines. They have the zest to stand up to a variety of cuisines.” Russo added that these wines generally contain lower amounts of alcohol than chardonnay.

Palmer’s distinctive point about fruit dominating the oak flavors in Italian white wines is an appealing feature of the wines for consumers. Wines as fresh and crisp as frascati, orvieto and even soave, now with vineyard-designated bottlings, are finding huge numbers of fans across the country.

Italian Chardonnay!

Once it was thought that gavi di gavi, especially from La Scolca and Banfi, would become the chardonnay alternatives in the U.S., and though they have a good share of the market today, they are being out-run by another chardonnay alternative: Italian chardonnay!

Italian vintners have begun to grow chardonnay, especially in certain areas where the government’s DOC laws now permit it to officially be grown, such as in Lombardy and Piedmont. Here and even in certain areas of Tuscany and Umbria many producers are making chardonnay-based wines that are stealing the thunder not only of gavi, but also of the once more popular pinot bianco, the same wine as the pinot blanc that has become a staple from Alsace in France.

The flavors of Italian chardonnay are not as close to French or California as they are unique to Italy, and at prices that normally don’t exceed $20, these are fine substitutes for those seeking a new version of an old friend. Antinori’s lovely chardonnay, at about $11-$12, is soaring in popularity at stores, and his Cervaro della Sala, an oak-aged chardonnay with a bit of grechetto, is a winner at restaurants.

Perhaps the best known white other than soave from Italy is its muscat-based sparkling wine called asti spumante. Martini and Rossi and Tosti, the two leading producers, once were the only brands you could find in the U.S.

In the last two years, as the Italian government has increased the image of asti spumante by permitting the quality statement DOCG on the category’s best wines, more producers are coming in to challenge Martini and Rossi’s national lead.

For example, Fontanafredda released a 1996 asti made with 100% moscato. It is available in only limited quantities in the U.S. and sells for $2-$3 more than Martini & Rossi Asti.

With literally dozens of different wine types in Italy, getting a handle on the best wines isn’t easy. Generally speaking, though, what seems most appealing about Italian white wines is their relative freshness without overt use of oak (except in some high-end chardonnays and recently pinot bianco); their faint earthiness, and their honest, assertive acidity levels. Indeed, the first time you try an orvieto from a top producer, you may be shocked at the crispness.

Dan Berger’s wine column is carried by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and he also publishes a weekly newsletter on wine, “Vintage Experiences” (e-mail: RLLS92A@PRODIGY.COM).

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