France and Italy are renowned for their wines. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne from France; Chianti, Barolo, Prosecco from Italy. But those famous names merely scratch the surface. Both countries are also home to numerous underappreciated or nearly unknown appellations and grapes.
Many of these are refreshing whites that are perfect for summer. From France, two to consider are Muscadet from the Loire Valley and Pinot Blanc from Alsace. From Italy, there’s Soave from the north and Fiano from the south. Each wine has a different challenge in the marketplace, but all of them are versatile with food and deserve more fans.
You could argue that most Loire Valley wines – with the exception of white Sancerre, made from Sauvignon Blanc – are underappreciated. Muscadet comes from the western end of the Loire, near where the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean. At its most basic, Muscadet is a light, bright, refreshing quaff that’s easy to overlook. But the region has been undergoing a quality revolution in recent years. And prices haven’t yet caught up with quality: World-class Muscadet can retail for $20-$25.
Muscadet is made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape. There are several appellations for Muscadet, but the best known is Muscadet Sèvres et Maine. The first communal crus – specific areas based on soil types – were approved just a few years ago. These cru wines have more stringent rules about their production and are aged longer than other Muscadets, and they’re considered to be at the pinnacle of quality.
Despite the improvements, misconceptions persist. Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein says some consumers think of Muscadet as “lean, mean electric juice” that’s not good for much besides drinking with oysters.
Other consumers have to be convinced that Muscadet isn’t sweet. The bottle’s elongated shape is like the ones used for German Riesling, and the name of the wine is similar to Muscat, which is often sweet (Muscadet is, in fact, dry).
Muscadet’s reputation of being a good choice with oysters is well-deserved, but the wine is also very versatile. Goldstein, also the president and chief education officer for Full Circle Wine Solutions in the San Francisco Bay Area, says Muscadet is a good partner for “anything with a fin or anything with a shell.” And that includes even more challenging preparations. For example, Goldstein says Muscadet will stand up to a Thai seafood curry. He also likes the wine with white meats and poultry prepared with citrus or cream sauces.
“It gets to the table really, really easily,” says Josh Nadel, beverage director for NoHo Hospitality Group in New York City. Nadel doesn’t eat oysters; he likes the wine with salads, young cheeses and white-fleshed fish. “It lets the food shine.” Domaine de la Pepière and Luneau-Pépin are among the Muscadets he sells.
The wines are also very refreshing for summer. Dean Schlabowske, senior sales consultant for the Austin Wine Merchant in Austin, Texas, notes that it’s hot much of the year in his town, and Muscadet’s delicacy and thirst-quenching quality make it a good seller. One example he cites is the Domaine de L’Ecu Granite.
2. Alsatian Pinot Blanc
Pinot Blanc toils in the shadow of the Alsace region’s more famous grape varieties: Gewurztraminer, Riesling and even Pinot Gris. “People sort of forgot, along with dry Muscat, that it was even there,” Goldstein says.
People associate Alsace with “richer, headier” wines, Schlabowske adds. There’s also the question of sweetness. Some Alsatian whites are noticeably sweet, even if there’s no indication of that on the label, so they can be confusing for many consumers. Pinot Blanc, Nadel says, “More likely than not is going to be dry.”
Nadel, whose company has seven restaurants in New York and one in Miami Beach, adds that “Pinot Blanc is a lot more versatile than people give it credit for.” He calls it a “not-scary introduction to the wines of Alsace–and people can pronounce it.” Among the brands he sells are Domaine Weinbach and Albert Mann.
Todd Johnston, wine bar manager at Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, California, says Pinot Blancs are definitely a “hand sell.” But “once I get them into people’s hands, they come back for more.” Pinot Blancs from Domaines Schlumberger and Albert Mann are among those listed for sale on the Hi-Time website. Schlabowske says his store does well with Trimbach wines, including Pinot Blanc, and also sells some Hugel.
Goldstein likes Pinot Blanc with a lot of Asian food and with vegetable-based cuisines, citing the example of moussaka, in which the bitterness of the eggplant and the richness of the béchamel can be challenging for a red wine. He also thinks it pairs well with pickled foods, a popular culinary trend.
“It really can go with anything,” Nadel says.
For an older generation of wine drinkers, the reputation of Soave was sullied by an ocean of thin, cheap plonk shipped to the U.S. in the 1970s. The Soave zone — east of Verona in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy – had been expanded to the fertile plains to meet demand, and the result was higher quantity but lower quality. The wines were so heavily marketed that they surpassed Chianti in sales. Eventually, consumers looking for a white that’s light and inexpensive abandoned Soave in favor of Pinot Grigio.
Since then, Soave, made principally from the Garganega grape, has experienced something of a comeback. The best wines come from the Soave Classico zone, which consists mostly of hillside vineyards. The hillsides are rocky and less fertile than the plains, which limits yields, producing more distinctive and flavorful wines with lively fruit and some minerality.
As is the case with the other underappreciated whites, the key often is getting consumers to try it. Soave isn’t something that his customers generally ask for, Nadel says, but “when I recommend it, people like it.” Two of the brands he sells are Inama and Pieropan.
Soave is “well-represented” at the Austin Wine Merchant, Schlabowske says. “Soave does quite well in our store.” His best-selling producer is Inama.
Soave sales are also good at Hi-Time. “We sell boatloads of Soave here,” Johnston says. He credits its good value and its versatility with food for its popularity.
Shelley Lindgren is wine director and owner of Italian restaurants SPQR in San Francisco and A16 in San Francisco and Oakland. A16’s wine list is focused on southern Italian wines, but she sells several Soaves at SPQR. Lindgren is a particular fan of the wines from Pra, which she calls “excellent, world-class Soave.”
Lindgren pairs Soave with various seafood preparations, including fritto misto and seafood risotto, and says it’s particularly good with crustaceans. She also likes Soave with prosciutto and with game birds. Nadel thinks it’s a good match for white meats and cream sauces.
Fiano, a white grape most commonly grown in southern Italy, doesn’t have an image problem. For most consumers, it simply doesn’t have an image. Even wine reference books don’t give it much attention: The fourth edition of “The Oxford Companion to Wine” by Jancis Robinson gives Fiano only one shortish paragraph.
“That’s one that’s still flying under the radar a little bit,” Hi-Time’s Johnston says.
The best Fiano grows in Campania, in the wooded hills around the city of Avellino, where the wine is called, appropriately, Fiano di Avellino. Plantings of Fiano are also increasing in Sicily; Planeta makes a particularly good one called Cometa. At its best, Fiano produces an aromatic, flavorful wine that is capable of aging.
Lindgren is a big fan of Fiano. “If I drink a white wine every day it’s Fiano,” she says. She thinks it’s currently undervalued, but that’s starting to change. “It’s being recognized as one of the world’s noble grapes,” she says.
Fiano is well-represented on Lindgren’s wine list at A16. She says it can stand up to hearty dishes like braised pork. Goldstein agrees that pork is a good match. He also recommends osso buco, saying that Fiano’s flavors mirror those of the gremolata, the chopped herb and lemon zest condiment traditionally served with the dish.
Because of Fiano’s versatility with food, Nadel says, when he’s asked for a white wine to accompany the entire meal, “it’s one of the white wines to which I gravitate.” He also notes that because it’s relatively unknown, Fiano has “no stigma attached to it at all.” Among the Fianos he sells are bottlings from Terredora and Clelia Romano “Colli di Lapio.” Lindgren also sells the latter at A16. Pietracupa is another of her favorites.
Two Fiano di Avellinos that are well-distributed are from Mastroberardino and Feudi di San Gregorio.
A Northern California resident, Laurie Daniel has written about wine for more than 20 years. Her wine column appears in several California newspapers, and her articles have appeared in magazines such as Wines & Vines, Food & Wine, Wine Country Living, Drinks and the Wine Enthusiast.