Focus on Northeast Italy
Although Italy now makes very good white wines in virtually every region, the best come from Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia (FVG). These two regions, along with Veneto and Trentino, make up what is generally referred to as Italys northeast, situated roughly between Austria to the north and Slovenia (part of the former Yugoslavia) to the east. In fact, each of these regions has something special to offer, and not just white winesVeneto's incredibly rich, alcoholic and unique great red Amarone being a case in point.
But despite the obvious quality of the best wines of these four regions, they are still relatively unknown outside Italy, especially compared to wines like Barolo and Brunello. This is due to a combination of factors. Most important is the generally poor image of wines like Soave, made from a blend of white grapes, and pinot grigio, both of which are still among the top-selling imported wines in the U.S. despite the fact that most are quite neutral and churned out in industrial quantities. This is a real shame, for both Soave and pinot grigio can be delicious wines, but only when made by scrupulous, talented and yield-conscious producers. Unfortunately, too many casual wine drinkers try the indifferent, dilute wines first and are turned off to these categories forever. Another difficulty these wines face in export markets is that the better wines are rarely cheap, as this part of Italy must contend with the highest costs associated with growing grapes and making wine.
Perhaps a classically styled, though still spotty, vintage like 2004 will help these wines attract new fans. Following on the heels of the difficult, rain-plagued 2002 growing season (a notable exception was Alto Adige, where the vintage was much less wet and actually quite good) and the equally challenging 2003, which witnessed extremely high summer temperatures, the 2004 whites from the better producers are solidly made and fresh. Good red wines were also made in 2004, but most of the reds that are currently available in the US market are from 02 (the better producers have made lighter-style, elegant wines) and 03, a year in which the reds are generally much more successful than the whites. Keep in mind that the 2001 vintage was also a strong year for red wines from this part of Italy.
Italys northeast is where foreign and native grape varieties have equal representation, with many producers, for example, churning out bottles of cabernet alongside those of ribolla or nosiola. In fact, imported grape varieties such as sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, merlot and cabernet have long been at home in Italys northeast, something that cannot be said of most other regions of Italy. In fact, in this neck of the woods some of these French grapes are considered "traditional," rather than foreign, varieties. But in the last decade or so, a growing number of producers have also rediscovered their own local varieties, such as schioppettino and raboso. While many growers had never actually abandoned these varieties in the first place, today a larger number of producers are crafting far better wines by more carefully matching clones to sites and controlling their yields. These wines from indigenous grapes are essential to the future success of Italys northeast as they offer altogether different fragrance and flavor profiles than the international varieties and represent a welcome change for wine lovers seeking something new and interesting. The plethora of native grapes available in this corner of Italy (keep in mind that more than a thousand native vinifera grapes have been identified in Italy) can yield truly mesmerizing wines. It's true that some of the native grapes yield acidic, lean whites or lightweight reds with modest flesh and sweetness. And names on labels may also be a shock to the uninitiated. But then nobody ever said that Italy, the land of organized chaos and individuality pushed to the max, was going to make it easy for you.
Ian DAgata is the director of the International Wine Academy of Rome and a contributor to several editions of Gambero Rosso's Italian wine guide. He has also co-authored a number of wine books, including one on Italy's native grape varieties and his own buyer's guide, the D'Agata and Comparini Guide to Italy's Best Wines. D'Agata's coverage of the best new wines from southern Italy appeared in Issue 121 of the IWC.