A Time For Old World White Wines

I always considered myself a “red” drinker. You know the type. I drank only reds because whites didn’t offer my palate the depth of character, body, and complexity offered by the reds. You may be a member of the same club. I was a member for decades, that is, until I met some old world Italians. The chance meeting happened in the Langhe in 2013. If you are not familiar with the “Langhe”, it is an area in Italy’s Piemonte region, in the province of Cuneo, and considered as the area south and east of the Tanaro River. The area is known for its spectacular beauty, and famous for its cuisine, especially its cheeses, white truffles, and, of course, its wine. This is the area world renown for great reds—Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera d’Alba, Dolcetto d’Alba. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) opened its arms to the Langhe in 2014 by designating it a World Heritage site. You get the picture. It’s incredibly beautiful and culturally rich region! This “red” guy was visiting the area to find a Barbaresco when this chance meeting occurred, and shortly after, I surrendered my membership card from the red-only club.

I have to thank Luisella Chiola at Azienda Agricola Fontanabianca for introducing me to old world whites with their 2012 Langhe Arneis. I was immediately drawn to its pale yellow hues in the glass. Its floral nose was inviting, and its soft, smooth mouthfeel left a richly complex finish of fresh fruit on the palate. This was like no other white I had ever tasted! And, so it began, my awakening to old world whites.

Arneis is grown primarily in the Piemonte region. It was called Arnesio at the beginning of the 20th century. The name eventually changed to Arneis. In the Piemontese dialect, the word arneis is also used to describe a “rascally” individual, someone with whom it is difficult to get along.

The following year I was introduced to Trebbiano, while exploring the Abruzzo hills near Ascoli Piceno. Corrado De Angelis Corvi poured a 2012 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo “Fonte Ravillino” into my glass and my palate was bathed in this liquid gold nectar that stimulated all the senses. Again, it was a beautiful expression of the unique terroir of its birthplace, the Colline Teramane district of the Abruzzo.

Trebbiano is a large family of whites that frequently takes the name of its region of origin. It is the “most planted” white varietal in Italy (source: Italian Wine Central, 2010 data). 

My journey continued with the whites of Friuli-Venezia Giulia; and, each time, I was met with luscious varietals that delivered complex aromas and tastes that I had not found in new world whites. Pinot Grigio is perhaps the most widely imported Italian white to the states. Arguably, you will find the most interesting Pinot Grigio from the small, artisan producers of Friuli and Alto Adige regions. Here is a great example of a varietal that will deliver a tremendous range of aromas and flavors depending on the local terroir. Igor Erzetic at Azienda Agricola Branko in the Collio district introduced me to a classic 2013 Pinot Grigio from this small valley that neighbors the Slovenian border. This is a fruit forward white with subtle aromas of sundried hay, walnut, and stone fruits. It delivers a warm plush mouthfeel with discreet acidity to provide a clean, pleasing finish. And, just a few kilometers south in the neighboring Colli Orientali, Stefano Traverso’s 2013 Vigna Traverso Pinot Grigio delivered an equally fabulous but very different tasting experience. This is a complex, well-balanced white that delivers a classical, old world Pinot Grigio experience to your palate—floral aromas, slightly bitter but refreshing and pleasing earthy finish.

Pinot Grigio: The variety was originally imported from the Burgundy region of France where it is known as Pinot Gris. It is widely found in Northern Italy in Lombardy, Veneto, Friuli, Trentino, and Aldo Adige regions. The color of the clusters can vary from bluish-gray to yellow. 

The northern most wine regions of Italy—Trentino Aldo Adige, Friuli-Venezia Giulia—are world renown for the quality and variety of white wines. One of the most well known and widely available in these regions is Friulano (also known as Tocai Friulano). Indeed, I found it offered in every trattoria I visited in the Friuli. Igor’s 2013 Collio Friulano delivers all the unique characteristics this varietal has to offer—vegetal aromas with hints of bitter almonds and refreshing acidity on the finish. I dare anyone to find a similar varietal in the new world.

The diversity and number of Italian whites is remarkable and possibly overwhelming. Ian D’Agata lists over 80 white varietals in his book titled Native Wine Grapes of Italy (University of California Press). For those wine enthusiasts who are developing their bucket list, consider adding the tasting of all 80 native Italians to your list. You will need to plan extensive travel through the Italian wine regions to find them; but, in the meantime, there is a great tasting experience to be found with the few that are available here. You will find depth of character, body (yes, even in whites), and complexity that are frequently missing from new world whites. Don’t misunderstand me. I still love the reds as well; and there is always be a place for reds in my cellar. Nothing goes better with roasted red meats or a bolognese sauce than a red. So with all due respect to the reds, I have come to appreciate the diversity and complexity that the old world whites offer.   To all of the members of the “only red” club, there is a time for old world white wines.

Don Chigazola