Some Italian whites rise above blandness

VINTAGE POINT

Wines: There's plenty of value out there, if you don't expect too much.

August 04, 1999|By Michael Dresser, | Michael Dresser,,SUN WINE COLUMNIST

The best thing about Italian white wines is the names.

Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi. Tocai Friuliano. Orvieto. Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio. The names roll off the tongue in a virtual opera of vowels.

In the past, the wines rarely lived up to their musical monickers. Far too many were as neutral as Switzerland -- and those were the good ones. Many were downright unpalatable.

But a recent tasting of about two dozen Italian whites showed that Italian producers have come a long way in making sound, reliable white wines. By no means do they measure up to the country's magnificent reds, but consumers can find plenty of value if they don't set their expectations too high.

One problem that remains is blandness. It's easy to find an Italian white wine that's crisp, clean and refreshing. Character and bold flavor are harder to find -- probably the result of excessive crop levels and an emphasis on quantity over quality.

There are some exceptions to the prevailing neutrality -- and these wines can be recommended wholeheartedly.

The best of the bunch were the 1997 Tre Vigne Grillo from Romelo Buccellato, an exceptional value at $10, and the 1997 Livon Valbuins Sauvignon, fairly priced at $18.

The Grillo is a dry, full-bodied Sicilian wine that offers a rich mix of intense flavors, including oak, minerals, pears, herbs and white pepper. It can easily stand up to flavorful foods.

The Livon sauvignon comes from the opposite end of the country, Collio in the far northeast. It is a delicate but sinewy wine with more than a little resemblance to a fine Graves from Bordeaux. It displays racy, intense flavors of mineral, lemon, juniper and pepper. It displays far more class than the typical Italian sauvignon blanc.

The tasting included several examples of pinot grigio, an increasingly popular variety that is known as pinot gris in France. It's a variety that produces exceptional wines in Alsace and sometimes Oregon but seldom shows much character in Italy -- probably as a result of overcropping.

The pinot grigio that stood out from the pack was the 1998 Angelini from Veneto ($10). It's a medium-bodied, reasonably complex wine with good intensity and flavors of nuts, pears and minerals.

Almost as pleasing was the 1998 Cavit Collection Pinot Grigio delle Veneze ($8). It's a more fruity, commercial rendition of pinot grigio, but it's hard not to like its liveliness and fresh flavors of pear and peach.

Equally pleasing to the palate, though a bit heavier on the pocketbook, were the 1997 Livon Pinot Grigio from Collio ($15) and the 1998 Pighin Pighin from Grave del Friuli ($11). All of these wines should be drunk young to enjoy their full freshness.

By reputation and price, the 1997 Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio from the Alto Adige should have outclassed all of these wines. For whatever reason, it did not. It has some appealing mineral, white pepper, lemon and pear flavors, but it lacks the grip, intensity and finish to justify its $19 price tag.

Santa Margherita did a somewhat better job with its sparkling Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, but for $15 one can find superior bubbly from California.

Two of the wines in the tasting were blends of pinot grigio and chardonnay. The more successful was the 1998 Libaio from Ruffino, which packed a lot of lively pear and peach flavor into a $9 bottle. A step behind was the 1997 Luna di Luna "Ca Montini" from Venezie (also $9), a pleasant, fruity wine notable for its cobalt-blue bottle.

A fashionable dry Italian white wine is Gavi from a town of that name in the Piedmont region. In my experience, these wines seldom live up to their reputation, but a delightful exception is the 1998 Principessa Gavia Gavi ($14). Its nutty, lemony flavors give it some character to go along with its refreshing acidity. It would make an excellent partner with seafood.

An Italian white varietal that often develops real character is the tocai, grown in the northeastern region of Friuli. An excellent example is the 1997 di Lenardo Tocai Friuliano "Vigne St. Martin," a bone-dry wine with hints of pear, peach and orange, and a pleasant bite in the finish.

Soave, the best-known Italian white wine, is legendary for its watery blandness. This image is beginning to change through the efforts of dedicated producers, but their cause will not be helped by the 1998 San Vincenzo from Anselmi ($11). Any flavor in the wine was masked by sulfur fumes that would not blow off.

That was the only undrinkable wine in the group, which is remarkable when you consider the state of Italian whites only a decade ago.

That leaves wines that were crisp, clean and otherwise undistinguished:

* 1997 Antinori Orvieto Classico "Campogrande" ($10)

* 1997 Dante Rivetti Arneis ($15)

* 1998 La Slina Gavi ($13)

* 1998 Fazi-Battaglia Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi ($8)

* 1998 Danzante Pinot Grigio delle Venezie ($9)

* 1997 Sartori Pinot Grigio, Friuli ($8)

Pub Date: 08/04/99

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