There was a time, not many years ago, when Italy's white wines were a national embarrassment.
Thin, acidic and with little character, they were clearly treated as an afterthought by everyone from producers to importers to wine merchants. Red wine was the heart and soul of Italy; white wine was for wimps.
A lot has changed in a decade or two.
Pinot grigio has emerged as a well-recognized white-wine grape varietal that consumers are learning to trust. Cold fermentation has produced more stable wines. Producers around the country are taking more care with their white wines, and many excellent examples are being exported to the United States.
There's even some Soave that will astonish the most cultured palate.
The strong showing of dry Italian whites in a recent tasting comes as welcome news at this time of year. Many of these wines are ideally suited for spring and summer sipping outdoors. Brisk and lively, they can be served at a lower temperature than chardonnay. Their crisp acidity complements the flavor of grilled seafood and antipasti.
The downside to Italian white wines today is that many are clean and refreshing but not much different from their peers. Most of the pinot grigios in my tasting - with one amazing exception - lacked individuality even though they were good wines.
Seekers after more character are free to explore Italy's abundance of Verdicchios, Vernaccias, Soaves, Vermentinos - and even the occasional astonishing chardonnay. There are some real treasures available to those willing to hunt for them.
A case in point is the 2000 Gini "La Frosca" Soave Classico Superior ($18). Thanks to Bolla and others, Soave became known as a source of insipid, character-free white wines. Gini stands that reputation on its head, producing a Soave of exceptional intensity and complexity, with lush, toasty, yeasty, vanilla flavors reminiscent of a fine white Burgundy.
The 2000 Pra Soave Classico ($14) shows that the Gini is no fluke. It, too, is an impressively complex white wine, distinguished by a creamy texture that floats across the palate before finishing with jolt of refreshing acidity. The interplay of mixed fruit flavors (too many to list) with herbs and nuts makes for fascinating drinking all by itself. Equally impressive - and remarkable for its durability - is the 1998 Cabreo "La Pietra" Chardonnay ($22.50) from Tuscany. It's a mature, beautifully developed chardonnay with nuances of baked apple, toasty oak, lemon, vanilla and even a hint of honey - though the wine is fully dry.
The outstanding pinot grigio in the tasting was the 2000 Vigne Della Rocca from Colli Orientali del Friulu ($13). It's a complex, mature, rounded, lush wine with intense flavors of peaches, pears, nuts and minerals. This is one of the few Italian pinot grigios that can rival a top-notch wine made from the same grape in Alsace, where it is called pinot gris. The other wines in the tasting did not reach this level of excellence, though several were quite impressive. They included a batch of pinot grigios, led by the well-known producer Santa Margherita's 2001 from Valdadige.
At $22.50, the Santa Margherita commands a higher price than other pinot grigios. It was the best after the Della Rocca, but it did not stand head and shoulders above less-expensive examples.
The 2001 is a crisp, fresh wine with hints of minerals, sweet pea, herbs and lemons - a description that could be applied to just about any well-made Italian pinot grigio. The Santa Margherita just brings it off with a smidgen of greater elegance than the following well-made and less pricey wines:
2000 Villa Girardi "I Mulini" Pinot Grigio, Valdadige ($13)
2001 Tiefenbrunner Pinot Grigio delle Venezie ($11)
2001 Kris Pinot Grigio delle Venezie ($11)
2001 San Angelo Pinot Grigio from Castello Banfi ($15)
2001 Pighin Pinot Grigio, Friuli ($12)
Consumers who prefer a bit more fruit and a little less herb and mineral taste in white wines should look beyond pinot grigio to some of Italy's other fascinating varieties. One is the Vermentino, an aromatic grape grown on the island of Sardinia. The 2001 Argiolas Costamolino Vermentino di Sardegna ($8), with its peach and pear overtones, resembles a well-made white Rhone more than most mainland Italian wines. There's still plenty of herbal nuance to this complex, lively wine.
Two engaging white wines came from Terruzi & Puthod, a producer in the Tuscan town of San Gimignano. The winery's 2000 Vernaccia di San Gimignano ($11) is a bone-dry but fruity wine with hints of peaches, lime, berries and nuts and a refreshingly bitter finish - a characteristic of the Vernaccia grape. The 2000 Teruzzi & Puthod Terre di Tufi ($21), a proprietary Tuscan white, is a more concentrated blend of pear, peach, lemon, herb and juniper flavors. Both are quintessential seafood wines.
If what you're looking for is a refreshing wine for hot-weather consumption, you might want to consider the 2000 Zenata Lugana, San Benedetto ($10.49). Lugana is a little-known region where the high-acid trebbiano is the main grape. When handled well, as this one is, it can yield intensely fruity, straightforward wines with a tangy, bracing finish.
It would be a grave omission to write about this subject without mentioning the Verdicchio grape, which produces one of central Italy's classic white wines in the town of Castelli di Jesi. The wines, including those in the well-known amphora-shaped bottles used by Fazi-Battaglia, can be very good. Alas, the two examples in my tasting were in poor condition - one possibly from poor shipping, the other unquestionably from a contaminated cork.
Despite the back luck with Verdicchio, this sampling generally showed a high quality of white-wine production. Italy should be proud.