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The Italian Way with Chardonnay

Recommended Wines

In a lighter style:

Angelo Gaja Rossj-Bass 2003

Pio Cesare L’Altro 2003

Aldo Conterno Printanie’ 2003

Luigi Coppo Coste Bianche 2002

Fuller Wines:

Angelo Gaja Gaia & Rey 2001

Pio Cesare “Piodilei” 2002

Aldo Conterno Bussiador 2001

Luigi Coppo Monteriolo 2002

 

By Jim Clarke

Warmer weather is on its way, so many of us are putting away our hearty reds in favor of more refreshing whites. But to ease the transition there are some white wines that have the some richness and heft, chief among them being the oft-maligned Chardonnay. Hugely popular since the 80s, it’s spread from its Burgundian home to California, Australia, and virtually everywhere else – and developed a mixed reputation in the process. When planted in the right place and carefully vinified, it makes some of the best whites in the world, but the shelves of your local wine shop can be a minefield given the heavy marketing behind what is still America’s favorite white wine.

One overlooked source for well-made Chardonnays is Italy, particularly Piedmont. This should come as no surprise: often called the Burgundy of Italy, the Piedmontese climate and soils share a lot in common with that of the Cote d’Or. In the late 70s some of the producers behind Barolo and Barbaresco’s fame developed an interest in making richer, age-worthy whites, and they turned to Chardonnay to make it happen. However, it wasn’t until 1994 that a DOC was created that recognized the grape: Langhe; this catch-all appellation includes several varietals, with Chardonnay standing out as the only non-native grape.

Two fourth generation Barolo and Barbaresco producers were among the first to give Chardonnay its chance in Piedmont. Angelo Gaja planted his first Chardonnay vineyard in 1979 and named it Gaia and Rey for his daughter and grandmother, respectively. Around the same time Pio Boffa at Pio Cesare convinced his father, Giuseppe, to plant some Chardonnay in their Il Bricco vineyard. These days both wineries produce a lighter, higher acidity Chardonnay and a richer version which spends more time in oak. This seems to have become the model for Piedmontese Chardonnay; Aldo Conterno, for example, does the same with their Printanie’ and Bussiador bottlings.

Farther east, some of the Barbera specialists in the Asti area are also taking an interest in Chardonnay. Luigi Coppo leads the way; the winery got started with the grape around the same time as Pio Cesare and Gaja, and again offers both a lighter and richer take on the grape.

While Cabernet and Merlot have made in-ways farther south in Italy under the guise of Super-Tuscans, international varietals haven’t gained as much notice elsewhere in the country (Given the number of fascinating native varieties, it’s easy to see how another Chardonnay might be given a miss). Piedmont has become the grape’s second home in Europe; while some California winegrowers may be tearing up their Chardonnay to make room for the next trend (Italian-style Pinot Grigio would be an added irony), in Piedmont they’ve found a good thing and they’re prepared to stick with it.

Recommended Wines:

In a lighter style:

Angelo Gaja Rossj-Bass 2003 – lightened with a touch of Sauvignon Blanc, this wine shows a quartz-like minerality, with citrus and floral notes

Pio Cesare L’Altro 2003 –“The Other” offers up touches of pear, banana, and vanilla, with a medium body and refreshing finish

Aldo Conterno Printanie’ 2003 – medium-bodied, with apple, almond, and mineral notes wrapped up with a spicy finish

Luigi Coppo Coste Bianche 2002 – lemon, vanilla, and a touch of butter, this has a creamy mouthfeel but stays light and refreshing

Fuller Wines:

Angelo Gaja Gaia & Rey 2001 – toasty and full-bodied, with lemon, pineapple, and mango aromas and a long finish

Pio Cesare “Piodilei” 2002 – a passionfruit and pineapple nose touched by some cinnamon and clove spice and toasty notes. Very well balanced, with great length

Aldo Conterno Bussiador 2001 – very creamy, with notes of pineapple and banana over a minerally base; full and soft

Luigi Coppo Monteriolo 2002 – almond and hazelnut aromas complemented by a touch of cinnamon, with balancing tropical fruits and a touch of butteriness. Medium-to-full bodied, with a smooth mouthfeel and good length

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       Published: May 2006
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