It’s not often that a Chardonnay, that most popular of white wines, is described as innocuous, especially when made in the big, California style that brought it to prominence. However, another white wine of growing popularity, Pinot Grigio, often doesn’t seem to aspire to much more than that. A touch of color, a faint, citrusy aroma, alcohol, and a burst of acidity are sometimes the only traits that tell you that the glass in front of you is not your water.
I always found this rather perplexing; after all, the same grape under its French moniker, Pinot Gris, creates some really dynamic wines, most notably in Alsace and Oregon. On the other hand, the Alsatian and Oregon wines are not ones I’d look to under a hot summer sun; they’re more “shoulder-season” wines. Once I started I didn’t actually have to look far to find some Pinot Grigios that, while still made in the refreshing, Italian style, have something more to offer than quaffability.
I also came across some other Italian wines that offer a similar character, but which are made from less familiar Italian varietals. Italy is experiencing a rising surge of national pride when it comes to some of its native grapes, and while some winemakers encourage planting more of the so-called “international” varietals like Chardonnay and Merlot, others are giving considered and enthusiastic attention to grapes that may not ring any bells with some winedrinkers.
Pinot Grigios I
The Livio Felluga estate has been making wines in the northeast of Italy for several generations; the current winery was established there after World War II. Their Pinot Grigio, made under the Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC, was one of the first Italian Pinot Grigios I encountered that really got my attention. The 2003 has the expected acidity and refreshing qualities along with a wonderful concentration of quince, pear, and green apple aromas. It also has an amazing richness and color, touched by a shade of pink that gives the grape its name (Grigio means “grey,” or in this case, pink, falling between the Pinots “Blanco” - a white grape - and “Nero” – a red). Working as a waiter, I was always pleased to sell this wine over some of our other Pinot Grigio offerings; I knew they were getting a lot more for their money. I’ve since gotten to know several other wines from Livio Felluga, and they maintain consistently high standards. Another Friulian producer who makes a noteworthy Pinot Grigio is Giovanni Puiatti. He’s dedicated to making wines without woody flavors - a devotee of stainless steel – and while Pinot Grigio is rarely if ever subjected to oak-aging, his experience with crafting deep and complex wines without resorting to wood surely shows in this wine as well. The dominant aroma of the 2003 is pear, with mineral and lemony notes also making an appearance. This is an elegant and well-balanced wine.
From the other end of Italy – actually beyond the other end of Italy, in the continental sense – comes the Regaleali Bianco from the Conte Tasca d’Almerita Estate. This producer in Sicily uses three local grapes – Inzolia (a.k.a. Ansonica), Cataratto, and Sauvignon-Tasca; the latter being the name they have given to a clone of Sauvignon Blanc unique to the estate. The 2003 shows notes of banana and apple as well as citrus, mint, and honeysuckle. The acidity remains decidedly crisp, which shows what a difference altitude – 1,400 to 2,300 feet above seas level, in this case - can make in what is generally considered a climate too hot for white grapes. On Sicily’s other major island, Sardinia, Argiolas produces their Argiolas Bianco IGT Isola dei Nuraghi. 94% Vermentino, with the difference filled out by Malvasia and other native varieties, the 2003 eschews the fennel and sage profile typical to Sardinian Vermentinos in favor of citrus and apple notes balanced by a touch of marzipan. Argiolas is one of the better-known wineries on the island; their whole range of wines are sound and good values, and their flagship red, Turriga, has earned a reputation as one of Italy’s best.From the other end of Italy – actually beyond the other end of Italy, in the continental sense – comes the Regaleali Bianco from the Conte Tasca d’Almerita Estate. This producer in Sicily uses three local grapes – Inzolia (a.k.a. Ansonica), Cataratto, and Sauvignon-Tasca; the latter being the name they have given to a clone of Sauvignon Blanc unique to the estate. The 2003 shows notes of banana and apple as well as citrus, mint, and honeysuckle. The acidity remains decidedly crisp, which shows what a difference altitude – 1,400 to 2,300 feet above seas level, in this case - can make in what is generally considered a climate too hot for white grapes. On Sicily’s other major island, Sardinia, Argiolas produces their Argiolas Bianco IGT Isola dei Nuraghi. 94% Vermentino, with the difference filled out by Malvasia and other native varieties, the 2003 eschews the fennel and sage profile typical to Sardinian Vermentinos in favor of citrus and apple notes balanced by a touch of marzipan. Argiolas is one of the better-known wineries on the island; their whole range of wines are sound and good values, and their flagship red, Turriga, has earned a reputation as one of Italy’s best.
Pinot Grigios II
The first time I visited Italy – well before I had really learned much about wine – I was picnicking solo in Bolzano’s city park when I accidentally put off some Mormons doing their missionary work in Bolzano by my choice of beverage: a bottle of Alois Lageder’s Pinot Grigio. A shame, as I was glad to speak to some fellow Americans for a change. Nevertheless, my wine choice was good, although hardly informed; Lageder’s winery is located just outside the city’s historic center, so I was merely buying a local product to make the most of my visit. The Lageder winery has been nestled in the Alto-Adige for many years, producing a variety of wines. The region is in the heart of the Dolomiti, part of the spine of mountains that extends south through the center of Italy, and Alois Lageder, the current manager of the winery, feels a strong connection with the beautiful surroundings. Consequently he has made environmentally-friendly viticulture a high priority and is carefully weaning his vineyards from any dependency on artificial treatments; once his vines and vineyards have been restored to a natural equilibrium he intends to rely exclusively on organic and biodynamic farming methods. His 2003 Pinot Grigio is characterized by spicy and flowery aromas, a creamy texture, and a touch of smokiness; traits that echo some aspects of the Alsace style of Pinot Gris, but with a crispness, especially on the finish, that confirms its Italian identity.
One of Lageder’s neighbors to the south is the Tiefenbrunner Castel Turmhof Estate Winery, known more familiarly simply as Tiefenbrunner. Like Lageder they grow most of their grapes on the area’s mountain slopes, which provide good drainage and sun exposure. The father and son team of Hubert and Christof Tiefenbrunner also display the same attention to the environment as Lageder does. Together with their winemaker Gerhard Sanin they consistently produce an intriguing mix of white and red wines (although the Alto-Adige is known in the export market primarily for whites, the region actually produces more red wine, using both native and international varietals). Their 2003 Pinot Grigio is relatively full-bodied, with pineapple, white peach, and mineral elements predominating, supported by orange blossom and lemon aromas.
Two Italian whites worth mentioning as close in character to Pinot Grigio come from regions that also happen to produce Italy’s most famous reds. In Piedmont, the land of Barolo and Barbaresco, there is a DOCG that celebrates the white Cortese grape called Gavi, centered around the town of the same name. The Piedmontese hills give those famous red wines perfect exposure to the sun; in Gavi they stretch out close to the Mediterranean. The sea breezes provide a cooling effect which insures that the grapes maintain their lively acidity. Ca’ Bianca makes their Gavi in a small but well-equipped winery, and the 2002 shows a strong lemon note as well as honey and a touch of mineral character. Ca’ Bianca is known to harvest a portion of their grapes later than the rest, and these grapes add richness and body to the wine, because if their higher sugar content when picked. This actually touches on a primary difference between Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris. The cooler climate in Alsace allows the grapes to stay on the vine longer without losing their acidity, whereas Italian producers usually have to pick their grapes earlier, when flavors and richness may not be so developed but acidity is assured.
Meanwhile, in Umbria, the Antinori family has dipped across the border from their ancient home in Tuscany to make their Antinori Orvieto Classico Campogrande. Orvieto was once a well-known name here in the U.S.; American GI’s brought back a taste for the wine after World War II. Unfortunately its popularity in the 50s lead to many of the same quality problems that face Italian Pinot Grigio today: mass-production, high yields, and diluted character. But as with Pinot Grigio there are still producers who are using the local grapes – mostly Procanico and Grechetto in this case – to make interesting wine. Antinori’s 2003 Orvieto begins with lemon-lime and mineral aromas with a mushroomy note on the palate adding character. For a wine this light and crisp the finish is surprisingly long.
In the Veneto there is another Italian appellation that saw its star rise after the War and then collapse: Soave. Long the white wine of choice in Italian-American red-checkered-tablecloth restaurants, Soave’s producers today fight the same public perception problems that plagued Chianti for many years. Many producers, including Roberto Anselmi, also feel that changes made to the regulations during the years of Soave’s popularity – greater flexibility regarding varietals, a larger geographical area - have weakened the appellation by lowering the bar so far that it no longer guarantees a sufficient level of quality. In 2000 Anselmi even gave up using the appellation on his wines in protest, choosing to call his wines by the broader, Veneto IGT category; his “Dear Jane” letter to the appellation was a passionate and public rejection in the Italian manner. His San Vincenzo is nonetheless based on the garganega grape that is the heart of Soave; it makes up 80% of the blend, the remainder being chardonnay (15%) and trebbiano (5%). The volcanic soils of the San Vincenzo vineyard as well as macerating the must on its skins bring great concentration and focus to the wine. The 2003 is a light-bodied wine with aromas of green apples and orange blossoms, a touch of hazelnut, and a roundness in the mouth that balances well with a cleansing acidity.
Pinot Grigio III, and Family Overseas
Nearby – outside Soave but still within the Veneto – the Zenato winery makes a Pinot Grigio of great concentration, aided by a roundness and creaminess imparted by the addition of Chardonnay – about 10%. Zenato is family-owned; I had the good fortune to be introduced to their wines over lunch with Sergio Zenato’s daughter, Nadia, who handles sales in Italy and the U.S.A. She was justifiably proud of all their wines, and their Pinot Grigio, despite its lower price, is no neglected stepchild. Cooling breezes from Lake Garda prevent the grapes from becoming overripe and losing their acidity; the wine keeps the refreshing finish that Pinot Grigio drinkers enjoy, and the 2003 in particular sports clean aromas of citrus, melon, and pineapple. It’s a great bargain as well.
Californian winemakers are generally not ones to let a trend pass them by, so several have taken up the varietal and style of Italian Pinot Grigio. The state has become where Alsace and Italy collide, as the Pinot Gris rendition of the varietal is not new to the state and has been making small but noteworthy contributions to the state’s production for a while. Generally if a Californian winemaker labels the wine with the French “Pinot Gris,” expect a wine in the Alsace style (Navarro Vineyards in the Anderson Valley comes to mind), whereas “Pinot Grigios” will follow the Italian model. One winery that has taken Italy as its guide for all its wines is Benessere, a card-carrying “Cal-Ital” producer. At John and Ellen Benish’s winery two Italian consultants with classic Tuscan pedigrees (Dr. Alberto Antonini and Attilio Pagli) work together with winemaker Chris Dearden to make, along with some international-varietal wines, Californian Sangioveses and Pinot Grigios. The 2003 vintage of the latter is quite the fruit salad, with notes of lemon, lime, peach, and grapefruit on the nose. In the mouth a pleasant herbal element emerged to provide some contrast. The 2002 sold out quickly, so track down the 2003 while you can.
Wandering around Italy would be a great way to spend the summer, but if you can’t do it in person, try doing it in wine - and don’t forget to pack something to eat. All of these wines lend themselves to summer favorites like fresh, light seafood and fish. Chicken and prosciutto dishes will also go very well. These crisp wines are only the tip of the Italian iceberg; other Italian whites like Tocai Friulano and Falanghina offer another set of flavors, and there’s a world of Italian reds that suit summer quaffing, such as Valpolicella from the Veneto and Monica grape of Sardinia. With all these great wines to share and enjoy, summer’s a perfect time to visit your cousins and the rest of the family.