Suaver than soave
Monday 2nd September 2013, 10:00AM BST.
Italian whites have come a long way since bottles of enamel-stripper soave were ubiquitous. Our wine man Richard Allisette has some examples, along with other Continental offerings worth looking out for…
A FEW years back I was asked to source a white house wine for a local Italian restaurant.
They weren’t happy with their current offering and wanted something that was different and therefore not a big brand found in the supermarkets, of good quality and, above all, cheap and Italian.
No easy task. I immediately ruled out everyone’s favourite, pinot grigio, because those that were cheap enough tasted about as interesting as drinking tap water and I doubt if they were made of pinot grigio anyway. Much the same applied to cheap soave.
The wines of Friuli and the Alto Adige were different enough and generally of good quality, but cheap they certainly weren’t. I thought of a few Tuscan/Umbrian whites but dismissed these because of variable quality.
Puglia, the heel of Italy, is a great place for cheap reds and roses but their whites, while cheap enough, seem made to appeal to local tastes and were perhaps just a little left-field for a house white, where you are trying to pander to a broad selection of tastes.
In the end I found what I was looking for offshore, on the island of Sicily, a wine made with the grillo variety. It had ample tropical fruit/citrus flavours, a zesty crisp finish and, best of all, even with the shipping costs of getting it to Guernsey, was available to the restaurant for under a fiver. And with the climate in Sicily ideal for grape growing, vintage variation was not an important consideration.
This was originally grown in Sicily for the fortified wine Marsala, but with sales of that shrinking, producers set about making it into a dry white wine.
Modern techniques (mainly keeping the grape must cool while it is fermenting) mean that it is no longer a high alcohol, slightly clumsy white but one with bags of character and available at a snip of a price.
Greco di Tufo
Along with fiano and falenghina, one of a trilogy of white wine grapes that reach their apogee in the volcanic soils near Naples (there is actually a black Greco too, but it is rarely seen outside its homeland). This has near New World levels of tropical fruit and peach flavours but finishes dry – at times it reminds me of the French grape viognier. It is a great wine to try next time you are eating seafood and want something different.
Found mainly in Gascony in south-west France, this is a great grape if you are a sauvignon blanc fan and fancy trying something different but not too much so. It’s actually blended with sauvignon sometimes and this combination works well. The best gros manseng comes from Jurancon, in my opinion, and makes a pretty and aromatic yet dry white. This variety also makes excellent sweet wines, which are great with foie gras if you are holidaying in the region.
Found in Austria and capable of making anything from cheap and cheerful jug wines to some of the most serious, complex white wines in the world. There have been a couple of magazine tastings where gruner veltliner has been pitted against top white burgundy and it is the gruner that has come away with honours. In its youth it has delicate flavours of citrus and honey flecked with white pepper, with age the honey becomes deeper and richer. It is a sommelier’s favourite in top-flight restaurants as it can match a wide range of food. Growers such as Brundlmayer, Hirtzberger, Knoll, Nikolaihof and F.X. Pichler produce some of the most profound dry white wines on earth – but be prepared to pay for them.
Found in Sicily, and like grillo it used to be employed in the production of Marsala. Along with grillo and catarratto, one of a trilogy of Sicilian white wine grapes worth looking out for. Inzolia is perhaps a little racier and zestier than the other two. I had a bottle of it this summer while sitting outside in the sunshine picking a spider crab. The combination was absolutely perfect – the lemon zest of the inzolia cutting through the richness of the crabmeat. It is also found in Tuscany under the name ansonica – worth looking out for but usually more expensive.