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Italy's Improving Whites

Led by Alto Adige, vintners throughout the country are making distinctive wines
Jo Cooke, James Suckling
Posted: August 31, 2009

White wine is produced all over Italy, from many different grapes and in a broad array of styles. A lot of what's made is very simple, better as aperitif than as an accompaniment at the table. But many Italian whites offer distinctive, complex flavors, and the best can rival the country's top reds.

In a broad search, we have reviewed more than 700 Italian whites in blind tastings in our office in Tuscany since our report last year ("Fresh, Fruity and Flavorful," Aug. 31, 2009). We found exciting wines and great values. Many regions—from Friuli in the northeast through Tuscany and Umbria in central Italy to Campania, south of Rome—contributed interesting and outstanding wines, but Alto Adige, in the extreme north, stood out for its concentration of well-priced, quality white wines. (An alphabetical list of all wines tasted for this report is available.)

This mountainous area, which borders Austria, grows vines on some of the steepest slopes in Europe. Viticulture is at the boundary of human labor; in some cases, workers are literally lowered down by rope to tend the vines. But vines at the limit often make exceptional wines. And this year's crop of Alto Adige whites, mostly from the 2008 and 2007 vintages, includes many outstanding bottles.

What makes Alto Adige's whites so attractive is their combination of pure fruit character and clean mineral notes that reflect the region's mountainous terrain. Mostly single-variety and made in stainless steel vats, they offer an unadulterated introduction to white grapes such as Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer.

We didn't find large differences among the trio of recent vintages from Alto Adige (or among Italian white wine vintages in general). You can buy any of them with confidence. Overall, 2006 seems to be the richest and most balanced; 2007 is a little fresher, with higher acidity; and 2008 seems a little lighter than either of its predecessors.

Italy's wine cooperatives (wineries owned by associations of vine growers) are leading the drive to produce excellent, stylish whites. In Alto Adige's principal wine-producing area, which follows the course of the river Adige, there's a well-run cooperative winery in almost every town, supplied by numerous members with small vineyard holdings on the slopes on either side of the valley. In the past, quantity was what counted, but over the past decade or so, the focus has shifted to quality and continual improvement.

"Vineyard replanting with lower yield clones was the first step in the quality drive, coupled with improvements in vineyard and cellar management," says Hans Terzer, 55, winemaker for the past 30 years at St.-Michael-Eppan, one of the region's most successful cooperative wineries.

Terzer and his team have the daunting task of ensuring the quality of the crop from more than 900 acres of vineyards cultivated by 355 grower-members. These are typical statistics for cooperative wineries in the region.

"We have a new generation of technicians who are better equipped to supervise both the grapegrowing and the winemaking," Terzer says. "In the old days," he adds, "the winery took whatever our growers brought in. That was no guarantee of quality."

What's more, the wines are reliable from year to year, maintaining a fairly constant quality level regardless of vintage vagaries. In terms of what's inside the bottle, differences in vintages are very subtle.

"It's all about selection," notes Terzer. "Our vineyards lie over very varied terrain and at different altitudes, so we can blend different vineyard areas according to their individual performance that particular year. Then all we have to do each year is make sure that the grapes remain healthy and clean, both in the vineyard and the winery."

Like most cooperative wineries, St.-Michael-Eppan bottles wines in three quality levels: a "classic" line, selected from all the members' vineyards; a cru selection, produced using grapes from specific vineyard areas; and a top tier of wines from specially selected grapes. The wines' names indicate their levels.

You'll generally find that the best values come from the classic lineups of Alto Adige's cooperative wineries. Their labels usually carry the producer's name, the DOC "Alto Adige," and the grape variety. Good examples include St.-Michael-Eppan's Pinot Grigio Alto Adige 2008 (90 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, $15) and Viticoltori Caldaro's Müller Thurgau Alto Adige 2008 (88, $16).

Cantina Terlano is another of Alto Adige's top cooperative wineries. It recently merged with its neighbor Cantina Andriano to form a super-co-op, producing a combined total of 1,500,000 bottles a year in Cantina Terlano's winemaking facility. Before the merger, Andriano was bottling only a small part of its production.

While Cantina Terlano continues to produce its own excellent range of whites, the Cantina Andriano Pinot Bianco Alto Adige 2008 (90, $17) and Cantina Andriano Alto Adige Pinot Grigio 2008 (90, $19) represent an outstanding debut for this new label.

Interspersed among the cooperatives throughout the region are privately owned estates of varying sizes. Alois Lageder and Tiefenbrunner, names well-established in the United States, consistently offer high quality whites. Try Tiefenbrunner's Sauvignon Alto Adige Kirchleiten 2008 (92, $30) to see just how good Sauvignon Blanc from these parts can be. (Also seek out Quarz, the top Sauvignon Blanc bottling of Cantina Terlano.) Alois Lageder's Chardonnay Alto Adige 2008 (87, $16) is a clean, rich version of this popular varietal.

"The 2008 vintage is one of the best in recent times," says Christophe Tiefenbrunner. "It turned out really well for our Sauvignon. The cool and rather wet summer left us with too high acidity in the grapes. But from September, the weather was dry and sunny, with good ventilation. By the time we harvested, in mid-October, very late for us, the acidity had dropped and the sugar levels were perfect."

The Tiefenbrunner family owns about 62 acres of vineyards, which supply about a quarter of the winery's production. The rest of the crop comes from contracted local growers, so the operation resembles that of the cooperatives.

Gewürztraminer may be less of a household name than varieties such as Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon, but this native Alto Adige grape makes some of the region's most captivating wines, with rich, spicy, aromatics and often an oily texture that caresses the palate.

The best Gewürztraminers in our recent blind tasting were the Cantina Terlano Gewürztraminer Lunare 2007 (93, $55) and the Cantina Andriano Gewürztraminer Movado 2008 (92, $45). The Cantina Tramin Gewürztraminer Alto Adige 2008 (89, $23) is a good value in the variety.

If you want an introduction to Italian whites, and are looking for a clean, crisp style, Alto Adige is a good place to start. But delve into other regions of Italy and you may be surprised to find that the whites can be as diverse and interesting as the reds.

In Friuli, in the northeast, top vintner Silvio Jermann is making terrific whites. His Venezia-Giulia Dreams (2007; 93, $77) is consistently the top Chardonnay from the region, and the Jermann Venezia-Giulia Vintage Tunina (2007; 92, $75), a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia Istriana and Picolit, is among Italy's most interesting white blends.

In the Veneto, which stretches roughly from Verona to Venice, Soave makes the best-known whites. They can be bland, but the dynamic estate Suavia made an outstanding Soave Classico in its 2008 (91, $19).

Highlights from central Italy include Antinori Cervaro della Sala 2007 (92, $51), a full-blown Chardonnay from Antinori's estate in Umbria, and Querciabella Toscana Batàr 2007 (92, $88), a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco that is, according to our tastes, Tuscany's white of the moment.

Campania, south of Rome, is distinguished by distinctive varietals that trace their heritage to ancient Greece, including the round, floral Fiano. Two of Campania's top producers have released excellent Fianos: Terredora Fiano di Avellino Campore 2007 (92, $40) and Feudi di San Gregorio Fiano di Avellino 2008 (90, $23).

Italy produces plenty of light, clean Pinot Grigios that deliver refreshment at value prices. But look a bit closer and you'll find delicious, distinctive whites of real character and quality to enhance the season's fresh and flavorful meals.

Based in Tuscany, tasting coordinator Jo Cooke and European bureau chief James Suckling collaborated on this report.



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