Italian whites make a big splash

few weeks ago I wrote about Spanish white wines. Today, we’re jetting off to another southern European country that, though better known for its reds, has also made great strides with its white wines — Italy.

Let’s face it. When people think of white wine from Italy two words often come to mind — pinot grigio. After chardonnay I don’t think any other grape has become so synonymous with white wine.

To the extent that pinot grigio speaks for all Italian white wines, it represents a minerally quality that is common.

However, with the hundreds of white wine grapes grown in Italy, it is just a fraction, albeit a noticeable one, of Italy’s white wine production.

Space and time constraints prevent me from writing about every white wine grape to be found in Italy so I’m going to pick three.

First, there is cortese, an indigenous grape to Piedmont. If you don’t recognize cortese you might have heard of Gavi, Piedmont’s eminent white wine DOCG. Cortese is the only grape permitted in Gavi, but it can be found outside of its perimeters in Piedmont and neighboring Lombardy.

Fiano, a grape found in Campania, has become very popular. Grown by the Romans, it fell out of favor for a good millennium or two but was resurrected in the 1990s and now accounts for some of the tastiest white wines made in Italy. Fiano can range in body and, like cortese, can handle oak but doesn’t need it for complexity. It often has pear and sometimes honey, waxlike aromas.

The last white grape, for our purposes, is Inzolia from Sicily. It is one of the grapes used in Marsala but also makes really interesting dry, white wine, often with a sherrylike, nutty quality.

We’re not even scratching the surface here, and I will write more about Italian white wines in future columns, but for now here are a few to seek out.

Tenuta La Lumia Inzolia

‘Cadetto,’ 2005 (Sicily)

This wine reminds me a bit of traditionally made white Rioja with a smoky, toasted-nut quality. Considering it did not see any wood treatment, it has incredible body and richness.

Suggested retail: $22

I Favati Fiano di Avellino, ‘Pietramara,’ 2004

(Campania)

The Favati family started making wine about a century ago for their own consumption. They are now sharing the juice, 5,000 cases worth, and their Fiano is one of the most delightful white wines I’ve had all summer — remember, we still have another two weeks of summer to go, officially speaking. Full-bodied with a hazelnut, vanilla aroma, it also seems like it might have some oak treatment, but the smoky minerality is purely from the terroir.

Suggested retail: $18

Icardi Cortese ‘l’aurora,’ 2006 (Piedmont)

Icardi is well-known for its red wines made from nebbiolo and barbera, and there is a part of me that wants to keep it that way and not share this secret with anyone else. Alas, that is not what enjoying wine is all about, so when I tell you that this is one of the best deals you’re going to find, believe it. Medium-bodied with peach, pink grapefruit, guava, nectarines and bright minerality, it is a cross between riesling, sauvignon blanc and viognier.

Suggested retail: $16

Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.

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