Every communique on great Italian wines kicks off with a litany of reds: Piedmont’s Barolo and Barbaresco, Tuscany’s Chianti Classico Riserva and Brunello di Montalcino and so on. While I’m happy to stipulate that those bottles deserve icon status, they do suck the oxygen out of the room for another noteworthy cache of Italian wines—the country’s exciting whites. Made from a myriad of broadly unfamiliar indigenous varieties, as well as international knowns like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, the whites in this powerhouse of a wine country offer a taste adventure without the usual reference points. Audrey Frick, Italian wine reviewer for JebDunnuck.com, puts it well. “I love the indigenous white wines of Italy for their ability to pivot just outside our comfort zones of more familiar varieties,” she says. “They’re packed with great value and versatility at the table.”
So a highlight reel on Italian whites is overdue, but even the CliffsNotes explainer of varieties and regions would be encyclopedic. According to Wine Folly, Italy is “rumored” to grow more than 2,000 grape varieties, about 350 of which are “official.” Of those, Wikipedia (that font of accuracy, but hey, we’re talking about Italian rumors here) reports that 33 are major white grapes. Who can say about minor?
Frick offers the briefest of cheat sheets, just to get started on styles you might like, beginning with “fresh and salty, from the coast—Vermentino from Liguria, Verdicchio from the Marche.” Or you might like “volcanic, textured and herbal”; look to Fiano di Avelino from Campania, Carricante and Grillo from Sicily, Garganega (the grape behind Soave, which has gotten very good) from the Veneto. Fancy fresh and lifted? Go for Alpine whites—Kerner, Müller-Thurgau, Grüner Veltliner, or Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige, for instance, or Prie Blanc from Morgex et de la Salle (that one rolls off the tongue, no?). And finally, take a good look at Friuli, for many things—richly textured blends or single-varietal wines made from Friulano, Ribolla Gialla (for the mineral lovers), Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Then there’s Arneis from Piedmont, Verdecca from Puglia…
“Salty,” “herbal,” “minerally”—those descriptors are clues to the earthy, savory adventures Italian whites dish up (the “pivot outside our comfort zones” that Frick describes), especially the indigenous varieties but on the international front as well. We’ve included both here—impressive bottles from recent tastings. Those at the top of the price spectrum are some of the country’s benchmark whites. But don’t write off those priced for a Tuesday night—Italy offers is a treasure trove of delightful, affordable whites.
Alois Lageder 2018 Porer Pinot Grigio Südtirol Alto Adige
In no way conflate this highly unusual Pinot Grigio from Alois Lageder with lesser, why-bother forms of the popular Italian white. The experimental protocol of pressing part of the fruit off directly, leaving a portion with skin contact for a few hours and the remaining third on the stems and skins for a full year yields a rich, textural, complex white—highly appealing. Stone and minerals mix it up on the nose, with rounded citrus (think orange peel preserved in sea salt) and the stone fruit that follows. But this isn’t about fruit; the appeal here is the intriguing layering effect of the unique vinification.
Elvio Cogno 2019 “Anas-Cëtta” Nascetta di Novello Langhe DOC
This aromatic white from Elvio Cogno is a rare example of Nascetta, an indigenous variety that was almost extinct until the Cogno family found and revived it in the 1990s. White blossom aromas are touched by a salty sea breeze mixed with grapefruit and wet-stone minerality. Fresh, resiny herbs wrap around citrus on a vibrant, savory palate—mouth-filling and long, with a zap of lime zest adding a kick.
Feudo Montoni 2019 Catarratto del Masso Sicilia DOC
The Catarratto fruit for this pretty white from Feudo Montoni, from 55-year-old vines, is vinified in cement with some skin contact and 6 months on the lees, resulting in terrific texture and a rounded mouth-feel. Pink grapefruit, acacia blossom and fresh-cut grass aromas lead into a delicate but structured palate full of peaches and fresh-squeezed citrus, plus a kick of puckery lime zest on the finish.
Livio Felluga 2017 Terre Alte Friuli Venezia Giulia
This iconic rich blend from Livio Felluga combines Friulano, Pinot Bianco and Sauvignon. It opens with a hint of petrol (a good thing) extending into a savory salinity under green melon, herbs and elderberry flower aromas. Creamy, mouth-filling citrus builds with white peach and guava through a long, satisfying finish.
Pietradolce 2019 Etna Bianco DOC
Unabashed minerality marks this 100 percent Carricante from Pietradolce and yet the wine is far from steely and harsh. Delicate florals, lemon-lime and resiny herb aromas mix it up with a fresh sea breeze. A beautiful palate of creamy citrus and a hint of apricot lingers, looping back into minerality on the finish.
Pio Cesare 2017 Piodilei Chardonnay Langhe DOC
Piedmont powerhouse Pio Cesare might be known best for Barolos and Barbarescos, but the producer was also a pioneer in bringing Chardonnay to the region. This complex, barrel-fermented version opens with tropical flowers and whiffs of vanilla and spice layered with apple, lemon and earthy minerality. Generous ripe fruit follows—more apple, creamy lemon and hints of tropicals like guava—edged with well-integrated oak spice. The wine is vibrant but also rich and long.
Poggio alle Gazze dell’Ornellaia 2018 Bolgheri Toscana
Sauvignon Blanc is the lead variety in this terrific white from Ornellaia. Evidence of that abounds on the nose—bright lemon, fresh-cut herbs, white blossoms, wet stones and a subtle ocean breeze. The citrus continues on the palate, joined by white stone fruit, all bound by bright acidity, impressive structure and lovely persistence.
Querciabella 2017 Batàr Toscana IGT
This 50-50 blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc from Querciabella is one of Italy’s iconic whites. Slightly smoky and spicy out front, its aromas evolve through white blossoms, citrus, melon, tropicals and savory herbs. A creamy, complex palate features tart citrus—grapefruit and lemon—along with white nectarine and more tropicals, including hints of pineapple and guava. A savory, minerally finish goes on endlessly.
Russiz Superiore 2013 Sauvignon Collio DOC Riserva
Made of 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc, this Riserva from Russiz Superiore is aged more than 4 years before being released—3 of them on the lees. The effect is richness and depth unusual in a Sauvignon. Pronounced minerality opens, with lovely florals and tropical notes. Tart but creamy citrus flavors are layered with herbs, white peach skin and hints of pineapple and guava, with an edge of salinity. Tension and texture carry through a rich, lingering finish.
Tasca d’Almerita Tenuta Whitaker Mozia Grillo Sicilia DOC
The Grillo grapes for this delightful white from Tasca d’Almerita are hard-won—transported in small, flatbed boats from a tiny island off the west coast of Sicily (Mozia is a heritage site spanning the island, an active archeological dig studying a Phoenecian settlement dating back to 800 BCE, so no winery is possible onsite.) Fresh blossoms open, with lovely ocean salinity and whiffs of kaffir lime. Bright but sunny flavors follow—creamy lemon, sweet nectarine—layered with fresh herbs and finishing in minerality.
Vietti 2020 Roero Arneis DOCG
Credit for rescuing this “little rascal” variety goes to Vietti’s Alfredo Currado, now considered “the father of Arneis.” This 2020 is bright and citrusy, with grapefruit wrapped in aromatic blossoms. Melon, white nectarine and puckery lemon flavors are delivered with tension and exceptional crispness.