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WHITE'S WINES

The electric white wines of Italy

Thursday, November 29, 2012 - 9:04 pm

Legend has it that a renowned British wine taster was once presented with a flight of wines while wearing a blindfold. He nailed each wine, correctly identifying the grape and the region in which it was grown.

Toward the end of the challenge was a glass of water. Upon smelling and sampling it, the taster expressed bewilderment.

"I have no idea what this is," he exclaimed, "but I can assure you it's something I've never had before!"

Traditionally, this story has been used to spark a conversation about the futility of blind tasting. The wine world's smart alecks, however, have taken to replying back with a joke: "Why didn't he peg it as Pinot Grigio?"

Sadly, there's some truth to this retort. All too often, Pinot Grigio is simply a substitute for water. Mass-market bottlings are refreshing and fruity -- and deliver a buzz -- but they're never very compelling.

This reality has tarred the reputation of all Italian white wines. That's a shame, because Italy produces the most exciting whites in the world. Even Pinot Grigio can be spectacular.

Italy has been producing wine for thousands of years. When the ancient Greeks colonized southern Italy, they called it "Oenotria," or land of the vine.

Pinot Grigio gained a foothold in America in 1979, when wine importer Tony Terlato visited Milan in search of the "next great white wine."

Terlato tasted a Pinot Grigio and "was taken by its fresh aromas, its crispness, freshness and the way it paired effortlessly with foods."

The next day, he drove to northern Italy's Alto Adige region, where Italy's best Pinot Grigio is grown. Upon arriving, he visited a local restaurant and ordered every Pinot Grigio on the wine list. Of the 18 bottles, Terlato most enjoyed the offering from Santa Margherita. He visited the winery the following day -- and returned to the United States as its sole importer.

Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio took off. Today, it's America's most popular imported restaurant wine.

Over the past 33 years, however, Pinot Grigio has become a victim of its own success. Santa Margherita isn't cheap -- it retails for $25 a bottle. So the market has been flooded with cheap alternatives, led by brands like Cavit, Ruffino and Ecco Domani.

There are better wines for the money. More grape varieties are planted in Italy than any other country in the world. Thousands of Italian wines make their way to the United States.

The most exciting whites come from northeast Italy, particularly the regions of Alto Adige, a neighbor to Austria and Switzerland, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, which borders Slovenia to the east and Austria to the north.

Alto Adige is still home to the world's best Pinot Grigio, but dozens of varieties flourish there. Pinot Bianco, for example, is more floral and mineral-driven than Pinot Grigio. Gewurztraminer, Muller Thurgau and Kerner are exceptionally aromatic -- and display enough sweetness and acidity to complement cream sauces and even spicy foods.

In recent months, I've become obsessed with Kerner, as it seems to work with everything. Top producers include Kofererhof and Abbazia Di Novacella, which both make bottlings for under $20.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia, commonly shortened to Friuli, is home to a host of obscure, fun and versatile grapes like Ribolla Gialla and Friuliano. Producers in the region are also known for producing rich, complex blends and crisp, clean Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Southern Italy also generates delicious whites. My favorites come from Campania, where a grape called Fiano thrives. At first, Fiano typically comes across as an easy-drinking quaffer. But it can hold its own at any table -- and the better examples gain complexity with age.

One of my favorites, Feudi di San Gregorio's Fiano di Avellino, runs less than $20.

It's no secret that Italy produces some of the finest red wines in the world. Top Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino easily command hundreds of dollars per bottle. But too many consumers disregard Italy's whites thanks to the flood of cheap Pinot Grigio that's come ashore.

They shouldn't. Italy produces more distinctive wines than any other nation -- and its whites are positively electric.

David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. His columns are housed at Palate Press: The Online Wine Magazine (PalatePress.com).