Become an Expert: The Essential Guide to Prestigious Italian White Wine
I love everything about Italy: the culture, landscape, people, places, industry (read bicycles and motorcycles), but especially the food and wine. I’m so lucky for the opportunities I’ve had throughout my several years in the wine industry. One of my favorites has to be the times I’ve attended Gambero Rosso’s annual event called “Tre Bicchieri”. For many years it’s been held only in New York and San Francisco, but our great city of Chicago was added six years ago and it has become a huge success. The three tastings are usually held in mid-February, with the winemakers traveling from city to city to attend, sharing their wines and wisdom.
The organization that sponsors the event, Gambero Rosso, is Italy’s most respected wine publication. Each year they sift through thousands and thousands of amazing wines produced in that country (Italy is basically one huge vineyard, as all twenty regions produce wine). Rather than using a point system to rate the wines, they issue a One, Two or Three Glass award, the translation being Uno, Due or Tre Bicchieri. The Tre Biccheri is reserved for the very top wines of that given year.To give you an idea of how special the Tre Bicchieri wines are, (and how exciting Italian wine is), in 2015 they evaluated over 20,000 wines from 2402 producers, awarding only 423 Tre Bicchieri.
Note how the numbers have doubled and the tasting note book has shrunk. Don’t forget your eye-bicchieri!
Gambero Rosso invites all the Tre Bicchieri winners to these tasting events. Not all attend, but the event is still packed – 180 tables this year! Yikes! This is where you need a plan of action, as it’s impossible to maneuver through the throngs to get to each table.
I have maintained for over ten years that perhaps the greatest story in the wine world is the dramatic improvement in the quality levels of Italian white wine. You need look no further than this event over the years to see this come to life. When I first attended Tre Bicchieri there were very few white wine-only producers, and even fewer white wines. At this year’s event, at least 35% of the wines being shown were whites, and they are some of the planet’s most intriguing and delicious wines. I spent two hours with my head down, ignoring friends, trying to taste as many of these gems as I could, also discussing them a little with each producer.
History of Italian Whites
A lot of the credit for American interest in these great white wines from Italy must go to Tony Terlato, who in 1979 realized a potential market for crisp, dry whites from the Alto Adige region, after he had tasted a wide range of them in a hotel restaurant in Venice. Since that time, not only America, but the World, has come to understand the deliciousness and versatility of these wines, enjoyed by themselves as aperitif, but especially with lighter foods like shellfish and fresh fish entrée’s. It’s thanks to Tony that we enjoy Mazzoni’s Pinot Grigio and Vermentino Chardonnay in the United States.
In almost every region of Italy you can find crisp, elegant, well-balanced white wines. From the Pinot Grigio, Moscato, Arneis, Sauvignon Blanc, Garganega (the grape of Soave) and Glera (Prosecco) of the North, to Verddichio di Mettalica, Greco di Tufo, Grechetto, and Vermentino (and now excellent Pinot Grigio – Maremma) of the Central, to the Insolia, and forward-thinking producers of non-indigenous varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc in Sicily and Puglia, there are hundreds of options. It must be stated that almost all of these wines are fantastic values.
In Montalcino, where our Mazzoni wines are made at the famous Brunello house, Il Poggione, white wine takes a back seat to the noble reds. However, most wineries here make “Vin Santo” , a decadently sweet dessert-style wine made from grapes dried on straw mats.
The Greatest White Wines in Italy
What are the greatest white wines in Italy? Like all wine-related topics, highly debatable. Interestingly, the press for years has awarded the top prizes mostly to modern wines, tending to come not from native varieties, but from grape species introduced into the country in only the past 30 years, notably chardonnay. Probably the most famous and iconic winemaker in Italy Angelo Gaja, along with his family, planted Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in a region known only for nebbiolo. They bottle three amazing whites, Gaja & Rey Chardonnay, Rossj-Bass and Alteni di Brassica. Two other very prominent Chardonnays are Jerman “Dreams”, and Antinori’s fine “Cervaro della Sala” (the only Italian wine to have been awarded a Tre Bicchieri every year it’s been made).
The above mentioned wines are of course expensive, but nowhere close in price to the top white Burgundies, Grand Cru Alsace and top Champagne in France. Or even California’s elite, cult-like whites, notably micro-produced Chardonnay. The real story of these wines to me is the plentitude of purely delicious, affordable, food-friendly white wine options. Table after table at the Tre Bicchieri tasting, when asked the price here in the U.S., three glass winners were “Twenty dollars”, or, “Fifteen Dollars”, or sometimes even less. This connection between quality, authenticity, distinction and value is what makes this such an exciting category today.
The next time you are wine shopping, take a detour from the California Chardonnay aisle and try a white blend from Tuscany, like the Mazzoni Vermentino-Chardonnay – delicious!
Tim Clark is the Fine Wine Education Director for Terlato Wines International. With a belief that there are no ‘wine experts,’ only ‘wine students,’ Tim provides easy-to-understand wine knowledge for Mazzoni’s blog, Live Like an Italian.