Meet the white Italian grapes that are vying for attention with the better-known reds, writes Max Allen.
Quick quiz: name five Italian red-wine grapes. Done? Now let me guess: sangiovese and nebbiolo were the first two you thought of, followed by barbera or dolcetto, then perhaps corvina from the Veneto or a southern grape such as nero d'Avola from Sicily. Am I right? Now name five Italian white grapes. Take your time. Pinot grigio? Well done. Now four more. No? How about arneis? Fiano perhaps? It's not as easy, is it? When it comes to Italian wine, we're far more familiar with the reds. That's a shame because Italy produces a little more bianco than rosso, and offers an amazingly diverse range of wines from an incredible array of local white grape varieties - everything from bone-dry, mineral-laced cortese in Piedmont to rich, chewy, amber-hued skin-contact ribolla in Friuli. I think it's time we became better acquainted with these wines. And I'm not the only one.
"Every time I go back to Italy my friends say, here's another new white wine to try," says Flavio Carnevale, co-owner with Fabio Dore of Sydney restaurant Popolo. "It's very exciting. When we opened the restaurant two-and-a-half years ago, we wanted to introduce these wines that were not known in Australia."
Carnevale is particularly fond of the white wines of the south - not surprisingly, perhaps, given his upbringing in Basilicata, the "instep" of the boot - and Popolo's list leans heavily in this direction: savoury vermentino from Sardinia, fresh falanghina from Campania, tangy grecanico from Sicily; a treasure trove of new tastes and flavours. Carnevale says a lot of these Italian white grapes and wines are not as well known as their red counterparts because until recently they were blended into cheap generic wines.
"In the south of Italy there are many fantastic grapes like fiano and greco, but for many years they were made into anonymous bulk wine by the big cooperative wineries and just sold locally," he says.
"No one outside the region knew about them, and the wines weren't that good anyway. Then about 25 years ago, instead of selling grapes to others and blending them away, the growers started making the wines themselves. A couple of really good producers like Mastroberardino really put those grapes, and southern regions like Campania, on the map."
Sommelier David Lawler oversees the richly Italian wine list at Melbourne's Rosetta. He agrees it's a great time to be interested in Italian whites. "Italy is in a pretty dynamic state at the moment," he says. "There's lots of inexpensive, good-value white wines being made - cleaner wines, more expressive of region and variety than I've seen before."
What excites Lawler, and what drinkers appreciate when they try these wines, is their unique flavours and textures. "I like what's happening in Sicily. There's a brightness and freshness and tannin-crunch to the whites - wines like the blend of carricante and grecanico we have on by the glass - that is inherently gastronomic. I've also had a lot of success with a white grape called pecorino from the Marche region. It produces such a delicious wine, almost Chablis style, a wine that gratifies and appeals and satisfies a lot of people."
Carnevale is also a fan of pecorino, describing its texture as "creamy, but with minerality". In fact, all his white wine descriptions focus on mouthfeel as much as flavour. "I love minutolo," he says, "from Puglia - very aromatic, reminds me of a riesling, but rich and dry in the mouth, like a fiano. And grillo, from Sicily - the volcanic soil is rich in minerals, which means the palate is vibrant, the salivation is bigger, you have a sip of wine, you really think about it."
Texture's the thing for me, too, when it comes to Italian whites. The taut minerality of the cortese grape and the green pear-like crunch of arneis in the whites of Piedmont; the chalky, powdery quality of the nosiola grape in Trentino; the grape-pulpy traits of garganega in the wines of Soave; the mouthwatering, citrus tang of greco from Campania. As Lawler says, it's the texture in these wines that makes them so inherently gastronomic. There's a parallel with Italy's reds: the filigreed tannins in Barolo, the snap of bitter almond in a good Chianti. It's the texture of these reds that makes them unique and so good with food. So, try that quiz again. Five Italian white grapes? There's at least 15 on this page. Next time you're at an Italian restaurant or bottle shop, be adventurous and give one a try.