Just as Italy's vast and varied cuisine seems to have been boiled down to a few tired and true warhorses — spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, cheese pizza — on the trip across the North Atlantic, so too has the choice of Italian wine often appeared to be limited to familiar reds such as Chianti or lambrusco. Italian whites rarely seem to figure in the popular imagination, and when they do, the pick always seems to be pinot grigio.
Time to break out of that same-old-same-old mold. Italy grows hundreds of wine grape varieties. Most of these whites offer a "simple but obvious combination of clean, unoaked styles that speak to the grape's distinctive personality," said Evan Goldstein, a California-based author and master sommelier.
Use this long Labor Day weekend and the light, intensely flavorful foods of late summer to explore all of what Goldstein and other wine pros say Italian whites have to offer. You're guaranteed to find something you'll like.
"Italy absolutely offers a wine for every palate," said Belinda Chang, beverage director for The Modern in New York City. "It makes sense that a country obsessed with food produces the perfect wine accompaniment as well."
Chang raised eyebrows some years back when she drafted Italian-only wine lists for two of the restaurants she worked for. She remains unapologetic today.
"Italy produces almost a quarter of the world's wine and is practically covered with vineyards. I really loved turning the drinker of chardonnay, white zinfandel and cabernet on to the incredibly food-friendly wines of Italy," she said. "All I needed to know was what their favorite wine was, and I could come up with an Italian equivalent in terms of flavor profile, body and texture."
Steven W. Alexander, sommelier for Chicago's Spiaggia restaurant, does much the same thing. Italy is a "Pandora's box of unknown varietals and flavors waiting to be discovered," he said. Wine drinkers who stick to pinot grigio or chardonnay are "missing out on a world of flavor opportunities and great values."
"The native grapes of Italy are some of the finest in the world and are worth exploring, especially if you are on a budget," he added. "In general, native varietals offer more value because they are marked up less than commodity grapes like chardonnay, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc. Simply put, they are off the beaten path, so they command less of a mark-up at the winery."
Busting out of the wine rut
Tired of the same old pinot grigio? Consider these suggestions from Spiaggia's Steven W. Alexander. He recommends you buy the freshest, youngest wines in most categories.
Alternatives to pinot grigio:
Friulano from Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Producers: Venica & Venica, Bastianich, i Clivi, Marco Felluga, Ermacora
Arneis from Piedmont. Producers: Vietti, Malvira, Bruno Giacosa, Deltetto
Verdicchio from Marches: Producers: Bucci, Santa Barbara, Brunori, La Monacesca, Enzo Mecella
Falanghina from Campania: Producers: Alois, Terredora di Paolo, Mastroberardino
Alternatives to chardonnay:
Gavi from Piedmont: Producers: Villa Sparina, Fontanafredda, Ca' Bianca
Soave (garganega) from Veneto: Producers: Inama, Suavia, Ca' Rugate, Tammellini, Pieropan, Buglioni
Pinot bianco from Alto Adige: Producers: J. Hofstatter, Cantina Terlan, Cantina Tramin, Alois Lageder
Fiano d'Avellino from Campania: Producers: Terredora di Paolo, Mastroberardino, Vinosia, Feudi di San Gregorio
Six to try
These six wines represent a mere fraction of the bounty and diversity found with Italian whites. No star ratings were given because each wine was evaluated on its own, but the clear favorite was the 2007 Livon Verduzzo Friulano Casali Godia, a dessert wine.
2009 Ajello Grillo
This Sicilian white has a mushroomy nose and a tart flavor plushed with notes of apple, pineapple and limestone. Serve with fried fish, salami subs, olive and feta salad. $14
2009 La Battistina Gavi
Made from the cortese grape, this wine from the Piedmont region is so tartly crisp it practically tingles. Look for a lively mix of green apple, white pepper and lime in flavor and aroma. Serve with avocado stuffed with shrimp salad, grilled swordfish, chicken salad. $20
2008 Fontana Candida Frascati Superiore
A blend of malvasia and trebbiano grapes from Frascati, which is near Rome. This white has a creamy quality, almost like a Burgundy, with a subtle herbal flavor akin to pinot blanc. The nose is a bit grassy. Serve with grilled Cornish game hens, pasta salad with mussels, egg salad. $8
2007 Inama Soave Classico Vigneti di Foscarino
Made from the garganega grape, this white from the Veneto was markedly more golden than most of the other wines. The flavor is crisp but with enough sweetness to feel multidimensional. Look for notes of honey, caramel spice, black pepper, citrus. Serve with Waldorf salad, grilled scallops, grilled quail. $25
2007 Livon Verduzzo Friulano Casali Godia
This dessert white from Italy's Colli Orientali del Friuli region is memorable for its many nuanced layers of flavor. The nose offers touches of honey, apricots and vanilla. The flavor is of spiced apricot and butterscotch. Serve with an apricot or plum tart, pineapple upside-down cake, peach clafouti. $26 (500 milliliter bottle)
2009 Palagetto Vernaccia di San Gimignano
This Tuscan wine has the tart flavor of green apples and pear seasoned with black pepper and a spritz of lime. Serve with grilled pork, cold roast chicken. $12
You want that wine. But your store or area distributor may not carry it. State law may prohibit you from ordering a wine online. What to do? Ask your wine retailer for a wine similar in flavor, style and price. Remember, too, prices vary.