Exploring the whites of Italy

Clean, unoaked choices range beyond pinot grigio

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There are many varieties of Italian whites -- don't limit yourself to pinot grigio. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune / August 12, 2010)

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

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