The Best Whites from Italy's Northeast

At their best, the white wines of northeast Italy are world-class, on a par with Barolos, Barbarescos and Brunello di Montalcinos, and the outstanding 2006 vintage showcases these whites at the top of their game. Ideally, these are pure, fruit- and mineral-driven, and generally unoaked wines that offer a panoply of fragrances and flavors not commonly associated with chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, although both of these varieties are also made here.

Italy’s northeast comprises four regions: Trentino, Alto Adige, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia (FVG) and Veneto. The finest white wines are still being made in Alto Adige and FVG, but Veneto—better known for its rich, heady Amarones—and Trentino are vastly improving the quality of their white wine offerings. In fact, the latter two regions are increasingly good sources for enjoyable, user-friendly, reasonably priced whites, and some small, passionate producers have appeared on the scene with intriguing and satisfying wines.

A fine vintage like 2006, which yielded an abundance of focused and varietally accurate wines, will only help to attract new converts to their cause, even though prices, especially for some of the wines of FVG, can seem high. Following on the heels of a somewhat difficult and distinctly less consistent 2005 growing season, 2006 generally produced excellent examples of what each white grape type of northeast Italy can deliver in its particular terroir. The sun-soaked climatic conditions of ’06, with timely rains and wide day-night temperature differences, made it possible to produce perfumed, vibrant, flavorful white wines with refreshing acidity. But don’t make the mistake of writing off 2005: although this vintage witnessed a number of rainy days right through the harvest, resulting in some grey rot and dilution, the better producers, particularly those in Alto Adige, made some very fine and enjoyable wines.

Gottfried Pollinger, the director of the excellent producers’ co-operative of Nalles-Magré in Alto Adige, feels that the white wines of the 2006 vintage are the best in a long time. “Weather conditions were just about perfect, and I cannot remember a better year climatically,” he said. “We had fine ripe fruit with significant sugar levels and great polyphenol ripeness as well. It was hard to make a bad white wine in 2006.” Not everyone in Alto Adige was as sold on the vintage, though. Peter Dipoli of the estate of the same name wonders if the heat in ’06 wasn’t actually too much of a good thing. “I agree that 2006 is one of the better vintages in recent memory, but some of the lower-lying vineyards were stressed by heat. I also think ’05 got a bad rap—some of those wines seem to be every bit as good as the ‘06s.” Nino Pieropan of Pieropan also loves the ’06 vintage, but he also believes that other recent vintages were almost as good. In fact, he prefers his ’04s to the ’06s: “As good as the ‘06s are—and make no mistake, I think they’re absolutely great—I wonder if my ’04s won’t turn out better in the long run, because I think the grapes benefited from a longer, slower ripening season, which allowed for more complex and interesting polyphenol formation in the skins.” Gianni Menotti of Villa Russiz is unmoved by that argument. “I respect everyone’s opinion, but at times I think we get too critical,” he told me. “Quite simply, 2006 is one of the finest vintages of the last 20 years: there are many standout wines that have lipsmacking acidity and great concentration without being heavy. And the best proof of this is that even producers not in the upper tier of quality managed to make very fine wines this year.”

White wines of Italy’s northeast are easy to remember—and to buy—as they’re often labeled by grape type. Indeed, this is the area of Italy where varietal names are most often used on labels, much as in Australia or California, so it couldn’t be any easier for the consumer. Of course, wines with fantasy names (such as Vintage Tunina or Olivar), as well as those with specific place names (such as Soave or Trento) are also found, but not to the extent they are elsewhere in Italy. Once you learn the basic organoleptic characteristics of each grape type, it becomes much easier to appreciate and purchase these wines, as well as to consider the myriad differences introduced by soil and site, and by the producer’s style of vinification.

You’ll find plenty of fine pinot grigio, pinot bianco, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc made here. Pinot grigio does not deserve the bad reputation it carries owing to some industrial-scale and decidedly shabby efforts that often aren’t even made with pinot grigio to begin with, or include only a fraction of it. A great pinot grigio is a thing of beauty: lithe, fresh, fruity and herbal, and remarkably flexible with food. But beware all those bottlings from non-DOC zones that come with colorful labels and cutesy Italian names. Pinot bianco is usually a lighter wine, lovely as an aperitif or with vegetable and fish appetizers as well as simpler fish preparations. Although some producers like to age it in barrels, I find that this delicate grape variety can quickly lose its appeal when done in oak. It certainly can’t handle oak as well as chardonnay can. The fact that many pinot bianco vineyards, at least in FVG, contain sizable percentages of chardonnay vines (much chardonnay was planted in the mid-20th century because at the time it was often misleadingly called Pinot Bianco clone Ferrari) helps explain why some in FVG manage to turn out fatter versions of chardonnay-laced pinot bianco.

Sauvignon blanc from Italy’s northeast can be absolutely world-class and a good alternative for wine lovers who would like to try examples from other than the Loire Valley or New Zealand. Italy’s versions fall somewhere between the grassy style of France and the gooseberry and tropical fruit-flavored wines of the New World. On the other hand, Italian chardonnay is often hopelessly overoaked, but it is only fair to say that northeastern Italy is also where the country’s better chardonnays are found.

Of course, native grape varieties are all-important here. I’ll cover these in more detail in the relevant introductions to the various regions.

Rome-based Ian D'Agata has been writing and lecturing about wine for more than 20 years and is currently the director of the International Wine Academy of Rome. Among his writing credits, he has written parts of several editions of Gambero Rosso's Italian wine guide and has co-authored a number of wine books. He is author of the upcoming The Ecco Guide to Italy's Best Wines (Ecco/Harper Collins). D'Agata's in-depth reports on Italian wine regions have appeared in past issues of the IWC.