Can you name an Italian grape? I'll bet the top answer in a quick poll of liquor-store patrons would be pinot grigio, the monster-selling white with leaner body than most Milan runway models. So popular is the variety among the ladies-who-lunch set that it has given rise to a quintessential millennial insult: "Your blood type is pinot grigio."
The grape`s ubiquity is a shame, I think, for two reasons. It's like Michelin tires on a Ferrari Formula One car, a French import, not an Italian original. The grape also yields what some geeks (well, me at least) would say is Italy`s most overrated wine style - a cash cow for big exporters that farm for quantity rather than quality. In 2008, one Italian brand had to be recalled in Ontario because the bottles contained, no joke, tap water. (Full marks to consumers who actually noticed.)
There are exceptions, of course, notably those of top producer Jermann. But in most cases pinot grigio is plonk at a premium price.
I am heartened, though, to watch as more consumers slowly venture beyond the Sea of Grigio to experiment with more classic and offbeat Italian offerings. There are many. The Mediterranean peninsula is home to an estimated 2,500 grape varieties, with 500 grown on a significant commercial scale. It's the whites I find especially interesting.
Wine bars in the capital trend city, New York, are getting curious patrons into the groove of such underappreciated grapes as fiano, friulano, ribolla, insolia and arneis. This is thanks notably to the efforts of Joe Bastianich, the Italian-American wine-book author and business partner of chef Mario Batali. Some of the wines admittedly can bewilder anglophones, with names that sound more like scouring pads and cheeses than fruit - grillo and pecorino, for example. But I can guarantee you won't confuse the best ones with tap water.
"I think they're very exciting, especially when it comes to pairing with foods," said Robert Stelmachuk, sommelier at Chambar restaurant in Vancouver. "I always like to introduce people to what is next."
Most of these next-in-line whites are the essence of freshness and see little or no oak-barrel aging. They can be paired nicely with seafood, pastas and pizzas and are also good with lighter vegetarian fare.
Mr. Stelmachuk has just sourced an exceptional fiano for Chambar called Alticelli from a producer in the southern Puglia region called Cantele. "It's got beautiful complex aromas and flavours to it," he says.
Fiano, most successfully grown around Avellino in the southern Campania region that surrounds Naples, tends to be light in body but have a bold flavour reminiscent of nuts, herbs and an almost smoky-spice quality. For a real treat, Ontarians can now purchase the exceptional Planeta Cometa 2008 from Sicily (a 100 per cent fiano) exclusively through the LCBO's online store (www.Vintagesshoponline.com) for $35.
Mr. Stelmachuk is also a big fan of two other ancient varieties. Greco, also widely grown in Campania, where the best go by the regional name Greco di Tufo, has a floral quality and can occasionally seem like the illegitimate Italian son of France's viognier. I, too, love greco, notably the fine ones made by Mastroberardino. And falanghina, a fleshy, savoury white - also grown most famously in Campania - is another Stelmachuk favourite. One of the best is made by the excellent producer Feudi di San Gregorio (it's $27.99 in British Columbia). "Imagine if pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc had a torrid one-night affair," Mr. Stelmachuk says of falanghina`s flavour.
This coming Saturday, Vintages stores in Ontario will release a falanghina (pronounced fah-lan-GEE-nah) that I think is a knockout bargain. It's called Vesevo Sannio Falanghina 2008 ($15.95) and is medium-bodied and silky, with flavours evoking a pear-apple fruit salad doused in lemon juice. Don't miss it.
I can recommend two other fine buys from Saturday's Ontario release. Caruso & Minini Terre di Giumara Grecanico 2009 ($11.95) is a lemon-soaked apricot of a wine, light medium-bodied, crisp and juicy. It would be good with zesty Asian or Middle Eastern fare. And Villa Angela Pecorino 2008 ($13.95) is fresh as a summer breeze, light medium-bodied with a silky texture, lemon-like core and crisp, deliciously bitter finish. Serve it with light seafood or vegetarian dishes.
Another expert who believes we're on the threshold of a post-pinot-grigio risorgimento is superstar Italian winemaker Angelo Gaja, distinguished for his $200-plus red Barbarescos. When I spoke to him earlier this year, he enthused about the vastly improved whites such as the aforementioned friulano (formerly known as tokai) and ribolla as well as vermentino and soave. The last is a Venetian wine based on the garganega (gar-GAH-neh-gah) grape. They're all crisp and often come laced with a note of mineral. "Fantastic wines," Mr. Gaja said. "So many, many whites. No other country is so rich with such grape varieties like Italy."
He didn't want to play favourites, but I will. I love the soaves of boutique producer Graziano Pra, which start at about $20 (in Ontario, visit Robgroh.com). They bear scant resemblance to the simpler $10-to-$15 industrial brands that, frankly, I tend avoid. Pra's are consummate oyster wines, as I discovered at a dinner with the man earlier this month at Toronto seafood restaurant Malena. "If you didn't see 'soave' on the label, would you say it's a soave?" Mr. Pra asked, rhetorically. No, I wouldn't.
Wines such as Mr. Pra's, as well as others based on friulano and ribolla, are selling well at Union, a year-old restaurant on Toronto's trendy south Ossington Street strip, says sommelier Christopher Sealy. And not one customer has bored him with that 1990s wine-neophyte`s cliché, "I'll have a glass of chardonnay." Said Mr. Sealy: "They're almost sick of the caramelly, buttery flavour."
Usually aged in oak barrels to impart a creamy richness, chardonnays from around the world can taste eerily alike. They're the antithesis of Italy's indigenous whites, says Christopher Ardu, general manager of Scarpetta, a soon-to-open outpost of the acclaimed New York restaurant. "You tasted 10 chardonnays and every one was [aged]in oak and they all tasted the same," he said. "Whereas with friulano, you don't need any additional help [to make it taste good.]rdquo;
Well, no additional help except perhaps a fridge, a corkscrew and some seafood pasta.