Friday, March 24, 2023

Italy's Northern Whites

Italy's northern tier is home to a wide range of wines, the best known being  Barolo and Barbaresco.  Except for Pinot Grigio, the white wines of this vast area get less attention. And that's a shame because they are among Italy's best values. 

Northeastern Italy is steeped in history, with invaders and tradesmen passing through the region on their way to Rome or Venice.  Venetian merchants controlled commerce, including the movement of wine, through the 14th and 15th centuries. The arrival of French varieties in the region were, no doubt, carried throughout the country by traveling merchants and displaced farmers seeking new land to work. 

Tocai Friulano

Northern White Wines 

Veneto, Fruili and Trentino Alto Adige (VFTAA) are the northern regions with a special affinity for Sauvignon Blanc and aromatic whites like Riesling and Tocai Friulano. The three regions are clustered in the northeastern corner of the country, next to Lombardy, Emilia Romagna and the Adriatic Sea.

The land here is crowded with natural features -- the Alps, Lake Garda, the Adriatic -- each having a strong influence on grape growing.  A continental climate is a stronger influencer in more inland areas like Trentino, while the climate at the southern end of Veneto is more marine, thanks to the Bay of Venice. 

Overall, temperatures are lower and the climate is not as affected by extremes of heat or cold in northeast vineyards. Ideal conditions for white varieties, like Riesling and other grapes that loosely fit in the aromatic white class. 

An aside. Italy has more indigenous grapes than any other country. There are hundreds of them planted from one end of the country to the other, including the islands. The top three most planted are Sardinia's Torbato Bianco, the widespread red Sangiovese and Sicily's white Catarratto. Then, Puglia's Primitivo, Barbera of northwestern Italy and, surprisingly, the non-indigenous Chardonnay.  Other indigenous grapes on the list are Sicily's Nero d'Avola and Pinot Grigio that seems to be planted everywhere.

Expect the white wines from Northern Italy to display clearly defined aromatic varietal character, have crisp natural acidity, ample varietal fruit and a clean finish.


In the mid 1990s, Veneto overtook Puglia and Sicily to become Italy's most productive wine region.  Credit for that advancement is largely due to the impressive success of Pinot Grigio and Prosecco.

By the beginning of the 21st century, the popularity of Pinot Grigio had grown so fast that it knocked Chardonnay out of first place as the world's most favored white wine.  For a while, and this may still be true, my Copy Editor's sister-in-law always had a magnum of Cavit Pinot Grigio close at hand.

Veneto's noted wines Bardolino, Soave, Valpolicella, plus a few others not as known in the United States, account for a healthy 10 percent of the country's total output.  By far, Soave is the leader of that trio, from the hilly area east of Verona.

Pinot Grigio


The region in northeastern Italy, also called as Friuli-Venezia Giulia, is known today for it's fresh, fruity white wines, notably those made from international varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. 

French red "Cabernets" are also popular, but sorting the names can be challenging.  The Italian fashion in the north is to use only "Cabernet" to identify either Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc. Complicating things, Cabernet Franc is sometimes spelled "Frank" in Friuli and the other north-east regions. 

International varieties, such as those mentioned above, as well as Pinot Blanc (Bianco) and Pinot Gris (Grigio) are hugely popular but are now sharing that popularity with indigenous grapes like Picolit, Ribolla and Verduzzo.

Trentino Alto Adige 

Known mostly for high production of Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Merlot, the alpine region, known by its double name of Trentino Alto Adige, is divided into Alto Adige in the north and Trentino in the south.  Both appellations, individually or combined, are used to market the wine of the region.  

The mass-market approach to wine is controlled by small groups of cooperatives and negociants, producing large quantities of wine from international varieties.There are also plenty of small wineries to keep the spirit of local wine alive.

An aside.  Cooperative and negociant are two terms not commonly used in the U.S. wine business.  Cooperatives are collective groups, usually owned by growers, wineries or both, processing grapes and making wine and sometimes marketing wine under a cooperative brand. Negociant is a French term for a merchant who buys grapes and wine and bottles wine under their own label.

Individual efforts using traditional indigenous varieties are yielding wines of high quality, from Lagrein, Schiava and Nosiola.  Keeping these wines in front of the public takes a lot of work and dedication by small wineries like Foradori.

Sparkling wine, carrying the Trento DOC, is made by metodo classico from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  There are many small producers, but the leader is Ferrari. 

Whether you're looking for international wines with an Italian touch, or want to experiment with an indigenous red such as Lagrein, look for wines bearing the appellations Veneto, Friuli and Trentino Alto Adige. 

Next blog: France Series: Champagne & Alsace

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