Sunday, May 08, 2022

“All Italian White Wines Taste Alike”

from the archives
I’m sitting at a table, in a restaurant, with a seminal figure in white wine. The beverage director comes up to us to say hello. A few pleasantries are exchanged. After all, we are guests, even if we are part of the “trade.” Our money spends as well.

We’re talking to the beverage director about which wines do and do not work in his place, which is seafood centric. We come to find out that in this place of his, he says his best-selling category is Cabernet Sauvignon. We are close to a huge body of water; the city is cosmopolitan and diverse. The clientele is well-heeled. The menu is seafood. And Cabernet is the big hit here.

We then approach the subject of Italian wine. I’m beginning to think this fellow isn’t a white wine drinker. But he confirms it when he declares “all Italian white wines taste alike.” He then went on to remark that he had never had a memorable one.

Well, alright then. We order some Champagne and slog on through the night.

Later that evening, in the hotel, tossing and turning, I thought about what he said about Italian white wines tasting alike. It was a common complaint years ago, one which many wine list makers believed. Maybe 20-30 years ago the nuance of the flavors didn’t jump out so much like a buttery Chardonnay or a grassy Sauvignon Blanc. But that was a claim I never believed and for sure one I never bought into.

How could I? Does a Cortese di Gavi in any way resemble a Grillo? Does Verdicchio stand in at the altar for Vermentino? Is Friulano virtually identical to Fiano? Not to this one they aren’t, any of them. Those six wines couldn’t be more different.

Yes, Gavi and Grillo can be high in acid. Yes, Verdicchio and Vermentino can share a roundness of flavor. And yes, Friulano and Fiano (especially one from Apulia) can have a fullness that to the untrained palate might seem that they are in the same family. But just like an Italian from Friuli and one from Apulia are unique and different in their own ways, so too are their wines.

But what was it, back then 20-30 years ago and even now, that some folks still think these wines are simple, interchangeable cookie-cutter wines that have no difference among them? Is it the person who is making the statement? Or is it the wine?

It might be that some people have expectations of bigger, bolder flavors. And there are those who make up wine lists who fall into that category. Perhaps their clientele do as well; although, I see no compelling evidence that diners in New Orleans, San Francisco, Houston or Chicago have a regional palate, a preference for one type of wine or another. Maybe years ago, when the supply lines were more restricted. But now when people travel as much as they do, and wines from everywhere can be found in the most remote towns in America, I think that old paradigm is probably ready for retirement.

It might be useful to take these six wines and taste them together, in a blind and controlled setting, to see if they really are all alike.

That brings me to a story I have wanted to tell for years on this blog. It must have been in the late 1980’s – early 1990’s. I was invited to a palace for a dinner and a tasting with the producers of the Tuscan white wine then known as Galestro. I believe there were 17 producers at the dinner, and we had all 17 of their wines. Galestro, at the time, was thought to be the “White Chianti,” a wine that could do what Vernaccia di San Gimignano couldn’t. Whatever that was. There were high hopes for Galestro, with wineries like Antinori leading the charge for this wine.

We had Galestro with appetizers. We had Galestro with pasta. With fish. With pork. And with dessert. And at the end, it was quite funny. At my table, of which there were two or three producers, we all looked at each other and said “Well, I guess we don’t have to do that ever again.” It was more like the wake for Galestro than its coming out party. And eventually, not long after, Galestro disappeared into history. A wine that there were high hopes for, but one that never quite cleared the bar.

So, yes, there are Italian white wines that might not rise to the level of a Chardonnay from Burgundy. But there are meals I have had in Burgundy that will never rise to the level of meals I have had in Italy. Italian wine, red or white, is infinitely interwoven with the local culture from which it springs. A Frascati in Rome seems like such a better idea than to have a Frascati in Alba. And in Liguria, where you find those squiggly little sea snail things they serve in a rich warm coral red soup, it’s just better to have a Pigato than perhaps a Muller-Thurgau. So perhaps the uniqueness of the food and the wine that has grown up with it might give the untrained palate the idea that these wines are interchangeable. But sit down with a table full of Italians, who have had their palates honed for centuries more than our new American palate, and you might get a passionate argument. Mind you it will be a delicious one, but there will be no deference towards exchanging their wine for an over extracted Carneros Chardonnay.

Are most Italian white wines “ponderable?” No, of course not. They are serviceable, though and they are accessible. Does that make them simple, anemic monolithic creatures? I guess one could consider the eye of the beholder in responding to this question. But from my perch, they offer pleasure, first and foremost, and satisfaction. Does a young Pinot Bianco from Alto-Adige cause me to soul search? Of course not. But it also doesn't cause me to get up and get another bottle because the oak is too heavy for the oysters or the fried okra.

So, to the chap who thinks all Italian white wines taste alike, I submit this is one of those subjects when we will have to agree to disagree. And while I lament that your clients will lose this opportunity to try a Catarratto with the swordfish, inside I am a bit giddy that there will be more for me and my kind to enjoy in our life. There are so many things that have become unaffordable or no longer attainable or just too darn important for those who grew up drinking them. Italian white wines will never price themselves out of my income level. And with few exceptions ( like our dear long gone friend Galestro) there are so many different types of Italian white wine out there to try that I will never tire of them or get bored with their alleged “sameness.”

Photo from Cantina Soave archives

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