Surprising Italian Whites that age
We’re quite familiar with the aging potential of the finest Italian red wines. Any discussion about Brunello di Montalcino, Amarone, Barolo, Barbaresco and Taurasi inevitably deals with how long these wines will age; 15-25 years is not uncommon, especially for the best products from superior vintages, while a few of these wines drink well some 35-40 years after the vintage date.
While these wines are quite special, the truth is that there are many relatively common Italian reds that age well, be they Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Chianti Classico or Lagrein, to name only a few. Here the aging potential is more in the 5-10 year range, though I’ve tasted a few special bottlings of Chianti Classico at 25 years of age that were in fine shape.
So red wines from Italy do age well, but what about the whites? Well, except for a few examples, there is little talk of this subject, as it seems that many writers and fans of Italian white wines put them in the “appealingly fresh” category, for consumption over 2-5 years after their vintage date. There certainly are a lot of Italian whites such as this (as there are with many whites from France, California, New Zealand, et al), but there are some examples that age much longer than five years and many of them are not very famous.
I was reminded of this during my most recent visit to Sicily, where I stayed at Baglio di Pianetto, a lovely estate not far from Palermo in the northwestern reaches of the island. Like many Sicilian wine farms, red wines such as Nero d’Avola, Syrah and Merlot are specialties, but here the whites are also quite notable. One of the finest and most intriguing from this estate is a bottling known as Ficiligno (named for a local stone found in some of the estate vineyards), a blend of Insolia and Viognier. This is an aromatic white that is aged solely in steel tanks to preserve its appealing perfumes of honeydew melon, lilacs and quince. It has a nice richness, while maintaining a lightness on the palate and a refreshing finish.
The first thing I thought about this wine (after how delightful and delicious it was) was that this a wine to be enjoyed with food over the next 2-3 years. Then my dining companion, Alberto Burrato, the CEO of the winery, opened up the 2003 bottling and my mind was opened to new possibilities for this wine. The color was what I expected for a seven year old white (deep yellow), but the wine still had a good freshness and was very enjoyable with our meal. This was especially impressive, as 2003 was a torridly hot year that resulted in wines with less than normal acidity.
It just so happened that I also had an older bottle of white wine from Baglio di Pianetto at my apartment in Chicago. This was the 2004 Viognier (labeled as Piana di Ginolfo). Now Viognier is not that common in Sicily and the version this producer makes is very appealing with honeysuckle, pear and pineapple aromas, is medium-bodied and has a lovely texture. Having tasted a few vintages of each wine, I’d say from the same year that the Ginolfo Viognier has a bit more aging potential than the Ficiligno.
However, I thought I may have waited too long, as this style of Viognier rewards consumption within a few years of the vintage. So when I opened the wine a few weeks ago, some six-plus years after it was made, I wondered it if would still show some life, especially as I hadn’t stored this wine in my cool cellar, but instead took it from a cardboard box in my living room.
I needn’t have worried, as the wine was in wonderful shape! First I was pleasantly surprised by the light yellow color – the wine looked as though it were two years old, not six. My notes for this wine list dried pear, banana peel and dried yellow flowers for the aromatics with a generous mid-palate and a nicely balanced finish with good acidity and a hint of almond. The wine was still in very good shape and was a delight with my meal that night (Oriental cuisine). The 2009 version of this wine (now labeled simply as Ginolfo) has just been released; having just tasted the wine (from an outstanding growing season) and now after my experience with the 2004, I’d guess this wine has at least seven years of life ahead of it and perhaps along as a decade. Who would think an Italian Viognier could drink so well for so long?
There are dozens, if not hundreds of examples of other everyday Italian white wines that age beautifully. Take the Soaves from Pieropan, for example. Leonildo Pieropan produces two special bottlings of Soave Classico each year – La Rocca and Calvarino – that are truly special and are meant to be enjoyed later than sooner. I recall with great pleasure a bottle of 1989 Calvarino I tried with Leonildo and his wife at their winery in the town of Soave in 2005. Here was a sixteen-year old Soave in superb shape, one with excellent freshness as well as a distinct streak of minerality; it was one of the most memorable whites wines I have ever tasted.
But while the two cru bottlings from Pieropan tend to age well, even the simple Soave Classico from this producer offers excellent character far beyond the 2-3 years you might expect. A few weeks ago, I tasted the 2005 normale Soave Classico and was impressed with the youthfulness of this wine as well as its complexity. Not bad for a wine that costs $16 a bottle (I think even less when it was released)!
Of course, there are some marvelous white wines from Campania, Alto Adige and especially Friuli that have the stuffing and structure to age for 10-15 years. Many of these wines (such as Terre Alte from Livio Felluga and Braide Alte from Livon) are quite famous and given their notoriety, their prices are justifiably precious. But how nice to find whites wines from several corners of Italy that sell for less than $20 and offer pleasure for five to seven years.
Cellaring a wine isn’t always about tannins; acidity and overall balance have a lot to do with a wine being able to drink well for many years. So keep an eye out for Italian white wines the next time you think about ordering a slightly older bottling – it just may be perfect for your meal!