It always seems a bit of a backhanded compliment to admire Italian whites for their lack of flavour. I don’t mean that they’re positively tasteless in the way that pinot grigio too often is, but rather that they lack the kind of assertive flavours that make them stand out at tastings or competitions. Although tastes are changing, especially in the south and Sicily – both regions that, where wine-making is concerned, often behave more like the new world – Italians don’t really like their wines to be “fruit forward”. Rather, they prefer them simply to blend harmoniously with the local food, which is by and large quite subtle and restrained, too.
The advantage of not having the pronounced character of a punchy New Zealand sauvignon blanc or gewürztraminer is that Italian whites, which tend to be unoaked, are hugely versatile. You’d expect them to go with Italian food, and they do, but they can also handle a fair bit of heat. I had a falanghina from Lidl’s latest wine tour – Falanghina Beneventano 2019 (£7.99, 13%) – with some spicy samosas the other day, and it worked quite brilliantly; I can imagine it going with tacos, too.
There are other good examples in the Lidl range, though I have noticed that the store’s prices have been creeping up. Where once most of its bottles would have been less than £7, they’re now more like £7.49 or £7.99, which is not a great deal cheaper than its main competitors. Maybe it’s because several carry the name of dukes, although when I Googled Duca di Sasseta, I couldn’t find any evidence of there ever being such a person. Surprise, surprise. Another duke’s name, Duca di Castelmonte, adorns the same store’s Zibibbo (12%), which has to be my favourite ever name for a grape variety. It’s actually a muscat, though not a sweet one, and also £7.49.
If you want to get the best out of Italian wines (reds, as well as whites), the trick is to avoid well-known grapes such as sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, and instead look for these more obscure varieties. Two other regular favourites are verdicchio (usually from Jesi) and vernaccia (from San Gimignano), both of which are rarely expensive – Morrisons has one of the former in its “The Best” range for just £6.50 – and almost always rewarding.
When it comes to the more familiar names such as gavi and soave, meanwhile, it’s generally worth paying a bit extra, as the really classy Berry Brothers example in today’s pick illustrates. Hell, even pinot grigio from the right place (north-east Italy, especially the Alto Adige, to be precise) can be good.
Five wines to try if you like Italian whites
Duca di Sasseta Negroamaro Bianco 2019
£5.99 Lidl, 13%. Negroamaro is normally red, but this fresh, crisp Puglian white is really appealing and goes with all sorts of spring vegetables.
Duca di Sasseta Vermentino Blanco Toscano 2019
£7.49 Lidl, 12.5%. Here’s the duke again, this time in Tuscany, with a lovely, smooth, dry white I’d drink with simply cooked fish or creamy pasta.
£8.50 on offer this weekend, then £9.50, 13%. Produced to the south of Lake Garda, lugana is not as well known as neighbouring soave, but a similarly attractive, easy-drinking style that’s perfect with a risotto.
£13.95, 12.5%. There’s a lot of cheap gavi around, but this elegant, delicately almondy one is well worth the extra expense. A versatile wine to drink with shellfish, as well as richer fish dishes. If you’re a member of The Wine Society, try its very serviceable own-label gavi (£9.95, 12.5%), too.
Tibaldi Roero Arneis 2019
£14.50 Tanners, 13.5%. Light, crisp and appley, this Piedmontese white (arneis is the grape variety) is like biting into a sweet dessert apple like a pink lady. The perfect aperitivo.