Everyone fusses about matching wine with food these days but that’s only part of the story for me. I’m just as interested in matching wine with the seasons and this is especially true of white wine where the level of acidity is the key variable for me.
Just as our diet changes in a cold winter and we gravitate towards more robust and fatty foods, our appreciation and need for acidity in white wine also changes with the weather.
More than any other wine producing country, Italy is blessed with an incredible range of native white grape varieties that are well suited to this mountainous country and they produce wines that cover the full range of flavor, body and acidity.
After a decade of drinking exclusively Italian wine and perhaps being more adventurous in my white wine choices than red, the rule of thumb that has emerged for me is to mimic a migrating bird and go south in the winter and north in the summer for my white wines.
The reason for this is that I find the northern Italian white wines more refreshing. They generally display higher acidity, more delineated fruit flavors whether in the direction of citrus or apple, sometimes a slight bitterness on the finish and most of the time are lower in alcohol. All of the characteristics in other words that I am looking for in a white wine to drink during a long hot Italian summer.
The grapes and places where my favorite summer whites are made include Verdicchio from Matelica in le Marche, Vermentino along the Riviera di Levante in Liguria, Garganega grown on the volcanic soils of Soave, Verdicchio’s identical twin Turbiana made into refreshing Lugana wines on the shores of Lago di Garda, Timorasso and Cortese grapes in Piemonte, sparkling Prosecco from the Glera grape in eastern Veneto and then the vast range of traditional but not indigenous grapes grown in the old Austrian part of Italy in Friuli and Trentino Alto Adige: Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and the lesser known and much newer Manzoni.
Even though the entire pH range of wine is quite small we can detect differences in acidity very easily and there are many different factors which determine the final acidity level of a wine. In addition to the characteristics of the grape itself and the weather conditions of a particular growing season, a big diurnal range (the temperature variation between night and day) plays a key role in preserving acidity as does the winemaker’s decision as to when to pick the grapes and whether to allow malolactic fermentation to take place, a practice that always results in a softening of the acidity.
The attraction of Italian Pinot Grigio and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to American consumers over the last 25 years has probably been because the ubiquitous Chardonnay grape doesn't handle torrid heat and extended sunshine very well and consumers were looking for lighter and more precise summer wines. In contrast to the Verdicchio grape for example, Chardonnay’s tartaric acidity drops precipitously when its phenolic ripeness increases and because of that I’ve never found New World Chardonnays from hot climates to be very appealing in the summer months as they lack the ability to refresh the palate.
In the winter, when the need for high acidity in white wine is reduced and is replaced by the desire for more body and a chewier wine texturally, I look more to southern Italian white wines like Fiano, Greco and Coda di Volpe from the mountains of Campania. The Greco grape in particular tends to produce fatter wines and even Fiano wines made from grapes grown at higher altitudes near Avellino that only see stainless steel display a certain richness of flavor, viscosity and level of alcohol that make the acidity less noticeable on the palate. Most of these wines are much too opulent and rich for my taste to be enjoyable in the summer.
Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, Pecorino and Passerina from southern le Marche and Abruzzo are grape varieties, especially Passerina, that are not lacking in natural acidity but in my visits to winemakers in those regions I find that many of these wines undergo malolactic fermentation in the cellar which results in a much softer style of wine where the acidity is no longer the dominant component and many of them can be described as being more creamy than acidic.
Furthermore very hot summers like 2017 can rob all these Abruzzo and Campania wines of much of their acidity making them unbalanced and less attractive to drink whatever the season. A consequence of global warming perhaps and something which winemakers will have to monitor and compensate for by earlier harvesting and by forgoing malolactic.
Malvasia Puntinata, which is grown extensively in southern Lazio, is a grape that is also made into wines best described as creamy rather than tart, due in part to the fact that the acidity of the grape naturally drops during the ripening process.
There are plenty of exceptions to my general rule however because Etna Bianco wines made from Carricante grapes on the volcanic soils around Mount Etna are very suitable summer wines for me. The middle of Italy is something of a battleground where there is no general rule. For example many Lazio wines made either exclusively or predominantly from the Bellone grape can be quite acidic whereas in Tuscany Vernaccia di San Gimignano is a white wine with relatively low acidity that is enjoyable in any season.
Equally, whereas Verdicchio from Matelica is perfectly suited to summer drinking, the same grape from Jesi I prefer in colder weather. Grechetto from Umbria is a wine where I've often found that the stylistic preferences of the winemaker seem to have more influence on the taste of the wine than the inherent characteristics of the grape, making it another very flexible wine.
So, whether you want a smooth, full-bodied white wine for a winter dinner or a tangy, refreshing wine with crisp acidity for an al fresco lunch on a hot summer day there is a wide range of Italian white wines for you to choose from.