From floral to flint, the native white wine grapes of southern Italy
Some of Italy’s most fascinating white wines are made in Campania, in the south of the country and on two main islands, Sardinia and Sicily. There dominate the thousand-year-old native grapes. Scrupulous management of the vineyard and modern winemaking methods result in inimitable and tasty white wines loaded with personality.
Discover the best whites of southern Italy made from native grapes.
Fiano is most associated with Campania, where it is widely cultivated. Native to the region, the grape produces structured whites that range from medium to full bodied and have aromas of beeswax and flowers. Their rich orchard fruit flavors are often accentuated by smoky and irresistible mineral sensations, honey, aromatic herbs and hazelnut. The best have great energy as well as intriguing complexity. To preserve freshness and aromas, Fiano producers usually vinify in steel vats.
The grape thrives in the hilly district of Irpinia, around the town of Avellino, where the wines of Fiano di Avellino DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) give mineral versions that have great aging potential. While Fiano’s acidity is not as high as the pronounced acidic backbone of Greco, it is still noteworthy, especially when grown in high altitude vineyards.
Greco is one of the noblest white grape varieties in southern Italy alongside Fiano. It comes mainly from Greco di Tufo DOCG, a sulfur-rich region that has limestone soils and volcanic rock basements, as well as a cool climate with frequent rainfall.
The wines have crisp acidity, flint minerality and intense flavors that include peach and citrus. They are full of complexity and finesse. The grape’s extremely long growing season generates even more complexity and the best bottlings show good potential for medium-term aging.
Falanghina produces dry wines with tropical fruit and floral flavors, as well as structure and freshness. There are two distinct biotypes: Falanghina Beneventana, used in Falanghina del Sannio DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), which also includes four subzones; and Falanghina Napoletana, the Campi Flegrei DOC grape. Each varietal wine has different characteristics, as does their respective growing areas. The vineyards of the Sannio denomination have higher altitudes and calcareous and clayey soils. The vineyards of Campi Flegrei, near Naples, are closer to sea level and have sandy and volcanic soils. Falanghina del Sannio has more structure and high acidity, while Campi Flegrei are lighter and crunchier, with saline mineral notes and more floral scents.
Known as Pigato in Liguria and Favorita in Piedmont, Vermentino is cultivated along the mainland coast, but it is most associated with the island of Sardinia. For centuries, Vermentino has been cultivated primarily in Gallura, on the northern tip of Sardinia, where it thrives in windswept vineyards. It is no coincidence that Vermentino di Gallura is the only DOCG in Sardinia.
Vermentino lacks the racy acidity of most Italian whites, and Sardinian expressions range from round and fruity to linear and mineral. Vermentino di Gallura is elegant, structured and full-bodied. It offers notable sensations of mineral brush, almond and Mediterranean and tasty saline notes.
The most planted grape in Sicily, Catarratto can produce fresh, mellow and medium-bodied wines. Often divided into two distinct types, Catarratto Bianco Comune and Catarratto Bianco Lucido, studies suggest that they are clones of the same grape, Catarratto Bianco. DNA research has revealed that Catarratto has a parental relationship with Garganega, of famous Soave.
Innovative winemakers prove that this often overlooked grape can produce fresh, flavorful wines with good body. Skin maceration and several months aging on lees create aromas of spring flowers and intense flavors of lemons, orange peel and a pleasantly bitter almond aftertaste.
A cross of native Catarratto and Moscato d’Alessandria (Zibibbo) grapes, Grillo was once used exclusively to produce Marsala, Sicily’s famous fortified wine. Thanks to white winemaking experiences, Grillo is today one of the most famous Sicilian wines. Usually labeled Sicilia DOC, Grillo is made in a range of expressions. The lighter styles make a great appetizer that offers floral aromas and tangy citrus flavors. More aromatic versions offer sensations of passion fruit, grapefruit and herbs reminiscent of sauvignon blanc, while contact on lees and aging in barrels create complex and mineral wines with flavors of apple, peach and citrus.
The queen of Etna’s whites, Carricante can produce vibrant, mineral wines with notes of citrus blossom, Meyer lemon, white stone fruit and star anise, as well as crisp acidity. Some growers are adding grapes like Catarratto to boost the body, but a growing number of winemakers are creating varietal selections. The best are precise and racy, with remarkable finesse and precision. Thanks to the volcanic soils and the high-altitude vineyards, they present an almost virgin purity and offer a good potential for medium-term aging.
Another historic white Sicilian grape, Inzolia, or Insolia, is also found in the coastal areas of Tuscany, where it is called Ansonica. Recognized as one of the three key grape varieties for the production of Marsala, it is often blended in Sicily with Catarratto and Grillo. Known for its sweet acidity, the time of harvest and site selection are key to creating the best expressions of Inzolia. When crafted with precision, Inzolia can produce brilliant wines with flavors of white stone fruit, salinity and hazelnut.
Grecanico and Zibibbo
Planted in Sicily, Grecanico, also called Grecanico Dorato, is a late maturing grape that produces wines with floral aromas, flavors of apple, pear and lemon. They have soft textures energized by tangy acidity and salty salty notes. According to DNA tests, the variety is identical to Garganega from northern Italy, the main grape found in Soave from Veneto.
Also called Moscato d’Alessandria, Zibibbo has been cultivated in Sicily since Phoenician times. Found mainly in the province of Trapani, it was historically valued as a table grape. It is traditionally used to make sweet and aromatic wines like Passito di Pantelleria which contain honey, figs, nuts and dried apricots, balanced by good acidity. A handful of vineyards now offer dry and crisp versions, very aromatic, with aromas of citrus, yellow peach and white rose.