Nov
2012

MARCHE

Sometimes, Italian white wines are all about context. Since we Americans have become accustomed to the 14% alcohol, fruit-and-oak-bomb whites of California, a crisp little Greco di Tufo or Vernaccia di San Gimignano tends to seem quaint, even insipid, by comparison. But if you’re somewhere on the Amalfi coast eating a plate of spaghetti alla vongole, the salt air of the Mediterranean slow-curing your face as you chew, it’s likely that the Greco di Tufo you’re drinking is the best white wine you’ve ever had.


The other issue with Italian whites is that our perceptions of them are a little outdated. While the Italian white wine prototype still leans toward the clean, crisp, and simple, winemakers in nearly every corner of the peninsula are striving for something more serious, structured, and age-worthy – and not just by planting chardonnay, but by doing more with their local grape varieties.


Which leads me to one of the more maligned and misunderstood Italian whites around: Verdicchio. Native to the Marche (although genetic research has unveiled a link between Verdicchio and the strain of Trebbiano used in the Veneto’s Soave zone), the fragrant and flinty Verdicchio was a hot export product for the Marchigiani in the seventies and eighties, thanks at least in part to the huge Fazi-Battaglia winery, which at one time sold Verdicchio in amphora- and fish-shaped bottles. White Burgundy it wasn’t (and still isn’t), but Verdicchio has come a long way since the day of the fish.


What Verdicchio has going for it is a distinctive piney, citrusy aroma that lends it considerable more interest than some of the other well-known Italian classics, such as Trebbiano or Cortese di Gavi. What happened to Verdicchio is pretty much what happened to nearly all Italian whites in the seventies and eighties: as white wine-making technology became more sophisticated, the norm for most producers became a super-clean, but almost neutral, style of white with an emphasis on drink-now freshness. Plus, as these products became hot export products, producers began to push production to meet demand, leading to wines that were further stripped of character.


Today, the trend is toward reduced production and longer “hang times” to allow the late-ripening Verdicchio time to develop more concentrated and complex flavors. In the Marche, the two main Verdicchio production areas are the gently rolling hills west of Jesi (a Medieval town just a half-hour inland from the capital city of Ancona), and the higher-altitude, pre-Apennine hills around the village of Matelica (further inland, toward the border with Umbria). In Jesi, a more moderate, Adriatic-influenced climate is yielding Verdicchios of greater and greater heft and fruitiness, while in Matelica the cooler temperatures and higher altitudes pave the way for more structure, aroma, and elegance. Either way, Verdicchio is starting to have an impact it never had before; experts traditionally lamented the fact that Verdicchio “couldn’t travel,” meaning that it typically arrived in the States already oxidized, but I’ve found recent vintages to be incredibly fresh and vibrant. It’s still generally a white to drink young, but there are several older vintages on our list that are holding up beautifully.


Today, the trend is toward reduced production and longer “hang times” to allow the late-ripening Verdicchio time to develop more concentrated and complex flavors. In the Marche, the two main Verdicchio production areas are the gently rolling hills west of Jesi (a Medieval town just a half-hour inland from the capital city of Ancona), and the higher-altitude, pre-Apennine hills around the village of Matelica (further inland, toward the border with Umbria). In Jesi, a more moderate, Adriatic-influenced climate is yielding Verdicchios of greater and greater heft and fruitiness, while in Matelica the cooler temperatures and higher altitudes pave the way for more structure, aroma, and elegance. Either way, Verdicchio is starting to have an impact it never had before; experts traditionally lamented the fact that Verdicchio “couldn’t travel,” meaning that it typically arrived in the States already oxidized, but I’ve found recent vintages to be incredibly fresh and vibrant. It’s still generally a white to drink young, but there are several older vintages on our list that are holding up beautifully.


So anyway, before I throw in a few recommendations, I’d like to give you a little context: It was the summer of 2000, and I was in the Adriatic beach town of Portonovo, just south of Ancona, at a beachside restaurant – a shack, really – called “Al Clandestino.” This place is open only in the summer, seats about 35 to 40 people, and situated literally ten feet from the water on a rocky beach. Their specialty is crudo, or Italian-style raw seafood, and as plate after plate of little raw creations came from that shack – tonno (tuna), pesce spada (swordfish), branzino (sea bass), ricci (sea urchins) – the Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi I was drinking got better and better. Only at our sister restaurant ESCA have I ever come close to replicating that food-and-wine experience. But with summer on the way (and with it, I hope, a few crudo preparations at Babbo), I’m gonna keep on trying!!