"What are you seeing as far as wine sales?" I asked Enzo.
"People buy more, but expensive wine doesn't sell." he said. "From producers to importers to distributors, all the way along the supply chain, prices are reduced. Good wine stores and restaurants pass the savings to the consumer but make up in volume."
"What about all those expensive Barolos and Super Tuscans on the shelves of Beltramo's and K&L then?"
"There are always people who buy them, but it's a very small percentage", sighed Enzo. "That's why Italian whites are such a great value, like these ones from Friuli made by Jermann."
In early 1970’s Silvio Jermann instigated a revolution in Italian white wine-making. It happened in Friuli, the northeastern corner of Italy, next door to Slovenia. Jermann, a young man at the time, educated in not one but two renowned wine academies in Italy, defied the practice of making dull, uninspiring wines, and was amongst the first to introduce stainless steel tanks in Italy. For the first time since 1881 when Jermanns moved from Austria to Friuli and founded the winery, the cleanliness and control afforded by stainless steel tanks allowed Silvio to make a totally different breed of white wine, to this day considered by many the best in Italy. Jermann’s iconic Vintage Tunina is often referred to as the first Italian “Super Friulian” (in the same sense that Super Tuscan reds broke tradition and combined multiple grape varietals into tremendously successful blends). Vintage Tunina debuted in 1975, and today, even in this economy, it carries an unusually high price tag ($60-75) for an Italian white wine in the US.
Over the past 40 years, the quality of Italian wine has continued to advance due to oenological research, improvements in sustainable viticulture, and better equipment. It doesn’t mean that wines are “engineered”, quite the contrary. The many different wines Jermann makes, express themselves uniquely in the Friulian terroir, from native varietals such as Ribola Gialla, Tocai Friulano, and Picolit to international varietals such as Chardonnay, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc. These wines speak of transparency, purity, authenticity, and unmistakably, Italy. Come California’s balmy summer time weekends, I linger over mid-day meals outdoors with friends and family, as hours roll on by, with a bottle (or few) of these Italian beauties.
Last week, I sat down with Enzo D., a regional manager from Empson USA, the exclusive importer of Jermann wines, to taste the latest releases of four of Jermann whites over lunch at Donato Enoteca. Eric, the restaurant’s wine director, joined us for an insightful conversation. We tasted through 2008 Vinnae (majority Ribolla Gialla, with a bit of Riesling and Tocai Friulano), 2008 Pinot Grigio, 2008 Chardonnay, and finally 2007 Vintage Tunina (blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia, and Picolit).
Refreshing, minimally if at all oaked, the wines offered great purity, juicy, tasty citrus flavors, minerality, and zippy acidity. I particularly enjoyed Ribolla Gialla, a grape I’d come to appreciate through the wines of Movia. Vinnae had all the characteristics I just mentioned, plus nice weight and oily texture which made it feel luxurious on the tongue. The unoaked Pinot Grigio was very tight aromatically but blossomed on the palate with its tangy citrus peel and penetrating acidity. The unoaked Chardonnay was clean and simple, and hardly recognizable as Chardonnay. Eric suggested: “without oak, Chardonnay doesn’t taste like Chardonnay.” True. Enzo lovingly called it a "very Italian Chardonnay". Aromatically a fairly restrained grape, Chardonnay achieves its heights in Burgundy. The unoaked examples do best in Chablis and Macon, particularly when paired with oysters and shellfish. But it’s the oaked ones (notice “oaked", not "oaky”) that allow Chardonnay to truly shine in Cote de Beaune (Meursault, Puligny-, and Chassagne-Montrachet communes). Honestly, I’ve had Italian Chardonnay on a few occasions, and I struggle to see the reason for them. They tend to be weak aromatically and simple in flavor. With so many more interesting white wine varietals, why do Italians insist on making Chards? The answer may become apparent as you read on...
Finally, Vintage Tunina – the Super Friulian – was a bigger, fuller, more exotic wine – viscous and ripe (it’s made out of late harvest grapes), slightly more alcoholic than the others (by .5%, but perceptibly so), and seemingly with higher sugar content, though it was a dry wine. Enzo explained that the delicate and finicky native Picolit grape imparts sweetness into the wine. While Vintage Tunina seemed closer to a California palate in terms of volume and richness, it still managed to maintain great acidity and minerality, without butteriness or oakiness. The wine was perhaps akin in stature to Campania's Marisa Cuomo Fiorduva - another white occupying the upper echelon of Italian gastronomy.
Before we dug into the prosciutto with Grana Padano cheese tart, grilled calamari with white Spanish beans, oven-baked milk-braised salt cod puree, and summery shrimp risotto with garbanzo beans, I had a hard time forecasting which wine would be the best match. It was quite a sommelier challenge to choose among Italian whites, because they share many of the same refreshing qualities, not just within Friuli, but across the entire country. Many are tasty and bright, and often interchangeable. Yes, flavors do vary, but the acidity, citrus, and minerality permeate through and through. My recommendation to the consumer – when picking Italian whites, $15-20 range offers great value, occasionally stretching to $30, and there are not many whites in Italy (unlike France) worth paying more for. Don’t be shy to try unheard-of regions and varieties, rather than always picking the same old same old. Enzo shared that he sells twice as many bottles of Pinot Grigio (~$18-20) as the next most popular bottling – Chardonnay (~$23-30). Considering that the Chardonnay was my least favorite wine in the line-up, I asked why it sells so well. According to Enzo, the reason is that consumers recognize the name of the grape variety, even if the Italian version tastes nothing like the California or the French. Vinnae (~$30) and Vintage Tunina (~$60-75) sell about the same (amazing feat for the much more expensive Vintage Tunina) and at about half the volume of the Chardonnay.
Funny, without food, Vinnae was my favorite, but with food it was Jermann’s zingy good old Pinot Grigio that beat out the rest of the pack. Vintage Tunina needed richer dishes, and the other two just seemed more muted. While many poopoo Pinot Grigio as “uncool” (just like Merlot), that is unfortunate – Jermann’s version is simply an excellent wine, especially with food. To those fashionable wine lovers who shun Pinot Grigio, take this – “uncool is the new cool”. Now go get some. Got it?
Note: an abridged version of this article is published on corkd.com.