Italy is a producer of some of the world’s most sought-after wines. Barolo, Brunello, Amarone, Bolgheri and Taurasi are just some examples of wines that make many people dream. They all have one thing in common : they are red wines. It is clear that Italy’s whites have a much harder time to attract people’s attention. What is the reason for that? Are Italy’s white grapes not good enough to produce high-quality wines? Or are they not appreciated at their true value?
The three white Italian grapes that get the most praise internationally are Fiano, Garganega and Verdicchio. Italian wine expert Ian d’Agata calls the latter “Italy’s greatest native white grape variety” in his widely acclaimed “Native Wine Grapes of Italy”. Despite the fact that Verdicchio gets positive press from wine critics, it rarely features on wine lists, it is not widely available in wine shops, and the Marche region, where Verdicchio is home, is never the subject of international vintage reports, as are Tuscany and Piemont.
I was in the Marche on holidays last summer, where I visited a few wineries, and I spent the last couple of months exploring the grape in order to better understand it. Is Verdicchio actually only a second rank grape, or is it a hidden gem?
I mainly tried Verdicchios from the Castelli di Jesi DOCG and a few from the Matelica DOCG, both in the Marche region on the Adriatic Coast. Verdicchio is also found as Trebbiano di Soave in the Veneto and as Turbiana in Lugana, but I decided to focus on the Marche at this stage, and in fact mostly on wines from the Jesi region because this is by far the biggest area, Matelica only consisting of about 300ha (roughly one tenth of the Jesi region), which means I found very few Matelica Verdicchios in the shops in my area.
Tasting my way through a series of wines, I found that Verdicchio has in fact many faces. Apart from sweet wines and sparkling wines, I distinguished four types of Verdicchios. Firstly there is what I call the “pure” rendition of the grape, then there is a later harvested version of Verdicchio as well as an oak-aged version, and finally there is the easy-drinking, fruit-forward Verdicchio. I briefly described them so you know what you can expect and look for.
1. The “pure” version of Verdicchio
Many wine critics and wine makers consider Verdicchio to be at its best when it reflects the pure characteristics of the grape. There are a few hallmark traits that are high acidity and an almond finish. If there is a white grape that can translate the idea of structure, it is verdicchio. The acidity and the slightly bitter twist in the end are important contributors to that, but there is more to it. Verdicchio is not an aromatic grape. The absence of strong and typical aromas and flavors, such as freshly cut grass or boxwood in Sauvignon blanc, enhances the relative importance of structure in Verdicchio. In wines that have more fruit, the acidity is an element that creates a contrast, or supports the fruit. In Verdicchio, however, acidity is the main feature.
It would not be entirely fair to say that the fruit is completely absent in Verdicchio. There is often a bit of peach, citrus fruit or pear, and there can also be floral aromas. More often, however, you will find lovely mineral aromas in the nose, that emphasize the fresh character of Verdicchio. Another aroma that consistently occurs, is a certain herbaceousness, or a vegetal note, somewhat reminiscent of fennel or dried herbs.
All these elements together make of Verdicchio a very dry, perhaps somewhat austere wine. Not everyone likes high acidity in a wine, or can appreciate it in its pure form without fruit to counter it. Also the almond in the end may be a hard nut to crack for some.
It is clear that in its “pure” form, Verdicchio is hardly a crowd pleaser. It lacks aromatic power to impress people from the first whiff, and the focus on structure rather than fruit is not something that helps to convince occasional wine drinkers either. While certain wineries in the Marche swear by this “pure” form of Verdicchio, it is not at all unlogical that others try to find ways to make Verdicchio more approachable.
2. Later-harvest Verdicchio
One way of doing that is working on the aromatic side and harvest Verdicchio at a later stage, when the grape is riper. This brings along stronger aromas of exotic fruit, summery flowers and sometimes even a touch of honey. These wines are not sweet, hence the later-harvest as opposed to proper late-harvest. But it is clear that a later harvest has a consequence for the structure of these wines : the acidity is definitely not as high and there is more fruit, which makes for a different, rounder wine. There where it gains in aromatic diversity and perhaps even complexity, it also loses somewhat in freshness and structure. It is fair to say it also loses a bit of its varietal typicity, but this style of wine will probably appeal to a larger group of wine drinkers.
3. Oak-aged Verdicchio
While aging Verdicchio in oak barrels is cursing in church for some, for others it is another way to soften the character of the wine and add a layer of complexity. Verdicchio not having heaps of fruit, it is clear that oak can easily smother the freshness and purity of the wine. In the oak-aged wines I have tasted, however, I did not come across vanilla-heavy wines, or other cases of excessive use of wood. The wines rather displayed some extra complexity, adding delicate smokey aromas for example. I have a tendency to believe that oak-aging can work for Verdicchio. When done properly, of course, but that goes for all wines.
4. Fresh, easy-drinking Verdicchio
This is probably the best-known type of Verdicchio, symbolized by the amphora-shaped bottles, introduced by Fazi Battaglia in the 1950s. These wines are more perfumed, have an attractively crisp acidity and lack the almond bitter in the end. More often than not these wines are looked down on in the wine press, and are cornered as “simple summer quaffers”. It is true that these wines are highly interchangeable with other summer-proof wines, but some of these entry-level Verdicchios are ridiculously cheap, give drinking-pleasure, have good balance and attractive fruit. The Moncaro Verdicchio, for example, cost under five euro and offered a pleasant glass of wine.
So what do I make of Verdicchio? I certainly do not think it is a second rank grape. As a matter of fact, I did not come across even one wine that I would call bad, not even under 5€. There are few grapes that can claim such a consistent performance in each price category like Verdicchio. On the other hand, the lack of aromatic power makes it hard for Verdicchio to compete with the likes of riesling or sauvignon blanc.
I have to add a caveat to that as it seems that aged Verdicchio is a completely different matter. The aging potential of Verdicchio is said to be enormous and wines of 10 years+ are described as much more complex than younger wines. Unfortunately it is impossible to find aged Verdicchios, so I cannot say much about the quality of older Verdicchios. One thing I do believe is that the people who are willing to store Verdicchio for more than 10 years are a very small niche of wine drinkers.
Of the styles that are developed to make Verdicchio more approachable, I find the attempts to age it on wood the most interesting. If done cautiously, and with the necessary sublety, these wines can exist in their own right and attract a new public. Even if oak-aging is still somewhat controversial for Verdicchio, it does offer opportunities that are worth exploring.
Does this mean I do not like the “pure” version of Verdicchio? Absolutely not. In fact, these wines have a great selling proposition that should be used much more to market Verdicchio : the food-pairing potential.
Verdicchio : your food friend!
Verdicchio is probably one the most versatile and food-friendly white wines I know and believe every sommelier should have it on his/her wine list. Since Verdicchio is all about structure, it leaves ample space for many different kinds of flavors and it keeps its ground with all sorts of exotic combinations that are typical of today’s fusion kitchen. While chefs go crazy inventing new and exciting dishes with a range of flavors you would never dream of combining, sommeliers (or clients when there is no somm) need to find a wine that pairs with all this. Verdicchio is a definitely an option to consider in many of those cases. It has the extraordinary feature that it does not impose itself on the dish, while not letting itself be easily overpowered either.
Verdicchio is a no-brainer with fish and sea-fruit, but it pairs wonderfully well with richer dishes as well. I had the Tralivio of Sartarelli (a “pure” Verdicchio) with a cheese fondue and the acidity was a welcome refreshener at the table. Or what to drink with penne with mushrooms, chestnut, balsamico vinegar, rucola and candied lemon?
Verdicchio is able to absorb all these flavors and still keep its own identity. And the most difficult match of all : bitterness in food, such as brussels sprouts or Belgian endives. The almond bitter finish of Verdicchio actually echoes these flavors beautifully. When in doubt, drink Verdicchio.
Here are a few Verdicchios I liked very much and that are worth seeking out :
Luzano 2018, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore – Marotti Campi
I visited this winery during the summer and got a personal tour of the estate by Giovanni Marotti, who is the founder of the current winery, when he heard I was from Belgium. It turned out that he had worked in Belgium as a young man… He was very proud to show the estate, and I have to say that the view from his winery was indeed astonishing.
The Luzano Verdicchio is very Verdicchio. The strong almond bitter in the finish was already preceded by almond aromas in the nose. But this is one of the rare unoaked, “pure” Verdicchios that also had a nice fruit component with lush peaches, and the inevitable vegetal note. Great acidity as well. We had this with grilled cauliflower and chickpeas, with a dressing of tahini, lemon and cayenne pepper. Another good match. The Salmariano, which is oak-aged, is also worth seeking out.
Il Priore 2017, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore – Sparapani
Another winery I visited last year. “Winery” does not do Sparapani justice, as they actually also run a gas station and a restaurant.
The Priore 2017 displayed ripe pear, green herbs, and a remarkable salinity. The wine is nicely balanced, and the bitter twist in the end is actually more like a grapefruit bitter, rather than an almond bitter, which made it a bit more approachable. Elegant wine.
Podium 2016, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico – Garofoli
Garofoli is one of the prominent wineries of the Marche and the Podium Verdicchio is a wine that consistently gets good press. I also decided to list it here, but rather on the basis of its performance on day two.
On day one this wine was definitely good, but perhaps a bit middle of the road, with the Verdicchio characteristics present, but in a very mild way. It was only on day two that this wine really developed real character, with more freshness, structure and the almond finish. A wine that needs time to further develop.
Verdicchio di Matelica 2016 – Monacesca
Monacesca is one of the leading wineries in Matelica and the Mirum is the wine that often gets the best press. This is a Verdicchio that is harvested later to develop more ripeness and more fruit. The pineapple, honey and herbal notes that I had in the 2015 were indeed attractive, but the acidity was more on the background. This wine worked well with Belgian endives in ham rolls with cheese sauce.
It is, however, the “regular” Verdicchio that I liked most, with its very cool aromas, full of minerality and herbs. This is a hallmark Verdicchio, built around the acidity and the dryness of the wine. The finish was remarkable, fresh and long, with a caramel note that came several seconds later, despite the fact that this wine did not age on wood. I really liked this.
Donna Cloe 2016, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Riserva Classico – Sparapani
At Sparapani’s they also do a Verdicchio that is oak-aged, and it is lovely! The nose is subtle, almost etheric, with great minerality and something that made me think of iodine, suggesting salinity. The use of oak did not push the acidity to the back at all. The acidity is an important driver of this wine, but the wood does not go unnoticed either. The impression is one of old wood, however, like you can have in Burgundy aged in old casks. There is something that reminds me of very good Chablis here!
The wine evolved quite a bit, and later in the day became more “pure” Verdicchio, in a sense that the herbal notes and the almond bitter became more prominent. This is a wine that stands its ground. It even accompanied a chicken tikka masala without many problems.
Does anyone need convincing that Verdicchio should really be your food friend?