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Italy, a beloved, historical, and tourist-filled nation in the south of Europe has long held the world’s attention when it comes to their distinctive cuisine and their long history of wine-making. In a sense, food and wine define Italy. Sipping rosé while sitting along the Amalfi Coast is what many people would consider a dream vacation. Many people assume the vineyards of Tuscany and Sicily are some of the greatest in the country if not the world, however, the often overlooked northern regions of Italy, specifically Friuli and Alto-Adige, offer what might be the best and purest white wines in the nation as well as the entire planet. These northern-Italy regions are able to produce these incredible wines as a result of the geographic location, terroir, and innovative culture. Due to their northern locations, Friuli and Alto-Adige border Austria, as well as being nearer to France, hence they have a lot of cultural and geographical similarities. Friuli, in particular, was always set up to succeed for this reason. For much of history, it served as a getaway spot for many Austrian nobles, hence the winemaking there always had to be “fit for kings. ”
There’s also a lot of French and more Austrian grape varieties that have made their way into Friuli, including Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Bianco, and Pinot Grigio. Combined with the more local grapes of Malvasia Istriana, Ribolla Gialla, Tocai Friulano, and Picolit, the diversity of white wine grapes in Friuli is unparalleled by any other region in Italy, allowing for mixes that simply cannot exist elsewhere. One geographical feature that aids both Friuli and Alto-Adige, is the proximity of mountains and water. Both regions straddle the alps allowing for cool air to blow in and keep the grapes at a perfect temperature. But to prevent the climate from getting too cold, nearby water sources provide some much needed warm air.
For Friuli, it’s the Adriatic Sea and for Alto-Adige, it is Lake Garda. This allows for an almost air-conditioning effect that causes the grapes to grow slowly and evenly where the grapes don’t get too hot, hence the skins don’t become too thick for white wine, but at the same time, they aren’t too thin either. This means the grapes produce a wine that’s not too sweet, but not too dry either, rather it’s perfectly aromatic. The wine produced ends up being a perfect blend between that of a cold and warm environment. Another contributor to white wine’s success in the northern region of Italy is the high concentration of limestone in the soil, perfect for preserving the acidity in the grapes. Furthermore, the hilly terrain of the area is beneficial for the grape-growing as well, allowing the perks of sunlight hitting the vineyards directly, as well as easy drainage. However, not all vineyards in the area benefit from this as some are on flatter land, but still do benefit from the overall climate.
Much of northern-Italy’s wine-making prowess comes from technique and innovation. Though the area was pummeled during World War II, it quickly capitalized on Italy’s industrial revolution, becoming a hugely important region in the world of winemaking by the 1960’s. It was during this time that the modern standards for making white wine in Italy were developed by Friulian winemakers, led by the notorious Mario Schiopetto. Winemakers in Italy used to produce white wine by fermenting them in wooden tubs with all their skin and not much else to the process, creating a highly alcoholic beverage. But then, Schiopetto and other winemakers decided it would be better to really get the pure flavor from the grape. Instead of just mashing up the grapes, they gently pressed them, without their skins, and immediately put them into stainless steel tanks to prevent oxidation. After being fermented in refrigerated tanks, lighter, aromatic, and crisp white wines ready to drink were produced, setting a new stage for Italian white wine. Cleanliness is also key to the process, as less sulfur is used to keep the wine clean, keeping a purer flavor. While others have certainly mimicked the process, it has been hard to truly capture Friuli and Alto-Adige’s iconic whites simply due the grape varieties available in the area. As the Friulians may have pioneered refrigerated and pure fermentation techniques in the past, they continue to pioneer new techniques today. Messing around with the temperature of fermentation, different storing styles, and different ripenesses have all become common forms of experimentation and innovation. However, it is still the variety of the grapes that has been the most crucial to northern Italy’s white wine superiority. Due to the large variety of grapes in the region, many different blends can be tried to create the perfect white wines, often known as “super-whites. ”
Overall, there’s a certain strive to be the best that helps propel northern Italy as a premier producer of white wines. When it all comes together, Friuli and Alto-Adige are white-winemaking powerhouses. The perfect conditions for grape growing along with the large amount of different grape types allow for winemakers to have a variety of the very best grapes to choose from and use their perfected techniques to create these perfect white wines. And should these wines ever get old, the area is constantly innovating, allowing for these super grapes to be utilised for some super-whites for centuries to come.
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