The other day I wrote about a reputation-ravaged red (Lambrusco) and today I shift gears to confront an equally marginalized Italian white:
The innocuous little grape from innocuous little Marche was content to coast along on its laurels—as threadbare as those laurels may be—until a few serious winemakers realized that with different vinification techniques, including restricting yields and long layovers on the lees, the wine could show some remarkable sophistication.
In general, the Verdicchio that soured most American palates was a colorless, high-acid fluid that resembled mass-produced Soave from Veneto in that neither really resembled anything so much as a teaspoon of boric acid stirred into a glass of water with a lemon wedge.
In the 1980s, there was far more Verdicchio on the global market than Chardonnay, but these wines relied on a guarantee of quantity, not quality. Makers like Garofoli didn’t particularly worry about vintage variations: Their Verdicchios were consistently mediocre and fell into a category marketed as ‘light and easy-drinking’, which is about half-right. They were featherweights of character, for sure, but no more ‘easy’ to drink than abominable ‘easy-listening’ music from, say, Christopher Cross or Burt Bacharach is ‘easy’ to listen to—unless you have a thing for swinging in a rattan egg-shaped chair in a denim leisure suit—in which case, you’re probably drinking Garofoli and lovin’ it.
The revisioning of Verdicchio began around the time that ‘Ride Like the Wind’ was doing to the lobe of the brain that absorbs music what Everclear does the lobe of the liver that absorbs rotgut, primarily in the two appellations where Verdicchio is the principal varietal, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC and Verdicchio di Matelica (which is also a DOC and not, as the name might suggest, an AC/DOC). Certain winemakers in these two region of Marche have returned to more traditional styles of Verdicchio, allowing the grapes longer hang times before harvest, concentrating flavors once they are fully ripe and tempering the grape’s natural acidity. After harvest, cold maceration adds body and color and extended contact with the spent yeast cells that have precipitated to the bottom of the fermentation tank lends a nutty, savory creaminess to the wine.
And Now, the Good News…
These giant leaps for Verdicchio-kind have outstripped the general American public’s awareness of them, and thus, prices remain remarkable in comparison to say, white Burgundy.
I say ‘Burgundy’ not because I ultimately believe that Verdicchio in Marche has displayed the majesty of Chardonnay in Meursault, but because a lot of the classic aromatics of this fat, flamboyant style of wine are the result of process and viticulture, not varietal.
An example is the mouthful (phonetically and gastronomically) that is Andrea Felici Il Cantico della Figura, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Riserva, 2011. It sells for under thirty dollars a bottle and displays a strikingly Meursault-like nose; the wine spent twelve months in a concrete fermenter, basking in lees, resulting in a layered bouquet filled with bruised apple, beeswax, chamomile and green olives. There’s a unique brine character to the nose, which a Shakespearean might consider a result of the appellation’s proximity to the Adriatic, but is likely a byproduct of the limestone-rich soils and dry climate.
There’s a little rain on the parade, however—one that winds up being a bit of a head-shaker. The wine is plush and luscious but somewhat devoid of the hallmark idiosyncrasy that has at times been, for Verdicchio, ‘…their father’s bail and bane…’ (2H6 V.i.120):
It’s almost like the winemaker, trapped in Verdicchio’s straitjacket of perception—thin wines without much soul, simply overcompensated in this vintage, perhaps like Napa vintners praying for rain and getting a Biblical deluge. The crunch of mineral, the sappiness of baked apple, the textbook almond notes replaced by toasted walnuts, are all diminished slightly by the lack of a definitive snarl.
But, this may in fact be an anomaly—the wine is highly regarded and in the previous vintage hauled down a 91 in Wine Enthusiast.
In any case, Verdicchio seems to be on an upward, reputation-reviving trajectory and, unlike that Capulet chick, unlikely to self-destruct any time soon.