The Grape Glossary: a guide to hip varietals
Chianti had the straw flask. Mateus had the oval bottle. Black Tower had the black tower. Back in the Sixties, many Canadians preferred buying their candle-holders at the liquor store. If palatable wine were to come with the bargain, it was considered a bonus.
So it was in many cases with verdicchio, the white in the distinctive emerald-green bottle, the one with a tiny paper scroll dangling from its neck and curves that evoked Marilyn Monroe crossed with a mermaid. Fazi Battaglia was the brand. Crisp and light-bodied, it was de rigueur at every checkered-tablecloth eatery worth its ersatz Parmesan.
Launched in the 1950s, its success was such that it prompted other verdicchio producers in the central Italian region of Marche to follow suit with similarly wavy bottles, which, for the record, were modelled after the ancient clay amphorae of Greco-Roman times. Today the grape, if not the Fazi Battaglia brand, is making waves again.
Verdicchio has gone from candlestick kitsch to cool, a beneficiary of the growing global interest in indigenous Italian varieties as well as of quality-centric young producers who have been teaching the world that the words "crisp, light Italian white" need not mean the fruit-based equivalent of Michelob Ultra. Generally unoaked, verdicchio tends to be light yet often seductively fleshy, with lemony zip, a hint of herbs and something that nut-loving Italians describe as almond-like. Light seafood, salads and sunshine are its best friends.
The variety goes far back. Based on the root word verde, meaning "green," its name was first cited in print about 500 years ago and is today associated most closely with the Marche, on the inside knee of Italy's boot. That's where you'll find the appellations Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi (Fazi Battaglia's home turf) and the less familiar Verdicchio di Metelica. Besides Fazi Battaglia, a decent bargain at $10.95 (in Ontario), the prominent Marche producer to look for is Umani Ronchi, whose relatively rich and nuanced Casal di Serra excels at about $18. (The $28 Casal di Serra Vecchie Vigne, made from old vines, is superb, if available only in limited quantities, in a few provinces, at certain times of the year.)
But the grape – pronounced ver-DEE-kyo – turns out to be much more common than Italian winemakers had thought. Originally from the Veneto region, surrounding Venice further north, it had been hiding under a variety of aliases. The main synonym is trebbiano di Soave, a name associate with a grape sometimes used as an aromatic blending partner for garganega in the increasingly distinguished light whites labelled Soave. For the record, DNA profiling has shown that this "trebbiano" is unrelated to the generally less distinguished trebbiano d'abruzzo, source of an ocean of screwcap plonk served at weddings I attended growing up as an Italian kid.
The more important synonym you should place on your radar, though, is trebbiano di Lugana, or turbiana and or simply Lugana. That's how they refer to verdicchio in the quality-oriented district of Lugana near Lake Garda, where noted producers include the superb Zenato and Cà dei Frati. They don't use wavy bottles in Lugana; you'll have to buy your candlesticks somewhere else.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol (HarperCollins) won top prize for best general English cookbook at the 2014 Taste Canada Food Writing Awards.