Fiano, Grecco, Verdicchio…Chardonnay? One of these may appear out of place when listing iconic Italian grape varieties, but—surprise—Chardonnay, the world’s fifth most planted grape, has a strong historic foothold all along the Italian peninsula. The diversity of Italy’s terroir and climate highlights this neutral white grape’s ability to adapt to its location and produce wines of place—whether the cool-climate slopes of Alto Adige or the sun-soaked hills of Sicily.
Chardonnay’s history in Italy, like many grapes, is a bit fuzzy, but most attribute the grape’s first plantings to Napoleon Bonaparte. Just as the Roman legions brought their most prized vines across Europe, Napoleon’s armies did the same, bringing Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and others to what we now know as Friuli-Venezia Giulia in the late 1700s or early 1800s.
Yet, Chardonnay’s modern-day story is based more on romance and innovation than on war or legacy. The examples on the following pages are just a snippet of the numerous Italian producers making Chardonnay that are not only delicious, but are unique and specific to their terroir and to their place in the pantheon of Chardonnay across the globe.
Langhe, Piemonte, Northwest Italy
Gaja “Gaia & Rey”
In 1979, Angelo Gaja decided to do what no one else dared and planted Langhe’s first Chardonnay on a southwest facing hillside in Treiso within the Nebbiolo-soaked Barbaresco zone. It caused quite an uproar. “It was not that it was Chardonnay, but that a white grape was being planted. That in itself was sacrilege,” says Gaja’s daughter Gaia Gaja. Eventually, many historic estates followed his lead, and today the region is home to some top-quality Chardonnay. Following that success, in 1989, the family brought the white grape to the Barolo region as well. The Treiso vineyard offers floral and more delicate aromas, while wines from Barolo provide more bass, acidity and verticality, giving them more structure that is well worth the investment and reward for a good 10 years or more in the cellar. Gaia Gaja says the family will continue to plant and explore the beauty of Chardonnay within the region. Chardonnay in the Langhe is no longer seen as a sacrilege but a wine worthy of growing and making.
Oltrepò Pavese, Lombardia, North-Central Italy
Cordero San Giorgio “Rivone”
In 2019, three siblings, Francesco, Lorenzo and Caterina Cordero, ventured out of Piedmont and purchased the historic estate of Tenuta San Giorgio, in the rolling hills of Oltrepò Pavese in Lombardia. With vines more than 30 years old, the wines of Cordero San Giorgio have depth, complexity and beauty. A unique winemaking technique that sets this estate apart is the division of the wine into terracotta amphorae and French oak barriques. The terracotta preserves the grape’s primary aromas and flavors, while the oak aging gives the wine subtle hints of baking spice and vanilla. Both vessels provide less contact giving texture and more complexity. Combining the two creates a wine of unique depth and specificity.
Colli Orientali del Friuli, Friuli- Venezia Giulia, Northeast Italy
Ronco del Gnemiz “Sol”
Ronco del Gnemiz is a small 10-hectare estate owned by the Palazzolo family since 1964, with Chardonnay plantings dating back to the 1920s. The estate grew to prominence in the 1990s, led by Serena Palazzolo and her winemaker husband, Christian Patat, who are ardent defenders of Chardonnay from the Colli Orientali. The estate produces three distinct Chardonnays. The Sol bottling comes from vines that are over 60 years old and was first produced in 1981. The meticulousness with which they work cannot be understated and is one reason when asking multiple sommeliers to name their top five Italian Chardonnays, Ronco del Gnemiz is always listed. “Sol” is unique for its depth, richness and power, yet its deftness on the palate.
Pomino, Tuscany, Central Italy
Frescobaldi “Benefizio” Riserva
The story of the “Benefizio” Chardonnay dates back to 1850s Florence when the noble-blooded brother-sister duo Vittorio and Leonie d’Albazi, who had been living in France, were forced back to Florence by their aristocratic family. Once home, they were given an estate in Pomino, high in the hills outside the city. Needing to ensure that they’d have an income stream and being flummoxed by the inability to grow Sangiovese or any other native grapes to maturity in the cold of Pomino, Vittorio planted Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay due to their earlier ripening. After a few years, Leonie entered the Pomino Bianco into the 1889 Paris Expo where it won gold, setting the stage for Tuscan Chardonnay success. The “Benefizio” we know today was first produced in 1973 and is a leading example of high-altitude Tuscan Chardonnay. As Lamberto Frescobaldi, 30th generation of the pioneering family, says, “Chardonnay from Pomino is a ballet dancer on the tips of his toes. The wine is fresh with firm acidity, it widens on the palate and, as with all Italian wine, wants to be with food.”
Menfi, Sicily, Southern Italy
The Planeta family have been involved in agriculture across Sicily for 17 generations—and seem to always lead the way in innovation. In 1985 the family planted their first Chardonnay vineyards, releasing their inaugural vintage almost 10 years later in 1994. The wine today is forward and lush thanks to the fermentation and aging in barrique along with frequent stirring of the lees. These techniques give Planeta’s Chardonnays their trademark richness—a trait that truly speaks to the warm, sunny island.
Colline Pescaresi, Abruzzo, Southeast Italy
De Fermo “Launegild”
Chardonnay was first planted in Abruzzo in 1926 thanks to the restless and innovative Carlo de Fermo, affectionately named “Don Carlino” by the family. As Stefano Papetti, Don Carlino’s grandson-in-law, explains, Carlo de Fermo “was a romantic” who came from a well-off family and was able to travel to northern Italy and into France, where he fell in love with Chardonnay. Curious if Chardonnay would adapt to his family’s land, he planted an experimental plot and the family has continued his legacy to this day using massal selection for replanting—and after nearly 100 years, they ostensibly have their own clone of Chardonnay that is more Abruzzese than anything else. Stefano sums up in his understanding of why Chardonnay has done so well here by simply saying, “Nature is more powerful than borders.”
Last Updated: June 6, 2023