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…wine-making, that is – it’s just that, once we British are back from our holidays, we tend to forget how good their wines can be. Peter McCombie offers an entry-level guide to some of the best to try
Show me a Brit who denies that Italy holds any kind of romantic appeal for them, and I’ll show you a liar. Or at least someone in serious denial. Our nation’s long-held infatuation with Italy touches on almost every aspect of its culture – art, architecture, fashion, design, food and, yes, wine. When we’re on holiday there, that is.
But, once we’re back on home turf, we don’t seek out that interesting Prosecco we drank in Venice, or the Cirò we tried in Calabria. Instead, we go back to buying familiar favourites from other European countries. And if we do drink Italian, we tend to bypass the finer examples in favour of options that can be filed under ‘safe’ or ‘cheap’; perhaps a Chianti with a pizza or a glass of Pinot Grigio in a bar. Those of us who love Italian wine will insist that there is so much more to discover. So why doesn’t everyone else get it?
The truth is that the Italian wine scene is a little on the complex side. The fact that the country is a peninsula 750 miles long, taking in 10 degrees of latitude, makes for a very varied landscape, which in turn creates tremendous variation in wine styles. In addition, there’s the issue of how to get to grips with labels and varieties. The oft-repeated claim that Italy has over 1,000 varieties of wine may be an exaggeration. But, even if the figure was nearer half of that, that’s a lot more than the average consumer – or, for that matter, professional – can get their head around.
Of course, getting under the skin of a wine scene of such complexity takes time – a very long time. But there’s no need to sign up for the night class just yet. Acquiring a little knowledge of, say, just four of the most interesting regions will go a huge way towards making you feel confident enough to break the habit of just skipping to the next section each time you encounter the word ‘Italy’ on a wine list.
Take Piedmont. Located in the northwest of the country, it is well-established as a world-class wine region and, as a consequence, commands eye-watering prices for some of its labels. Such global recognition makes the fact that it still retains the feel of being a peasant region all the more surprising; landholdings are still generally small-scale, with producers tending their own vines. The wines here are really about three red grapes: Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto. You rarely see Nebbiolo on the label but, in the form of Barolo and Barbaresco, it’s the grape behind the best wines in the area. Never deeply coloured, at its best it should be perfumed, with firm acidity and tannins that demand food. Dolcetto is deeply coloured and robustly fruity and can remind some people of Beaujolais, while Barbera, with its plummy flavours, low tannin and high acidity has an affinity to oak and a dark-fruited accessibility. Good whites are produced here, too, with Cortese being the most important white grape. It’s rarely mentioned on labels, but is the sole component of the delicate and crisp Gavi.
Tuscany, too, has been enjoying a good reputation for a while, although the last 20 years in particular have seen a surge in the popularity of its wines. There are plenty of aspirational names and globally recognised varieties, but the key to almost all of them is Sangiovese. This red grape is the core of Brunello, Vino Nobile and, of course, Chianti, and improved viticulture and winemaking mean that the grape’s challenging structure is generally balanced by its rich, ripe flavour notes. White grapes don’t show so well in this area – apart from Vernaccia and a smattering of Vermentino there’s little to get excited about.
Marche/Abruzzo, lying to the south and west of Tuscany, on the Adriatic coast, is one of the country’s newly emerging winemaking areas. Strictly speaking, they are two separate regions but, because of their close proximity and similar terrain, it’s useful to assess their grapes together. In the UK, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is probably the best known from this location. Gutsy, with an earthy, brambly, distinctly southern warmth, it’s one of the more affordable Italian reds, combining well with Sangiovese in Rosso Conero and making for delicious rosatos. Verdicchio, from the Marche, is the region’s standout white – crisp, nutty and best drunk young.
Although it produces as much wine as Australia, Sicily is another region whose wines have only just started to gain wider appreciation, its makers steadily building a reputation for innovation and quality. Native grapes include the juicy, black-skinned Nero d’Avola and the dry, nutty Greciano. Both are often blended with non-indigenous grapes and the range of styles is broad, but fresh, clean whites with average acidity and reds with ripe, moderate tannins are the dominating characteristics. When experimenting, Gulfi and Santa Tresa are good producer names to look out for.
Finding a discerning but accessible all-Italian wine list on the high street is a tough call but the Strada restaurant group has managed to put together just such a thing. Here are some of the highlights.
Gavi from Gavi is supposed to be better than ‘straight’ Gavi. In this case it is. The area’s chalky soil gives the Cortese grape a mineral, citrus character plus finesse. And there’s no oak to muddy the purity.
Like all authentic Barolo, this is light in colour, with classic aromas of tar and roses. The palate has the same power and finesse that is found in great Burgundy, with tannins that are firm, but ripe and well balanced. This is a wine that demands rich food or game to show at its best.
When grown in the warmth of southern Tuscany, in the coastal Maremma area, Sangiovese can put on weight and substance, while retaining its traditional backbone of acidity and tannin. This version is accessible and straightforward and makes a happy partner for tomato-based pasta sauces, pizza or Med vegetable dishes.
The first single-vineyard Verdicchio, Casal di Serra has wowed critics (one famously mistaking it for premier cru Chablis) for more than a decade – but, more importantly, it has wowed drinkers, too. It’s bone dry, with some texture and a subtle, vegetal, nuttiness. On the Adriatic coast they drink it with fresh seafood. You should, too.
When grown in Abruzzo, Montepulciano makes for satisfying, often robust wines. Here it’s made in a rosato style, with cranberries, strawberries and something wild and brambly in evidence. Its fruitiness is balanced by a slight but firm tannic grip, which calls for plates of cured meats. Sunny terrace optional.
This excellent example of modern Sicilian winemaking has native grape Grecanico blended with a few foreign interlopers, such as Chardonnay and Viognier, to make a vibrant, aromatic dry white with notes of citrus, minerals, herbs and tropical fruit. Full and dry, smooth and supple, with a balancing acidity.
Fiano has recently emerged in its native Campania as a white grape of real interest, but quite a few Sicilian makers have been experimenting with it, too. This version has an inviting palate, exotic and generous with aromatic tropical fruits, hints of minerals and balancing acidity. Dry and medium-bodied, it may not be ‘typically’ Sicilian but it’s very drinkable.
While Sicily’s most exciting red grape, Nero d’Avola, can stand on its own two feet, here it’s blended with Merlot and Syrah. The happy result is abundant red fruit with a silky palate, supple tannins and fresh acidity.