AS SOMEONE WHO values ‘character’ in a wine above some arbitrary score of ‘excellence’, I really ought to love Italian wine. The country is so geographically varied it has more distinct ‘terroirs’ than anywhere else. And they have, and use, more different grape varieties than the rest of the world put together. But there is an Italian style of wine making that hasn’t so far appealed to me – at its extreme, the red wines are light in colour, acid in the mouth and the flavours tend towards unripe cherry. But I’ve always known I’m missing something, so I went recently to a wine tasting of 38 Italian wines organised by The Wine Society. On the train to London I put together the prejudices I carried with me. Let’s see how they fared.
1. The thin colour of the reds is associated with thin flavours.
Wrong. The lightest coloured red of the evening was a Salice Salentino from the heel of Italy, but it was full-bodied, with a lovely rich flavour. I asked the winemaker why there was so little colour. It’s the negroamaro grape. It releases little pigment from the skin, but loads of flavour.
2. You have to choose a wine from the South to get big flavours.
Wrong again. The ‘biggest’ wine of the evening was from Barolo, in Piedmonte. That’s the North West. It had lots of tannin and was quite acid but these were balanced by the huge flavours.
3. The best Italian wines don’t achieve the elegance of the great French wines.
Wrong. I’ve had a lot of bland Chianti in my time but this Chianti Classico from the Bartoli family for only £12.95 was as refined as you could wish. And plenty more expensive wines had been aged in oak and had made that transition from tasting of fermented fruit to tasting of tobacco, leather, truffles and more flavours for which we have no words.
4. OK, they can be elegant but they don’t have the complexity of the best French wines.
Rubbish. I couldn’t even start to put into words the complex flavours of a wine from Gattinara not far from the Alps. At £19 a bottle it was packed with intense flavours, perfectly balanced with the acid, glycerol and alcohol in the mouth.
5. Prosecco will never be a match for champagne.
I agree. We tasted two Prosecco Superiore and they were pleasant enough but hadn’t got the depth of champagne. They won’t have unless they adopt the ‘champagne method’ in which the final fermentation takes place in the bottle, not in a tank prior to bottling.
6. The labels are incomprehensible.
Partially true. One of my favourites was labelled Foresco Umbria, Barberani 2016. I understood Umbria and the date. It turns out that Barberani is the wine maker and Foresco is the name they give that wine. It’s actually from Orvieto but they can’t call it that because, although it’s 80% sangiovese (an approved grape for Orvieto reds) 10% is merlot and 10% is cabernet sauvignon (which aren’t). As for Aglianico Guardia Sanframondi Lucchero Janare 2015 . . .
My favourite wines of all? The three from the Brunelli family in Montalcino which were served to us by Signora Laura Brunelli herself. I told her I loved her wines – the best is worth every penny of the £60 it cost. She said, with a depth of passion no-one does the way an Italian does, “I hope so. They are my life.” Italian wines are part of mine, now.