I was taught to admire and respect, even revere, the great red wines of France: the growths of Bordeaux, the crus of Burgundy, Hermitage, Côte Rotie. No one taught me to admire Italian red wines; I simply fell in love with them.
The prelude to the affair was a wine tasting hosted by the occasional group of shippers and experts called Forum Vinorum in London in 1987, masterminded by Nicholas Belfrage MW. This was a revelation — or a series of revelations. Valpolicella, at least as made by Quintarelli, did not have to be the thin insipid stuff which had given us hangovers and heartburn at student discos, but could have marvellous depth and purity of fruit. Bardolino from Guerrieri Rizzardi was capable of red cherry freshness and bite, not just sourness.
Then there were the exciting, precise Chiantis made by Paolo de Marchi at Isole e Olena, as far away from the pale-coloured and indifferent stuff presented in straw-covered fiaschi as you could imagine, and pure Brunello from Altesino not aged for too long in unhygienic barrels.
The affair was consummated during a wonderful May week in 1988 — the Tuscan landscape exuberantly lush after a damp spring, and positively slithering with snakes — when I visited producers spread out over the intricate hilly landscape between my temporary base, the small estate of Castel Ruggero near Florence, and the villages close to Siena, which produce perhaps the best Chiantis of all.
Chianti is not soft, either as a wine or as a landscape. The greatest Chiantis are grown on steep stony hillsides sometimes very near the limit at which vines can thrive. The best I think have a certain minerally toughness, a rasp of acidity, but not too much of either; warmth and generosity of fruit must be part of the picture too. It is not an easy act to pull off.
Talking to growers such as Paolo de Marchi at Isole e Olena, or Lorenza Sebasti at the recently revived Castello di Ama, it was obvious that Chianti was much more like Burgundy than Bordeaux; not just wine which cries out to be hand-crafted from individual plots, but also a wine whose essence is its heady, elusive aroma. Another producer which has always understood this is Riecine in Gaiole (the wines are made by an Irishman, Sean O’Callaghan); the other day near Lucca I sampled the 2011 Riecine, whose magnificent perfume seemed to spread out from the glass to fill the whole room.
During that May week in 1988 I also met the impressive Piero Antinori in Florence and could not decide whether he had saved Chianti or betrayed it. Antinori had diagnosed the key problems: the blending of Chianti’s red grapes, Sangiovese and Canaiolo, with bland white Trebbiano, too much planting in the wrong places with poor-quality vine material. But he had also introduced the most influential of the Super-Tuscans, Tignanello, an international-style wine dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon and aged in new barriques which spawned a host of followers. The craze for international-style wines and for new oak spread all over Italy and seemed for a while in danger of swamping the country’s indigenous wine culture.
Up in the bumpy Langhe hills of Piedmont, far to the north, the charismatic Angelo Gaja changed the face of Barbaresco and Barolo. Once again it was difficult to say if this talented, bumptious character had saved Piedmontese reds or betrayed them.
Gaja planted Cab Sauv in a prime Barbaresco site; he used new oak for ageing; he bottled his best wines as crus which started fetching Bordeaux first growth prices. But Gaja insists that he has never aimed for an international style, but has been trying to show how the best wines from his region can match top Bordeaux and Burgundy. Even if Gaja’s wines are not to everyone’s taste — too sleek, too self-conscious — there is little doubt that he has positively galvanised the Langhe. Personally I feel I get a truer picture of Barolo and Barbaresco from a more modest producer such as Luca Roagna, whose wines are lighter in colour and whose smoky aromas owe nothing to new oak.
For most of us, in any case, Gaja’s wines are simply unaffordable. One of the delights of my 25-year affair with Italian red has been the discovery of wines from off the beaten track which bring unexpected rewards. In Tuscany, if you want a less pricey, slightly simpler alternative to top Chianti or Brunello, still made from the native Sangiovese, try Morellino di Scansano, with its looser structure and lovely black cherry aroma and flavour.
And then there are the southern provinces, and the two big islands of Sardinia and Sicily. In Roman times the most highly prized Italian wines — Falernian, Caecuban — came from the south and a southern revival has been gathering pace over the past 15 or 20 years. The volcanic reds of Campania and Basilicata made from the Aglianico grape — Taurasi, Aglianico del Vulture — have great tarry, wild intensity at their best; somewhat smoother but very drinkable reds made from Primitivo come from Puglia.
Sardinia has a wine culture much influenced by Spain. The best red grape, Cannonau, is identical to Spanish Garnacha (French Grenache) and produces wine of fruitcakey richness, not a million miles from Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
As for the Med’s largest island, Sicily, the reds deserve a whole article to themselves. Once seen as the source of reliable blends, Sicily now teems with exciting producers making the most of the native grapes, Nero D’Avola and Nerello Mascalese, and exceptional terroirs, especially the north slope of Etna. There one of the world’s most uncompromising natural wine producers (‘no treatments, either chemical, organic or biodynamic’, according to his website), Frank Cornelissen, rubs shoulders with more conventional makers. Cornelissen’s reds, from the simpler Contadino up to his rare Magma, are exquisitely, headily aromatic.
Come on, ye buttoned-up Englishmen and women, give in to the delights of the south: fall in love with Italian red wines as Caesar and Antony did with Cleopatra, because age cannot wither them, nor custom stale their infinite variety.
Stockists Supermarkets are generally to be avoided, as they buy in bulk and tend to bypass the smaller producers. Head to an Italian specialist such as Lea and Sandeman or Berry Bros in London, or Valvona and Crolla or Raeburn Fine Wines in Edinburgh.