Food & Drink: The vine taste of Italy

To complement the recipes from the 'River Cafe Cook Book Two', our drinks expert Richard Ehrlich turns his palate to a selection of new Italian wines and finds some stunning creations with equally breathtaking price tags. But can Italy's more affordable wines ever compete with its food?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I am addressing these words to St Cirrhosis, patron saint of oenophiles.

Sir, I have been trying for days to appreciate the Italian wines I've solicited from retailers, wholesalers, abseilers and whatnot. I've swirled and sniffed, gurgled and spat. And some were a pleasure. But I still fear that people who love Italian food will have a harder time learning to love Italian wines.

I'm not talking about screw-top Frascati or Lambrusco, where yields are high, prices low, and quality - uh, can you spell that for me please? Nor am I talking about traditional heavyweights like Barolo. These boys can cost dear and taste awful - all shoe-leather tannin and no fruit. I'm not even talking about Chianti, which has become absurdly expensive.

No, I'm talking about the "new" wines from Italy. These drinks have had a lot of press, much of it concentrating on numbingly expensive stars such as Sassicaia and Gaja. Side-stepping Italy's daftly restrictive DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) rules, some of their wines come under what is ostensibly the lowest category: vino da tavola. Some use native grapes and others add foreigners - either singly or in blends. And they can fetch upwards of pounds 40 a bottle.

Gaja's idea of "affordable" wine is Sito Moresco, a truly stunning creation with remarkably complex fruit and a finish that lasts for a fortnight. You'll pay around pounds 15 for it at John Armit (0171 727 6846) and elsewhere.

Never mind the quality, however good; feel the prices. Mark Dally, director of wine at Fuller's, says that "We have tastings all the time, and Italy comes out badly against France in terms of value." Even an Italian specialist such as David Gleave, of Liberty Wines, acknowledges that pounds 6 is usually the starting point. And that may secure a bottle that you'd only describe as interesting rather than delicious.

Because the best Italians are made in small quantities, we have to hunt for them either in restaurants like the River Cafe or independent merchants rather than supermarkets. John Armit and Bibendum (0171 722 5577) have smallish lists, while those at Adnams (01502 727222), Roberson (0171 371 2121) and Lay & Wheeler (01206 764 446) are longer. And if we really want to get serious, there are specialists like Enotria Winecellars (0181 871 2668) or Liberty Wines (0171 274 5905). Liberty currently sells only to restaurants and the trade but will soon launch a retail mail-order service.

After glugging my way through a couple of dozen bottles from Roberson and the two specialists, I singled out two extremely likeable wines from each. Liberty sent three estimable Piemontese whites from Alasia, made in collaboration with Australian wine-maker Martin Shaw. My favourite was their Arneis delle Langhe 1995 (pounds 6.99), available also from the Wine Society (01438 740222) and Valvona and Crolla (0131 556 6066) in Edinburgh. Of the reds, I particularly liked a Rosso di Montalcino 1995 from Consi Costanti, though I gulped hard when I checked the price: pounds 13.25. Enotria Winecellars has Sicilians from Planeta combining local grapes with French, and its La Segreta Rosso 1995 (Nero d'Avola and Merlot with a little Cabernet Sauv-ignon) is a soft, fresh mouthful costing pounds 7.25. Pricier, but with intriguingly tart fruit, is a Calabrian Carignano del Sulcis Riserva 1993 (pounds 9.75); good stuff for barbecues. Roberson's Sardinian Costera Cannonau Argiolas 1994 (pounds 6.95) is lightly oaked and, though tannic (like most of the reds), settles down into a nicely smoky, cedary fruitiness. Its Cumaro Umani Rocchi 1993 is even better, with softer tannins and plump, juicy flavours, but it weighs in at a thumping pounds 12.95. Both form part of a mixed Italian case selling at pounds 99 (which represents a 13 per cent discount) until next Saturday.

I would happily drink these wines with food, whether River Cafe Italian, French, or a barbecue. The reds are particularly well suited to grilled or roasted meat, while the whites take to fish like a 10-year-old takes to the Spice Girls. I am happy to make their acquaintance, and to see Italian wine being taken seriously. The best producers are making a real effort to raise quality, and it's only fair that they should be rewarded for their investment. It may simply be the UK's obsession with spending as little as possible on wine that makes Italian wines look expensive. According to stockbrokers Williams de Broe, just 4.7 per cent of the wine we buy costs over pounds 5 a bottle. Good Italians under that threshold are rarer than snow in June.

But try as I may, I still can't quite see a compelling reason to buy some of these wines. Good, yes. Value for money? Hmmm. Please, St Cirrhosis, give me the wisdom to recognise the error of my ways. I'm in your hands. !