Italy rolls out the barrels Richard Ehrlich's beverage report

Chianti, the Area Formerly Known as Overrated, seems to be getting its act together
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The Independent Culture
A week ago, this column spent much of its time whingeing about tannin. Specifically, about the astringent overload that comes from dozens of hefty red wines at the annual round of tastings. If all marathon wine tastings are unnatural, tasting red wines en masse, in the absence of food - when they're so obviously designed for drinking with food - counts as a crime against nature.

At the same time, there's a certain amount of sense to it. When you're tasting so many fluids that look so similar, the discovery of one in the crowd that really makes you pay attention is a sign of superiority. With the tasting round about halfway through, this is a good point to take note of some of those mouth-puckering stars. Beginning, I am slightly surprised to find, with Italy. I still haven't quite come to grips with the world's largest wine-producing country, presenting as it does such diversity of regional and local styles. But some of the wines lately have been making me think and drink differently.

Some of the best were lined up run by Liberty Wines of London (0171 720 5350). Liberty was founded a couple of years ago by David Gleave, formerly of Italian specialists Enotria, and it too makes a big deal of Italy. Its tasting is for both press and trade, which makes it interesting for observers as restaurant buyers approach the business differently. They're in the position of an art dealer at an auction, thinking not just about whether they like something but about whether they can sell it.

I don't know what they were buying that day, but I hope their wish-lists included a pair from Pieve del Vescovo in Umbria. One of them, called just Colli del Trasimeno 1997 (pounds 6.99), promises huge berry-and-cherry flavours on the nose and delivers them, by the lorry-load, on the palate. Amazing stuff, though not as amazing as the second from the same producer: Lucciaio 1996. This is a wine of startling fullness and pungency, lots of tannin underlying a set of concentrated herbal flavours with an almost savage intensity. The bad news: it costs pounds 16.95. But the cheaper wine won a Gold medal in the recent International Wine Challenge while the Lucciaio only managed a Bronze, so maybe expense isn't everything. I thought the pricier wine deserved its premium, but the judges disagreed.

The good news: Chianti, the Area Formerly Known as Overrated, seems to be setting itself higher standards. There was a goodly selection under the Liberty banner, and I didn't taste any of the sloppy, muddy efforts that in the past have made Chianti such an unreliable buy. For value I'd single out the Chianti 1997, Cantine Leonardo, a fine medium-weight specimen hitting all the right notes; it has the advantage of being available in halves and magnums as well as 75cl bottles, with the basic bottle selling for pounds 5.99. Higher up the scale, the Chianti Rufina 1996 (pounds 8.49) and Chianti Rufina Riserva 1994 (pounds 10.49) from Selvapiana shows one of the area's best estates making big, gripping wines with potential for long ageing. For drinking now, the Chianti Classico 1996 from Fontodi (pounds 10.95) is more instantly approachable with its lovely flavours of cherries and plums.

Fine Italian wines have cropped up elsewhere on the tasting circuit, and one of the best values is unquestionably Safeway's Serina Primitivo 1996, Tarantino (pounds 3.99), another Gold winner in the International Wine Challenge. Fresh and clean but with plenty of personality. Better still, from Waitrose (source of a number of good Italians), is yet another Gold- bedecked Italian: a stunning Bordeaux-style wonder called Basilicata Cabernet- Merlot 1997, Vigna Alta. With its creamy blackcurrant nose and concentrated berries on the palate, this has a balance and generosity of fruit that will make you think you've just spent a lot more than the pounds 4.99 being asked. The wine is about as untraditional as a wine can get, but disrespect for tradition may be the future of Italy. On the other hand, sticklers for tradition can stick with Waitrose's absolutely classic Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 1995, from the ancient house of Avignonesi (pounds 8.95). This is one to keep, as it's still a bit closed up, but its silky tannins and big elegant cigar-box fruit promise great things.

And finally... Completely off the Italo-grapey path, a couple of beers to ponder. One is Pride of Romsey IPA, from the Hampshire Brewery. This is lovely brew, with a nose reminiscent of Seville oranges, incisive hoppy bitterness and mellow malty flavours with more citrus notes. It's not exactly easy to find, being sold only by Morrisons, and selected Asda and Waitrose stores. But the bottled version "presents every bit as well as the draft", according to Hampshire's head brewer, Dan Thomasson, and it is worth hunting down at around pounds 1.69/500ml. Better still: Fuller's 1998 Vintage Ale (pounds 3.49/550ml), the second appearance of what will surely become a regular event in the beer-lover's calendar. This copper-red nectar has superb richness, with caramel sweetness finely balanced against multifaceted hoppy flavours and a dry finish that lasts longer than one of Fidel Castro's speeches. There are only 4,000 cases, and the brewer has designed it to age. Buy one for now, one for ageing as long as three years.