Up from down under

Anthony Rose ON WINE

It was one of those moments of irony which make the annual London Wine Trade Fair such a pleasure. Master of wine Nick Belfrage invited me to taste Matino, one of the new breed of southern Italian reds. Full of juicy, damsony, black-fruit flavours, Matino - made from the local grapes, Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera di Lecce - has the potential to take on New World wines at their own value-for-money game. The wine had been refused DOC status (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) for "lack of typicity" and so can only be sold as vino da tavola (table wine).

The irony would not have been lost on Italian winemaker Carlo Corino. After 13 years making wine in Australia, Corino is aware of Italy's ability to shoot itself in the kitten heel. And he's well equipped to do something about it. At the instigation of Tony Jordan (then with Domaine Chandon) in Australia and master of wine, David Gleave, Corino was headhunted for the Arcadia Vini project. Based in the north-west of Italy, Arcadia is a partnership between Enotria Winecellars and three wine co-operatives in the Veneto districts of Soave, Valpantena Valpolicella and Bardolino, with 3,000 hectares of vineyard between them. Arcadia's main aim is to make Italian wines to suit British palates.

In 1976 having cut his winemaking teeth on Asti Spumante and Noilly Prat, Piemonte-born Corino upped sticks for Australia pre-empting the reverse flow of Aussie winemakers in the Nineties, heading north to gain experience in old-world cellars. "I learnt more in a short space of time in Australia than in all my time at winemaking school in Alba", says Corino. "I'm always looking for fruit, for drinkability, avoiding sharp acidity, sharp tannins, getting good colours, avoiding water-white whites and pale reds."

Corino worked at the Montrose group in Mudgee in New South Wales between 1976 and 1989, before returning to work as a consultant winemaker in Italy. "In Australia I learnt today's technology, that's aimed at retaining the fruit character and using oak in a balanced way. In the old world, everything's left to goodwill, to nature and the seasons. In Italy, in particular, there's often a lack of determination to get the maximum out of what they have. The New World approach is not to leave things, but to control what can be controlled."

Corino feels that the real work to be done in Italy is in changing entrenched attitudes and modernising the vineyards. "When the management was given the freedom to cut bunches to reduce yields at Frescobaldi, the workers swore God would punish us for dropping bunches on the ground."

In the Veneto reds, Corino does seem to have teased out more colour and flavour than usual. The result of his techniques is a dense-coloured and juicily cherryish 1998 Bardolino Classico Tenuta Roveri (pounds 3.99, Sainsbury's), and an abundance of flavour in the 1998 Connubio Valpolicella Valpantena, Metodo Ripasso, (pounds 6.99, selected Sainsbury's). But even Corino can't create a silk purse out of a sow's ear. While the Soave and Pinot Grigio are pleasant, summery whites, it would be nice to see a bit more depth of fruit and flavour.

With 90 per cent of Arcadia's eggs in the Veneto basket, the project is sensibly looking towards the up-and-coming wines of Sicily and Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. Corino thinks Montepulciano d'Abruzzo has a great future. The 1997 Connubio Montepulciano d'Abruzzo (pounds 4.99, Sainsbury's) is rich in spicy, gutsy fruitiness, albeit a shade rustic. Look out for this and other Arcadia wines under the le Vigne label in restaurants.

Italians love to talk about "typicity", but for Corino, "typicity" without quality is meaningless. "You have to respond to international tastes. So whatever is done to improve the wine can only be a positive thing... If there's something worth preserving, then of course it would be a mistake to change it, planting for instance Merlot in place of Aglianico or Nebbiolo. But is Bardolino everywhere a good typical wine that shouldn't change?" Quite so.

Arcadia started out with the value-conscious British palate in mind. Three vintages on, it's producing half-a-million cases and expanding rapidly. They are sufficiently encouraged to want to take Arcadia's wines to the world. So far so good. As long as increased production doesn't lead to loss of control over grape quality. It would be a disservice to customers if in the name of expansion, Arcadia were to stray from its goal of quality and value.

Wines of the Week

RED

1997 Peter Lehmann Shiraz, pounds 6.99, Oddbins, Waitrose (right). This is classic Lehmann Shiraz, a deeply coloured, brooding red which packs a powerful punch of full-flavoured, spicy fruit with undertones of pepper and mint humbug.

WHITE

1998 Sierra Los Andes Chardonnay, pounds 4.99, Chile, Marks & Spencer (left). This Chardonnay's fruit flavours combine tropical ripeness with the pineappley zip of the cool Casablanca Valley, the source of two-thirds of the grapes in this engaging dry white.

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