Herewith, a tale of a wine complaint. The scene: Papa Bacchus, via Sicilia, Rome. My wife and I spent two nights in the heavenly city and ate one dinner in this excellent Tuscan restaurant. Some of our food was unforgettable, and I can't praise it too highly. But the wine – that was another story. And an interesting one. We ordered a bottle of Selvino, Tenuta Della Selva, Colli Della Toscana 1998. It cost around £13, and my first whiff suggested that all was not right.
Sometimes first whiffs are unreliable, especially when you're just enjoying every moment of being in the place where you happen to be. And Italian wine can be sort of peculiar even when it's "correct". So I accepted the bottle. But I just couldn't get used to it: it smelled and tasted... not corked, which presents a distinctive odour of damp cellars and old socks, but musty. Dirty. It smelled, I thought, of oak fermentation barrels that had been used without due cleaning and/or replacement.
After a few more sniffs and sips, I told the waiter that all was not right. He happily replaced the bottle. But the replacement smelled and tasted just like the first. The manager was called over. He smelled, he tasted, and he said that the wine was fine. "Maybe you are not used to this wine. It is very typical." Further discussion ensued. To cut a long story short: we went on enjoying the evening, and the food, and we kept the bottle. Which we did not enjoy. It tasted as dirty on the last glass as it had on the first. It was wrong.
This had never happened to me in a restaurant before, and I'm sorry it happened in a place where I couldn't converse properly – their English was limited, though not nearly as limited as my Italian. Anyway, it was interesting because it suggested that sometimes it's best just to let sleeping dogs lie and faulty bottles sit. I would have enjoyed drinking more if we had insisted on a different bottle. But we probably would have enjoyed the evening less. And that's the point of going out for dinner.
From a professional point of view, the encounter pointed me to an enduring dilemma. The dilemma arises wherever you get a conflict between "modern" expectations of what wine should be like and "traditional" expectations. Papa Bacchus's manager genuinely thought that it is acceptable for wine to taste like our bottle. To anyone in the UK, accustomed to the high technical standards established as normal in the New World, with many of their Olde Worlde counterparts trying to fall into line, those rank flavours are simply not good enough. Are we espousing competence at the expense of character? I don't think so. A musty barrel does not represent character. It represents sloppiness.
By chance, a week or so later I met up with David Gleave MW, chief supremo of Liberty Wines and a serious Italian wine expert. When I told him about the encounter he knew exactly what I was talking about. There are still too many producers in Italy, he said, who think this way. His colleague Bruce Kendrick quipped that those off-flavours are called "terroir" by the producers who create them.
They are certainly not apparent in any of the wines sold by Liberty, at whose tasting I met up with Messrs Gleave and Ken- drick. Liberty represents some of the best producers in Italy, and the tasting was a pleasure from beginning to end.
What I like best about modern Italian wines is the surprise factor: you think you know the grape or region, then a superior example makes you realise you didn't know anything. And Liberty's offerings hold surprises by the bucketful. As in Illivio 1999 (£23.95), from Livio Felluga in Friuli: this Pinot Bianco is the best I remember tasting, combining power with freshness. As is Morgante Nero d'Avola 1999 (around £8), which raises the grape about as high as it can go. Note: the 2000 vintage is much suppler and smoother than the pleasingly rough-edged 1999. And as in its two Carmignano wines from Tenuta de Capezzana, Barco Reale 2000 (around £8) and the grander, richer Carmignano 1998, Villa di Capezzana (£15.95).
Stockists are independents so it's best to contact Liberty (020 7720 5350) for further information. You won't even think about sending any of these wines back. True character, minus the mustiness. *Reuse content