Just as dogs famously resemble their owners, wine growers tend to take after their wines: hot-tempered and red-blooded in the south, increasingly patient and law-abiding the further north you go. Perhaps this phenomenon helps explain why growers from Tuscany take greater delight than their northern counterparts in tearing up the rule book.
It takes a lot for a Piemontese or Venetian to give up on the DOC system (Denominazione di Origine Controllata). Yet recently Nino Pieropan, one of the best producers of soave (his fine whites are imported by Liberty Wines, London SW8, 020-7720 5350), declassified his excellent single vineyard whites alvarino, La Rocca and the sweet Recioto Le Colombare, from soave DOC to humble vino da tavola. The decision wasn't taken without soul-searching. Why did he abandon the name he and his family are so attached to?
Because in applying for DOCG status for soave, the highest title the system can confer, the local co-op-dominated consorzio is proposing the same high production levels as for the current DOC. Soave's image is already compromised by mediocrity. This gives growers a licence to produce even more and keep the DOC tag. The quality will not improve by it becoming DOCG.
Italian wine lovers in the UK might be bemused by the idea of soave becoming a DOCG at all. Most of this insipid stuff doesn't deserve the implied quality tag (remember what happened to liebfraumilch "qualitätswein"?). But by controlling yields, as Pieropan's wines show, there are a handful of good soaves around. As part of its bold move to improve its Italian range, Unwins, the high street chain, has added to its new Italian range, which has no fewer than 40 new wines from Sicilian toe to Alpine top.
Unwins' development is timely. Despite the popularity of Italian food and restaurants, Italian wine doesn't walk off the high-street shelf like Chilean or Australian (lambrusco hasn't exactly helped in this regard). Its very diversity counts against it, making it bewildering and resistant to branding. Credit must go to Oddbins, which comes closest to offering an interesting range.
Now Unwins is making the effort with a soave of the quality of the 1999 Soave Classico Monte Fiorentine from Ca' Rugate, £6.99 (on promotion till 20 May at £5.99), aromatic, spicy with brisk spritz, lightly honeyed with a nutty finish. Only the brave would contemplate paying more than £10 for a soave, but the 1998 Soave Classico Superiore Vigneti di Foscarino, £11.49, from Inama, is worth it. It's a classy dry Veneto white with a super-ripe, honeysuckle character rounded by a touch of oak spice.
With its native whites, Italy epitomises the fightback against chardonnay fatigue. It can still come up with competent, entry-level whites like the 2000 Inycon Chardonnay (£4.49 on promotion). But with so many native varieties to call on, it's strength is in the more interesting styles made from local grapes: arneis from Piemonte, pinot grigio from Friuli, verdicchio from the Marche, grechetto in Umbria's orvieto, and greco from the south. The 2000 Greco di Tufo Feudi di San Gregorio, £7.99, is a personal favourite, a rich southern white from the volcanic soils of Campania, which smells and tastes of fresh ripe pears in the company of a chunk of fresh parmesan.
If common-or-garden soave represents the downside of tradition in Italy's north-eastern Veneto region, the traditional amarone style of its alter ego, valpolicella, is undergoing a welcome revival. The corvina grape, its main constituent, is being recognised for the quality grape that it is when handled properly. Amarone, the traditional Veneto red made from corvina by spreading out the grapes to dry on racks in ventilated storehouses, has made such a comeback that 30 per cent of all Valpolicella Classico reds are produced in this style.
The amarone on the Unwins list, the 1996 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico, Rocca Sveva, £11.99, is made by the Soave co-operative, showing how keen producers, even outside the district, are to grab a slice of the action. It's a competent example, with the powerful alcohol and trademark raisined sweetness of concentrated dried grapes. Given that the traditional drying process is inevitably expensive, this is a good starting point for anyone prepared to give amarone a whirl. For the true epitome of the modern style, the sleek, damson-rich and smoky 1997 Amarone della Valpolicella Caterina Zardini, £22.99, Laithwaites, Reading (0870 444 8383) is one of the best around.
Unwins has come up with an array of reds every bit as interesting as the new white wine range. With exceptions, like the attractively smoky, cherryish Inycon Nero d'Avola from Sicily, £5.49, wines in the £6-£10 bracket tend to be better value because they have character.
Four cracking reds illustrate the point. There's the beefy, spicy 1998 Rubrato, £6.99 (promotional price £5.99), from the same Campania stable as the white Greco di Tufo. From the Marche on the Adriatic, the 1998 Bragnolo, £7.99, is an aromatic red with a violets and pepper-like character reminiscent of barolo. Tuscany's 1997 Morellino di Scansano Val Delle Rose Riserva, £8.99, is sumptuously herby with cherried fruit counterbalanced by a soft, savoury edge to the finish. The Tuscan Castello Vichiomaggio's Ripe delle Mandorle blends mainly sangiovese with a proportion of cabernet sauvignon for a well-oaked, chianti-like style.
Grand reds are up-and-down. I'd like to see a good barolo on the list and I find the 1997 Tignanello from Antinori overpriced at £40. If you wanted to recreate a River Café ambience in your own front room, go for the 1997 San Martino from Villa Caffagio, £18.99, a big, black cherry-like supertuscan blend of sangiovese with a touch of cabernet sauvignon and plenty of oak, or try the 1997 Chianti Classico Castello di Brolio, £25, as sleek and modern an example of the new Tuscany as you'll find.Reuse content