Which wine country has the greatest capacity to confuse, irritate, reward, inspire and delight? Got it in one: Italy. It's not surprising for a country of 20 wine regions stretching from the Alps to the Mediterranean. Adding to the confusion, Wine Grapes (Allen Lane, £120) a scholarly new work co-authored by Jancis Robinson MW, tells us that Italy leads the world in the number of commercially produced native-grape varieties: 377 compared to France's 204 and Spain's 84.
The best place for Italophiles is an independent Italian-wine specialist. The list is long, but to mention just a handful, Lea & Sandeman and Vini Italian in London, Oeno from Gloucestershire, Bath's Great Western Wine, and both Raeburn and Valvona & Crolla in Edinburgh really know their cipolle. In contrast, high street and supermarket customers have often found Italy to be a graveyard, but summer-press tastings have revealed encouraging signs of vigour.
Marks & Spencer's new Italian range attempts to provide the sappy freshness that makes Italy's wines so appetising. Displaying the country's new thirst for intriguing dry whites, the 2012 Etna Bianco, £10.99, is a case in point: a richly concentrated yet bone-dry white that springs from Etna's volcanic soils. A counterpart is 2011 Etna Rosso, £9.99, which is bright and strawberryish, almost pinot noir, with a spicy cherry-like undertow.
Bright new reds include the 2010 Frappato, £7.99, a moreish, barbecue-friendly summery red with fragrance and summer-pudding bite, while, most intriguing of all, the new 2011 Lacrima di Morro d'Alba, £11.99, from the Marche near Ancona, displays a spice and rose-petal perfume with an infusion of scented fruit. It's equally intriguing to see the bad old chianti wicker flask on display. The retro fiasco is virtually a visual joke now, yet the liquid within the 2012 Chianti Flask, £9.99, turns out to be a genuine chianti of good quality with hints of herb, spice and cherry.
Chianti can be a minefield but it's pleasing to see so many good examples. Sainsbury's juicy red-berryish Winemaker's Selection Chianti Riserva, £6.99, is reasonable, while the superior 2009 Cecchi Sagrata Chianti Classico, £9.99, Waitrose, shows that acidic, textured richness and succulent sour-cherry fruit quality that you hope for in a chianti at under a tenner.
For an affordably juicy rosso for the summer, I doubt that you'll be disappointed by the Waitrose Rich and Intense Italian Red, £4.99. It's not a looker, but this southern Italian native-grape blend packs a punch of peppery and plum-spice fruitiness above its weight.
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