As the prices of classic Italian reds soar, now is the time to check out the Southern Italian rossos

Sunday lunch wouldn't be Sunday lunch without a good chianti, according to Sainsbury's chief executive, Dino Adriano. In his October open letter to customers, mind you, Mr Adriano claims that low prices are important to those that shop at Sainsbury's. So will he be swopping his chianti for his own company's juicy 1998 Alloro Primitivo at a reasonable £4.99? As prices of chianti, barolo and other classic Italian reds soar, now is the time for us all, even Mr Adriano, to set our sights on Italy's more affordable south.

Sunday lunch wouldn't be Sunday lunch without a good chianti, according to Sainsbury's chief executive, Dino Adriano. In his October open letter to customers, mind you, Mr Adriano claims that low prices are important to those that shop at Sainsbury's. So will he be swopping his chianti for his own company's juicy 1998 Alloro Primitivo at a reasonable £4.99? As prices of chianti, barolo and other classic Italian reds soar, now is the time for us all, even Mr Adriano, to set our sights on Italy's more affordable south.

Like the South of France, Southern Italy has traditionally been a huge producer of rot-gut rosso. Puglia and Sicily alone account for at least three times the entire production of Australia. Most of it either turns up in something with a grander label or is siphoned direct from bulk container to human body. But the last decade has seen islands of quality gradually emerging like mini-Etnas and Strombolis from this vast sea of plonk. These are not grand wines. They're unpretentious reds with distinctive flavours capable of matching classic Italian dishes as well as some of the spicier flavours of fusion food.

Potential is a word often mentioned in the same breath as Italy's Mezzogiorno (which like Southern France's Midi refers to the heat of the midday sun). As often as not, it's used to damn with faint praise. And yet, in the face of the New World's obsession with premium French vines, this former stamping ground of the Greeks really does contain a wealth of diversity in its indigenous vines with their unique and distinctive flavours, in particular, Puglia's primitivo and negroamaro and Sicily's nero d'avola.

Some but not all of the recent improvements in quality are due to outsiders, like Australian winemakers Kym Milne and Peter Bright. Using a combination of local and international grape varieties, along with other components of the modern style - grape selection, softer tannins, lower acidity and the use of oak - they have done much to make Southern Italy approachable. Kym Milne's Trulli Primitivo (£4.49, Somerfield), for instance, is a pleasingly good-value rosso, while the 1998 Nero d'Avola Syrah, Firriato (£3.95, Waitrose), neatly blends Sicily's nero d'avola with a touch of syrah to create a spicy blend with a sweetly ripe, plum-jam core of fruit.

Overseas intervention is not in itself a panacea. The downside is the appearance of wines hyped as new wave, but which actually suffer from overextraction and badly handled oak. With attention to yields and quality, there's no good reason why Italian winemakers themselves shouldn't be making excellent wines. The likes of Salice Salentino, Brindisi Rosso and Primitivo di Manduria are doing precisely that. For easy-drinking primitivo, the 1997 Merum Primitivo, (£4.49, Waitrose, Fuller's), in similar vein to the Allora Primitivo, is a delicate, spicy pasta-basher from the Salento peninsula, with a cherry-stone and sweet plum quality and a mouthwatering nip of acidity.

From their father's négociant business in Manduria, Fabrizio and Alessia Perrucci have carved out their own much smaller, quality-orientated winery, Pervini, making excellent reds from primitivo and negroamaro. Pervini's 1997 Archidamo Re di Sparta Primitivo di Manduria (£6.99, Booths supermarkets, Lancs and Yorks, 01772 251701; Peckhams, Glasgow and Edinburgh, 0141-445 4555), has a sweet, spicy nutmeg and candied-peel bouquet with deliciously concentrated, super-plummy fruit and backbone. The 1997 Bizantino Salento Rosso (£5.99, D Byrne & Co, Clitheroe, 01200 423152; Wines of Interest, Ipswich, 014743 406611), made from the negroamaro, is deliciously ripe with smooth-textured black-cherry flavours.

Perhaps the best-known name in the South is that of Severino Garofano, the experienced winemaker who put Copertino on the map and consults with a number of committed winemakers, notably the sisters Vittoria and Maria Teresa, who run Vallone estate in the baroque city of Lecce. Vallone's 1995 Brindisi Rosso Vigna Flaminio (£5.99, Booths, Peckhams), is gracefully mature with a tobacco spice bouquet reflecting its age, and succulent, yet robust, fruit made from a blend of three local varieties, negroamaro, montepulciano and malvasia nera. The 1996 Vallone Salice Salentino, too (£4.99, Thresher), is full of sweet, ripe mulberry fruit from the negroamaro grape and a pleasure to drink.

To finish on a Sicilian note, my current favourite red is the stylish 1997 Passomaggio (£8.50, Lea & Sandeman, 0171-244 0522), a perfumed, exquisitely crafted blend of the local nero d'avola with a touch of merlot, matured in large oak casks to enhance the opulent, mulberry-ripe fruit flavours. Hopefully, the North-South Italian divide will keep wines like this, and many more, flowing in our direction.

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