With not a Ferrero Rocher in sight, the Italian Embassy was the suitably posh setting for two of Italy's greatest winemakers to parade their icon wines. Angelo Gaja introduced his great Barbaresco from Piemonte and the Marquese Nicolò Incisa della Rochetta showed off his Tuscan thoroughbred, Sassicaia. Although the occasion was ostensibly a shop window for Vinitaly, the annual Italian wine fair in Verona, it gave the ambassador himself a chance to reproach, albeit diplomatically, the British public for their "deeply rooted conviction that high quality is French", and to tell us that his mission is "to convince a sophisticated market that Italian wines can successfully compete with top quality French".
The main attraction was the charismatic Mr Gaja. Pointing out that Italy has over 1,500 grape varieties, of which 350 are in commercial production, Gaja drew the distinction between "original" and "commercial" wines. "Original wines," he said, "are wines that are capable of surprising you. It might be because they're made from an unusual grape, or the wine has the special taste of where it's grown or from a special production technique like biodynamic viticulture. It's necessarily limited in quantity, whereas a commercial wine is something produced in volume, easily available, often good value, more made in the cellar and marketed ... there's room for both."
Behind the stark black and white picture was an important sub-text: that the Great British Public should pay less attention to the New World. Why? Because the Italian wine renaissance has given us a wealth of choice and improved quality. All very well for him to talk, some might say, because his own 2001 Gaja Barbaresco, is indeed sublime, as well it should be at £752 a case (from John Armit, www.armit.co.uk). But Gaja looked less at ease when reminded of the realities of Italian wine in the UK. The average Italian bottle price of £3.38 is well below the UK average of £3.79. Its 3 per cent increase in sales isn't keeping up with the 5 per cent average. Its sales of own-label wines in supermarkets is double the average. And can anyone think of an Italian wine brand?
Gaja had to admit that Italian wine has rather defected to the US, Germany and Russia and the trade could do more in a difficult market to sell range and quality in the UK. "But Italian cuisine has done a lot for us," he said. At the same event, a stubble-chinned Giorgio Locatelli told me enthusiastically that his customers were paying three times as much for Italian wines today as they did three years ago. Later that day, I ate out at the new London wine bar-cum-restaurant Vinoteca, by Smithfield Market, run by Charlie Young and Elvis Costello-lookalike Brett Woonton. In the smoke-free atmosphere, a mix of city boys and romantic couples were enjoying the range of 24 food-friendly wines by the (Riedel) glass, accompanied by well-judged, reasonably priced, modern European food.
It was evident that customers had come to enjoy their food and wines, a good proportion of which were Italian, over lively conversation, and it reminded me of the successful formula, albeit in hotel form, of the Hotel du Vin chain. Returning to the ambassador's remarks, I couldn't help thinking that Italy's problem is not so much convincing the UK public of the virtues of fine Italian wine, but rather making available a greater range in that expanding area of quality wines that don't cost an arm and a leg. If Italian wine is to find a way out of the spiral of decline engendered by cheap soave and lambrusco, clearly much more effort needs to be deployed to showcase the genuine quality and variety Italian wine has to offer.Reuse content