Food and Drink: Italy aims for another renaissance: After a long period of confusion, Italian reds are now coming back in force and, what's more, at affordable prices, says Anthony Rose

WHY IS IT that perfectly normal people who enjoy a glass of claret, beaujolais or Australian cabernet sauvignon tend to come over all undecided at the very mention of Italian wine? Could it be because they feel safer with French or new world wines on the dinner or restaurant table?

If so, it would be understandable. Even for confirmed Italophiles, the variety which can make Italian wines so exciting can also make them an infuriatingly hit-or- miss affair.

Prices tend to be either cheap, suggesting, often correctly, 'avoid this vino', or prohibitively expensive. Italy's topsy-turvy wine laws have put the best, new-wave wines on the same level as plonk-standard vino da tavola (table wine). With 20 different wine regions stretching from the Alps to the Mediterranean, each with its own native grape varieties, some with French classic grapes, Italian wines need a Pavarotti with a PhD in communications to make themselves heard and understood, even in a market as sophisticated as the UK.

The good news is that genuine efforts are at last being made to improve quality, address value and convey the versatility of Italian wine, particularly its reds. After a lengthy period of experimentation and flirting with international styles, Italian reds are coming back in force, and not necessarily at outrageous prices.

With a clearer idea of the taste and styles that consumers at home and abroad are looking for, the younger, most progressive winemakers have a much better grip on how to achieve this aim (and why they need to) than a previous generation fixated on old-style barolo and brunello di montalcino.

It may be through bringing out the intrinsic character of the native grape, adding a dash of cabernet sauvignon here perhaps, a leavening of oak there. It also has much to do with improved vineyard management, better control in the cellar and pride in the end product.

Prices, too, thanks to a better understanding of the competition, have started to look much more reasonable. The value- for-money middle ground, so effectively occupied by the new world, is now being addressed by the Italians.

At the same time, Italy is at last getting to grips with its outdated wine laws, which have brought the whole industry into disrepute. The long-term aim of the 'new' law 164 (passed in 1992) is to raise the classification of Italy's quality vineyards from the current 15 per cent to 50 per cent by 2000, and to demolish the illogical state of affairs which puts Italy's experimental new wave wines on the same legal footing as mere vino da tavola.

It creates a new pyramid based on quality and location, with vino da tavola at the bottom, then a new designation, indicazione geografica tipica (IGT), similar to France's vin de pays. Above IGT sits DOC (denominazione di origine controllata) and, at the apex, DOCG (same as before but with a garantita added). At current rates of progress, it may take years to filter through to the high street, but it should be possible, as in Burgundy for example, to reflect genuine diversity more precisely by defining smaller zones, estates and even specific vineyards such as Sassicaia, previously Italy's most illustrious vino da tavola.

From Italy's south, the old-fashioned, hard-baked reds are beginning to give way to some delicious wines made from the negroamaro grape, such as the lively, spicy, cherryish 1991 Sainsbury's Copertino Riserva, pounds 3.95, and the aromatic, angostura spiciness of the 1990 Salice Salentino Riserva from Taurino, pounds 4.59 Safeway, pounds 4.99 Thresher, Bottoms Up, Wine Rack. The 1986 Notarpanaro Taurino, Rosso del Salento, pounds 4.99, Majestic, is a compelling raisiny blend from Italy's heel. Equally aromatic, and with beautifully defined fruit, the 1990 Cappello di Prete, Vino da Tavola del Salento, Candido, pounds 5.29, Bottoms Up, is a southern star.

From higher up the Italian boot towards Rome, the 1993 Lazio Rosso, Casale San Giglio, pounds 3.29, Somerfield, is an appealing, fresh merlot and sangiovese blend, while Gaetana Carron's juicy, cherryish 1993 Riva Sangiovese di Romagna, is a snip in the modern mould at pounds 2.49 Asda, pounds 2.79 Oddbins.

There has been a noticeable taming of the rustic red wines made from the montepulciano grape in central Italy. The 1992 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, Barone Cornacchia, pounds 3.99, Majestic, is a pungently rustic, characterful rosso needing a plate of something Italian to be appreciated at its best, while Tesco's 1989 Villa Pigna Rosso Piceno, pounds 3.49, blends the sangiovese and montepulciano grapes to spicy, robust effect.

Tuscany seems to be putting better grapes - perhaps those once reserved for its super-Tuscans - into its more affordable reds. The 1991 Parrina, pounds 4.79, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up, for instance, is a distinctive red with a mint-and- pine fragrance. The supple, juicy 1992 Chianti Tesco Classico is excellent value at pounds 3.99, as is the attractively aromatic vibrant 1992 Safeway Chianti Classico, pounds 3.99. For a chianti of extra class, try the silky, concentrated 1990 Chianti Rufina Riserva, Castello di Nipozzano, Frescobaldi, pounds 5.99, Oddbins.

Still in Tuscany, the 1992 Col-di-Sasso, pounds 4.99, Majestic, is a smooth, highly effective blend of sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon. Nearer to Italy's cool northern Alpine regions, Australian winemaker Geoff Merrill has produced a crunchy, juicy 1993 Teroldego Rotaliano, pounds 3.95, Sainsbury's, from Trentino. And from the neighbouring Veneto region, the Santi Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon, Vino da Tavola delle Tre Venezie, pounds 3.75, Safeway, is a grassy, blackcurranty, bordeaux-style blend, as is the impressively packaged 1990 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon Fiordaliso, pounds 3.99, Thresher. Wines like these show that Italy can compete in the middle range. Let us hope it is catching.

Next week: affordable Italian whites.

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