The designation 'classico', for instance, is worth looking out for because it means the heart of the wine region. So a valpolicella or verdicchio classico should (repeat should) be a step up in quality from the straight generic designation. For chianti, classico and rufina are the two best zones. It is also true to say that the Famous Four - valpolicella, soave, frascati and lambrusco - are less likely to be good than some of the less well-known Italian names. There is no substitute, however, for mugging up on the good producers in each region.
It remains a truism to say that you get what you pay for. Where there are two of a kind on a restaurant list, the more expensive of the two is likely to prove the more satisfactory. An exception, however, is chianti, which is more likely to throw up some wines of good value, particularly those from the co-operatives of Grevapese and Geografico.
Italian wine under pounds 3 a bottle is more of a lottery than the French equivalent. As yet, Italy does not have the strength in depth of France's value-for-money vins de pays and Midi wines. So be extra circumspect. The best values in Italian wine fall increasingly in the pounds 3- pounds 5 range and above.
Italy's equivalent of the appellation controllee system, the DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), is in a mess. The farther north, the better it works; but as you head south to Tuscany, Italy's quality producers turn the DOC system on its head by calling their experimental wines - including some of their best - vino da tavola.
The aim of the so-called Goria law is to create order from the current anarchy, bringing the vino da tavola outlaws back into the fold. Whether it succeeds will depend on how quality-conscious the producers are.
I teamed up with a master of wine, David Gleave of Winecellars, a company that specialises in Italian wine, Paul Merritt, an Italian wine importer, and Susy Atkins, deputy editor of Wine magazine, to produce a 'Best of Italy' case. With the aim of conveying the country's diversity, as well as suggesting some good wines, we tasted blind some 30 bottles selected to appeal to the most Italophobic palates without alienating the Italophiles.
We looked for wines in the medium price range - some typical, others less so - that we felt were capable of competing in terms of quality with those from any other country in the world. We also tried to choose wines that would encourage the doubters to give Italy a try.
THE BEST OF ITALY FOR LESS THAN pounds 7
1 Chardonnay, Buchholz 1991, DOC, Lageder, pounds 4.99, Oddbin's. French grape, German vineyard name, Tyrolean producer. Italian wine from the Alto Adige in the South Tyrol. Confused? You will not be when you taste what is the most undemanding of wines, a stylish chardonnay with the refreshingly clean, apple fruitiness of the cool Alpine north, with just a touch of new oak spice.
2 Lugana San Benedetto 1991, DOC, Zenato, pounds 4.85, Sainsbury's. From the southern shores of Lake Garda, Lugana is made from the superior trebbiano di lugana grape. This is what soave ought to be: a deliciously soft, full-bodied dry white, distinctively north Italian in flavour, with a touch of spice and exuberant fruitiness.
3 Bianco 1991, Avignonesi, vino da tavola, pounds 6.99, Arthur Rackham shops; Reid Wines, Bristol (0761 452645). From one of Tuscany's top producers of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, this ultra-modern blend of sauvignon and chardonnay may offend purists with its sleekly oaky international style. But it perfectly integrates the fresh, aromatic qualities of sauvignon with the buttery richness of chardonnay.
4 Casal di Serra 1991, Verdicchio Classico, DOC, Umani Ronchi, pounds 5.45-pounds 5.49, Sainsbury's vintage selection, Oddbins. With the gimmicky amphora-shaped bottle on the wane, verdicchio, the famous dry white that comes from the Marches region of central Italy, is concentrating increasingly on content. This deliciously scented example in the burgundy bottle is honeyed, richly fruity and thoroughly seductive.
5 Merlot Lageder 1991, pounds 4.99, Oddbins. The merlot grape, long-established in the North-east of Italy, is more of a newcomer to the Alto Adige. In Lageder's hands it produces a youthful purple, fresh, softly textured, cherryish red wine with the slightly stalky, berry flavour of young merlot.
6 Teroldego Rotaliano 1990, DOC, Gaierhof, pounds 4.25, Waitrose. The teroldego grape, grown only on the Campo Rotaliano, is a native of the Trentino region that lies south of Alto Adige. The cool sub-Alpine northern climate gives this wine a perfumed character and an outstandingly juicy, berry fruitiness that can hardly fail to win friends.
7 1990 Chianti Rufina, DOC, Grati, pounds 3.99, Winecellars, London SW18 (081-871 2668) and Thresher/Wine Shops/Bottoms Up/ Wine Rack. The year 1990 was an annus mirabilis in Tuscany, so expect to see some superb chiantis. This example from the Rufina estate of Grati, although still slightly youthfully raw, is beginning to open out on the nose and exhibit the ripeness of the vintage and the typical bitter-fresh, cherry stone fruit of the sangiovese grape. Decant for an hour or so, and the fruit will soften.
8 Sainsbury's Chianti Classico 1989, DOC, Ricasoli, pounds 4.25. Barone Ricasoli started the chianti ball rolling in the 1860s with a classic blend of sangiovese plus a bit of canaiolo, malvasia and trebbiano. From an earlier maturing vintage than the fine 1988 and 1990, this is a typically soft, easy-drinking, strawberry-fruit style, tinged with spice.
9 Val di Suga, Rosso di Montalcino, 1989, DOC, pounds 4.95, Asda. From the southern Tuscan hilltop town of Montalcino, this is Brunello's younger brother, spending less time in cask to bring out the fresh fruit character of the sangiovese grosso, or prugnolo as it is known in this part of the Tuscan hills. It is a pleasantly aromatic, affordable rosso, ripe and soft with distinctive fruit and character on the palate.
10 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, Colli del Moro 1990, DOC, Santangelo, pounds 4.99, Majestic Wine Warehouses. A sign of the times, perhaps, but this was the only wine tasted that came in a sexy designer bottle. Not to be confused with Montepulciano the village, this Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is from the Abruzzi on the Adriatic. This deep-coloured wine is fresh, with a delicious plum-fruit, full-bodied richness.
11 Salice Salentino 1998, Candido, pounds 4.49, Winecellars. Coming from the stiletto heel of Italy in southern Puglia, this wine, based on the negro amaro grape, is one of the country's best-value reds. The aromas of the 1988 vintage are extremely fresh, the palate richly concentrated, cherry-plum fruit spiced with oak. Definitely a wine of character.
12 Salice Salentino 1986, DOC, Taurino, pounds 4.99, Safeway. This more mature negro amaro/malvasia nera blend, from the Notarpanaro estate of Dr Cosimo Taurino, provides the contrast of a more traditional style of wine with a sweetly ripe, old-fashioned spicy, raisined character. And it is no less delicious or concentrated in fruit flavour for all that.
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