Tuscany gets some of its own back

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SOME of Italy's finest vineyards stretch down from Fabrizio Ferrucci's hilltop bar in Radda, a small town in the heart of Tuscany's Chianti hills.

From the bar, Mr Ferrucci runs a fast-growing wine trade, selling bottles of fine Tuscan and classic Chianti vintages to local residents for anything up to pounds 100.

For supplies of the finest wines, however, he looks not to the sun-baked hillsides that surround him but to Edinburgh. In the Scottish capital, the Valvona and Crolla delicatessen supplies Mr Ferrucci with Sassicaia - the pride of Tuscan wines - and with rare Chianti vintages.

'It may sound crazy, but it's good business for me,' says Mr Ferrucci. 'I have a 20-30 per cent mark-up on the prices that Valvona and Crolla charge me. Transport costs come out of that, but it still leaves a profit.'

Why Edinburgh? 'The producers of the very finest wines don't sell direct to people like us, and there are strings attached if I want to buy from the big Italian merchants. You don't get any of that with Valvona and Crolla. Firms in Milan have Sassicaia, but the last time I asked one for 60 bottles they were insisting that I take 30 cases of their house wine as well - the kind of stuff there's not much demand for here.'

Tastes in Radda have moved sharply upmarket since the region - home of a classic peasant cuisine as well as fine wines - became a playground for the Euro-rich. Traditional farmhouses are snapped up by foreigners - mainly Germans, Swiss and Britons - and by wealthy Italian politicians.

The phenomenon is one that explains Valvona and Crolla's rare success, according to Philip Contini, its managing director and wine-buyer. 'Until quite recently, Italian wine-making has been dominated by a peasant psychology,' he says. 'Once the wine is made, it's simply been a question of drinking it. With very few exceptions, there's been no tradition of laying wines down, as in Britain or France.

'We began business in 1934, buying Italian wines in bulk and bottling them. Now we've got reasonable stores of older Italian wines that we keep and release when they're ready to drink.

'The Sassicaia is particularly good,' says Mr Contini. Prices range from pounds 25 a bottle for an '89 to pounds 80 for an '85. 'The 1990 will be ready soon at pounds 47 a bottle.'

Mr Contini, however, is unable to interest Mr Ferrucci in a drop of scotch - thanks to the duty in Britain, whisky is much cheaper in Italy.