If our image of Italy is being shaped by disturbing current events, let's concentrate instead on something that the country has always done well – producing great wines.
In a country which isn't that large in area, the volume, range and quality of the wines it produces has always been impressive. Indeed, it remains the world's largest wine producer with just over 700,000 hectares under vineyard cultivation – greater than France or Spain.
From Piedmont in the north-west to Friuli and Veneto in the north-east through to Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Puglia and the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, you'll find a contrasting array of different, high-quality wines that reflect its differing terroirs and traditions.
We can only give you a sample of what is available here, but that's impressive enough. It concentrates on still wines, red and white and puts the spotlight on an ancient wine trend that is gaining in popularity – appassimento.
Harvested grapes are dried during the winter months so that they become rich and concentrated in sugar and flavour. They are then added to red wines to produce wines of striking richness and quality. Similar methods are used to produce ripasso wine.
But we haven't forgotten Italy's other signature red wines, including barolo, chianti, valpolicella and the country's attractive and bright white wines such as the enormously popular pinot grigio and the lesser known but equally beguiling vermentino.
They all go to show that Italy deserves its place at the top of the wine production league.
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Cantina Sorres pensamentu cannonau 2016, 15%, 75cl
Sardinia goes its own independent way when it comes to winemaking, so for something a little different try this cannonau (their word for grenache) from the north-west of the island with its cherry and red fruit flavours and herb and spice notes. It’s claimed on the label that it’s a “harmonious” wine that can “comfort every pain” which is a roundabout way of saying that you’ll feel better after a glass or two. Needless to say it’s a great accompaniment to any meat or pasta dish.
Le Argille cabernet di cabernet 2015, 15%, 75cl
Don’t believe that Italian wines are that different? Well here’s concrete evidence that they are. This tantalising blend of 50 per cent cabernet sauvignon and 50 per cent cabernet franc from Treviso in north-west Italy is aged in concrete barrels – hence the concrete covered bottle, complete with leather label. Providing you’re strong enough to lift the bottle and pour, you’ll discover a rich and complex red wine with layer upon layer of dark and red fruit flavours with hints of cocoa and vanilla. It comes nicely packaged in a presentation box, too.
Allegrini amarone della valpolicella classico DOC 2015, 15.5%, 75cl
Big money for a big wine. Amarone is an “apassimento” wine. That means the grapes are picked, then dried indoors over the winter until they are almost raisins. The result is a highly concentrated, sweet and sticky must (the skins, seeds, and stems of the fruit) that can be made into a great dessert wine. But here it’s fermented further to produce a powerful and dry red bursting with huge aromatic cherry and raisin aromas, structured tannins and a long finish. You can drink it now but it will keep for many years yet. And be warned, with an ABV of 15.5 per cent, a little goes a long way.
Bottega vinai pinot grigio 2018 13%, 75cl
Pinot grigio tends to get something of a bad press just because it’s so popular and not too costly. And while all those less expensive pinot grigios are good enough, spend a little more and you’ll discover just how good this Italian staple can be. This one from medium to low-yielding vines in the mountainous Trentino region is chock full of apple and grapefruit flavours with floral and herb notes and a pleasurable citrusy acidity. A hugely impressive aperitif it also goes well with antipasti or other light Italian dishes.
Berry Bros. & Rudd Chianti classico 2017, 14%, 75cl
Gone are the days when Chianti used to come in bulbous straw-covered bottles that enterprising householders used to turn into lamps. Now it’s more about the taste. This Berry Bros and Rudd’s own selection chianti comes from the Stucchi Prinetti family of Badia a Coltibuono in the heart of the Chianti region. Made from sangiovese grapes it’s strong on cherry and red fruit flavours with elegant tannins.
Adnams Roero arneis DOCG 2018, 13%, 75cl
A fresh and bright white wine made in Piedmont’s Roero hills from the local arneis grape. Winemakers Luisella and Gian Paolo use eco-friendly and sustainable viticultural methods and the end result is a vibrant wine with a barrage of fruit shop flavours – melon, apricots, lime and apple – combined with a spirited minerality. Enjoy it as an aperitif or with light salads or pasta dishes.
Negrar Il viaggio appassimento 2018, 14%, 75cl
From the Veneto region, this is another appassimento red wine, with partially dried grapes being used to bring the powerful and rich flavours of ripe dark cherries and dried fruit to the fore. At this price it’s a cheaper and welcome alternative to the more pricey Amarone and should go down a storm with a scrumptious beef casserole. Commended by the International Wine Challenge, it also gets a whopping, 97 per cent approval rating from satisfied Majestic customers.
Nittardi Ben IGT Toscana vermentino 2018, 13%, 75ml
It may seem strange buying a wine called Ben (slightly better than Dave, though) but winemakers Nittardi say it’s always bestowed upon the youngest and most beloved son. And this golden-hued white made from 100 per cent vermentino grapes is the Maremma winery’s latest offspring. Young, fresh and vibrant, it brings the taste of a Tuscan autumn to the table, with heady and pervasive citrus and orchard flavours along with a crisp minerality.
Menegola Sforzato Di Valtellina 2011, 15%, 75ml
We’re back in partially-dried grape territory here with another classic Italian red from the alpine village of Castione Andevenno close to the Swiss border in Lombardy. Made from 100 per cent nebbiolo grapes, sforzato (Italian for “strained”) wines are made after the picked grapes have been dried on straw mats for several months. This concentrates the flavour and the alcohol (thus the 15 per cent abv) and results in wines such as this with intense and almost overwhelming notes of plum and dark fruit with hints of licorice and dark chocolate. Smooth tannins and a long finish make it a wine to remember.
La Lus albarossa villa Banfi Piemonte 2016, 13.5%
The albarossa grape is one of life’s happy mistakes. It was created in 1938 as a cross between the barbera grape and the nebbiolo, except that it was later learnt that it wasn’t nebbiolo after all but a very old French wine grape variety called chatus. Still the resulting grape – and the wine made from it – has proved to be a jammy and fruitful addition to the red wine ranks. This example from Piedmont has cherry and red fruit flavours and a pleasant oaky feel with soft tannins. Enjoy it with a hearty pasta dish or roast lamb.
Valpolicella superiore ripasso Cecilia Beretta 2017, 13.5%, 75cl
You may be familiar with the Italian favourite valpolicella. Well, this is the GT version with added oomph, courtesy of our old friend, the semi-dried grape. The dried skins left after making amarone (see above) are passed on to provide a secondary fermentation for the slightly more humble valpolicella, giving it an intense and structured fruitiness. Oodles of black cherry and dried plum flavours along with a welcome savoury note make it the go-to wine to accompany any meaty pasta dish or ripe Italian cheese.
Musso Langhe nebbiolo 2018, 15%, 75cl
A so-called “baby barolo” made just outside the barolo appellation zone and sharing the same characteristics as the top red wines from that famous region but, happily, not the same hefty price. Made from nebbiolo grapes grown in the limestone and clay terroir of Barbaresco and aged in oak barrels, it offers a potpourri of raspberry, red fruit and red jam flavours with notes of pepper and spice and a long finish. Enjoy it with a plate of pasta or any grilled or roasted red meat dish.
Terre Di Guimara frappato nerello mascalese terre Siciliane, 13.5%
A light red wine from the Trapani province on the western tip of Sicily where they’ve been making and enjoying wine since Roman times. A blend of the island’s indigenous frappato and nerello mascalese grapes it offers a rich bouquet of hedgerow and bramble flavours with spice notes and a pleasant acidity. Pair it with pasta or lamb and beef dishes.
Il Passo Aglianico del vulture Alberi in Piano 2013, 14%. 75cl
It’s not often you get vulture and piano in the same sentence, let alone on the same wine label. But this full-bodied red wine from the slopes of Monte Vulture near the city of Potenza in southern Italy has it all. Ruby red in colour it’s made from the local aglianico grapes which are among the last in Italy to be harvested (around the end of October). It bursts on the palate with a splash of red fruit and bramble flavours and hints of spice and vanilla. Eighteen months spent in French oak give it the strength to partner rich meat dishes and any sauce you care to throw at it.
The verdict: Italian wines
The best buy comes from Sardinia. The Cantina Sorres Pensamentu Cannonau is everything a good red wine should be. Full to the brim with cherry and bramble flavours, smooth tannins and a long finish. Just add a good pasta dish for a marriage made in heaven.
Everyone has their own Italian favourites, whether it's a crisp and dry pinot grigio from Bottega Vinai or a smooth and succulent chianti such as Berry Bros. & Rudd's Chianti Classico. But why not experiment with a refreshing white like Adnams Roero Arneis or the fruity red La Lus Albarossa Villa Banfi Piemonte. If you fancy following the appassimento trail you can start with Majestic's Negrar Il Viaggio or the Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso Cecilia Beretta from Corney & Barrow.
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