For all I knew, bellone, romanesca, bonvino, passerina and cacchione might have been different types of salami or five of Nigella's ways of doing things with pasta. As it turned out, they were five of the eight different grape varieties in a rather good frascati from Castel de Paolis offered by Italian wine importer Dalbir Singh. It was a reminder of my ambivalent feelings towards Italian wine. The diversity is mind-boggling and quality improving, and yet the prevailing image of frascati, not to mention soave, valpolicella, even chianti, as little better than bog-standard, remains as stubbornly hard to shift as Lady Macbeth's damned spot.
The Italian wine tastings are a highlight of the autumn season. The quality and choice in the ranges of dynamic Italian wholesalers like Singh's Mille Gusti (020-8997 3932) or Liberty Wines (020-7720 5350) belie what's available in the supermarket. The reason for this is that, like Roberto Cavalli's designer dresses, their best wines are achingly fashionable, quantities are depressingly limited and prices are high. The quality revolution that's swept through the likes of chianti, barolo and valpolicella at the estate level is taking its time to filter down to the high street.
In an article in Decanter magazine earlier this year showcasing 30 of Italy's best-value wines, exactly half of the wines were over £10. Many a New World country would be proudly displaying its top wines at this price level. All of which indicates that the gap between super-duper and supermarket is bigger in Italy's case than any other country because, ironically, Italian diversity makes it the least susceptible to familiar wine brands. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why the high street has found it difficult to make a case for a coherent Italian wine range. Or that's what I thought until I trotted along to the Safeway tasting last month. I was heartened to see that in between preparations for her wedding, Emma Bolger, the Italian buyer, has found time to completely revamp the Italian range.
Bolger has sourced many of her best-value wines from Italy's burgeoning south, with Puglia in particular becoming an increasingly good source of value-for-money, characterful wines. The vibrant 2001 Alto Varo Rosso di Puglia, with its international touch of cabernet and merlot, is a good buy at £3.99, as is the accomplished, smooth, berry-fruited 2000 Castel del Monte Rosso from Torrevento (£4.49), and, in its funky bottle with the silver spiral necklace, the raspberryish 2001 Diverso Zinfandel (£4.99). Two cracking, negroamaro-based reds at £4.99 under the stylish Magnolie label add further dimension: the cherryish, spicy 2001 Brindisi Rosso, and the quieter but pure 2001 Salice Salentino.
Best of the lot from Puglia is a vivid, full-flavoured red, the 2000 Primitivo del Tarantino, £5.99, whose damson-sweet bite makes it a red for all seasons and Italian food. From neighbouring Basilicata, the very modern Volcanica Aglianico, with its cherry-fruit sweetness and southern rusticity, is the shape of modern brands to come from the south. And the list is creeping north. The 2000 Chianti Classco Castellani is a complex red with plenty of savoury, dark cherry fruit and character, while, from Piemonte, where good barolo is as hard to find as a white truffle in a snowstorm, the 1999 Nebbiolo Langhe Araldica, for £6.99, offers a glimpse of barolo character with its aromatic violety perfume and juicy fruitiness. It just goes to show that even in Italy, the gap between value and quality can be bridged.
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