When we think of Italian wine, we have established regions in mind – Valpolicella, Soave or Sicily if we are stood in front of a supermarket shelf, Barolo, Montalcino or Montepulciano, perhaps, if we are talking to a specialist wine merchant. In these contexts it is inevitably the regions which produce high volume at low cost or the really famous regions – Piedmont and Tuscany – which are going to be to the fore. But Italy is a country of 20 regions, all of which produce wine at various quality levels. For example, among the less well known, Emilia-Romagna produces huge amounts of acceptable table wine, while Friuli has a highly specialised top quality production, most of which is consumed in Italy.
It was a credit therefore that the Real Italian Wine Tasting in London in October 2011 focused on the less well known southern regions. You would have searched a long time for a bottle from Tuscany or Piedmont – because there weren’t any. But if you wanted to discover the wines of the south – Sardinia, Sicily, Puglia, Abruzzo, the Marches – this was the perfect tasting. The Sardinian authorities had clearly made a big contribution to this day as there lots of Sardinian tables, with the island’s great range of reds, whites and sweet wines well represented. For the other regions, it was a bit more hit and miss, but with still plenty to explore. In the somewhat incongruous setting of the Church of England’s General Synod chamber, this was a broad church indeed.
The tasting was the real Italy in another sense too – these were mainly the wines of the ordinary small if quality-minded producer. There are of course industrial scale wineries in Italy and there world-famous producers creating great wines. But both of these groups are hugely outnumbered by small, family owned wineries, people with 10-15 hectares, making a living by selling wine locally, regionally, and then sometimes in other Italian regions and of course for export. Apart from earning a living, these producers are in the business to enhance the name of their village and region: they believe passionately in the local but they want the world to know about it. It’s a great driver for improvement – and it makes it worth it to spend €1000+ on a day out in London to bring your name to an important foreign market.
And the wines? I will pick just a few. Marramiero was the single producer from Abruzzo, rather surprisingly given that this region is a great source of inexpensive, mainly red, wine. By contrast, this winery produces reds, whites and uniquely they tell me, the only source of bottle-fermented sparkling wine in Abruzzo. The classic white grape of the area is Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, thought not to be a relative of its dull Tuscan cousin but in fact Bombino Bianco, typical of the northerly part of adjoining and more southerly Puglia. The standard, unoaked version (Anima 2010) had a beautiful citrus and apple palate. But the star wine for me was Altare 2008, the oaked Trebbiano d’Abruzzo – a pretty deep gold in colour (see above), honeyed and herbal on the nose, then an attractive full palate, with a slightly bitter finish. A complex wine which pulled off the ‘fermented and aged in barrique’ trick with aplomb. What with Anima and Altare, this company will have felt at home in Church House!
In the toe of Italy the region of Calabria is more famous for its beaches and, sadly, its version of the Mafia, than for quality wine. Cirò is a name that Italian wine buffs may have heard of – looking across the Gulf of Taranto to Puglia – but that’s about it. On the opposite side of the region, facing Sicily, Statti have a large concern with a 100 hectares under vines and a mission to promote their local grape varieties. The most recent initiative is a top wine made from the Gaglioppo variety and launched last May under the name of Batasarro, 2998, IGT Calabria – but it seems that it is so new it has not made the company’s own website yet! The oak ageing here has been sensitively done, with 50% of the wine aged in traditional large barrels and 50% in second and third use barriques. The result is fine racy fruit in the raspberry to ripe plum range, subtle oak effects, with very good depth of flavour and length. If there were more wines of this calibre, we would hear much more about Italy’s most southerly mainland region. But that is the joy of real Italy – there is just so much to discover.