The country of choice for those in the know, and the producer of the best red wines on the planet. Bold statement? Maybe, but we can back it up. Firstly, there’s the grape varieties. Nobody knows exactly how many are indigenous to Italy, but it’s a lot- somewhere between 300- 1000. Then you have to remember that most of these grapes are only grown locally, not across the country, and certainly not on the other side of the world (there are always exception, but not many). What this means for wine lovers is that you find a mind-boggling array of grape varieties planted, from far up in the Italian Alps to the slopes of Sicilian volcanoes. But more importantly, and unlike the many great French varieties, they are not grown in Barossa or Napa, Marlborough or Mendoza, so you don’t get “New World” equivalents. You can find Cabernet Sauvignon from various winegrowing locations that could rival a good Bordeaux, but nothing comes close to a Nebbiolo from Piedmont, or Tuscan Sangiovese. So, most Italian wines are made from Italian grapes which you are unlikely to find grown anywhere else.
Then there’s the wines themselves. At their best, Italian reds are the most beautifully balanced of all wines, with the holy trinity of elements – tannin, acid and fruit – in perfect harmony. The tannin can seem quite forthright in some, the acidity can be very direct, but these are wines for the table, and it is the grip of the tannin and the cut of the acid that makes them such a pleasure to drink. You can appreciate the wines on their own, but you only really experience them fully with food. This doesn’t only apply to the top wines- all Italian reds drink well with food, but some really need it to show their true potential.
That is certainly true of Tuscany, the region most closely associated with Italian reds. Here, Sangiovese is king, and finds its best expressions in Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano and the majestic Brunello di Montalcino. Tannic and enticingly savoury, it combines red cherry fruit with dried herbs, tea, tobacco and leather.
Piedmont also has a fair claim to the crown, and in the two Nebbiolo wines of Barolo and Barbaresco it produces the most ethereal and expressive of all Italian wines. They often need a few years to temper the tannins and soften the edges, but they age magnificently and can last for decades. Gattinara produces some similarly structured but more approachable wines, and Valtellina up in the Alps is making some of our favourite Nebbiolo – smooth and seductive, with fine tannin, great freshness, floral and cherry notes, but with a softness and easy charm you wouldn’t normally associate with Nebbiolo.
Elsewhere, Sicily is charming everyone with Etna Rosso, like an Italian Pinot with a volcanic attitude, and the richly indulgent reds of Valpolicella Ripasso and Amarone are perfectly suited to the change in season. Exceptional value can be had all over, too. Barbera and Dolcetto play second (and third) fiddle to Nebbiolo but both make incredibly satisfying wines. Nero d’Avola and Negroamaro are no-brainers for warm, spicy and flavoursome reds at good prices, and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is the mid-week red you’ve always known you needed.
Italian white varieties are equally numerous, although you wouldn’t think it to look at the shelves in many big retailers, where one grape is so ubiquitous that is has push all others to the shade. That’s not to diss Pinot Grigio- the grape is capable of producing some very fine wines. But so much of what passes for it in supermarkets is so totally devoid of flavour and character that it is identifiable only by its blandness. The real shame is that nothing else gets a look in, because when it comes of characterful, flavoursome whites Italy has so much to offer. Soave is strikingly good, especially some of the single vineyard wines from top producers, and nearby Gambellara offers similar wines at even better value. Gavi di Gavi should be sought out by lovers of Chablis, who will appreciate its nervy disposition and subtle fruit. Further south, the trifecta of Greco, Fiano and Falanghina make some of Italy’s most interesting wines in Campania, while Grillo, Catarratto, Carricante, Inzolia and Zibbibo are doing wonders in Sicily. And that’s just the start. There are unique wines to be discovered in every valley and on every hillside in this remarkable country. A genuine treasure trove of vinous delights.