WHILE some wine producers content themselves with just one sturdy blockbuster red, Italy claims at least three. And that is without even considering chianti.
Perhaps we should not be surprised. Regional rivalry is such that few areas will easily cede predominance to another by abandoning their local hero. Equally, Italy does have more than its share of varied and substantial local dishes and needs robust wines to accompany them.
So, rather than quibble about the length of Italy’s list, let’s examine its content – starting with Barolo. Many consider that the corner of northwestern Italy between Genoa and Turin provides the finest expression of the very fickle Nebbiolo grape. Its early flowering and late ripening make a difficult variety to handle; so does its sensitivity to the soil in which it grows.
Get it right though and there is something magical about its powerful fragrances and the surprisingly high acidity it delivers – even if its tannins can take an eternity to work through. Modern winemaking techniques are, however, dealing with the tannin issue. Fermentation times are being reduced and barrel aging arrangements have altered too.
For example, although it has been matured in the classic, large oak casks, 2009 Fontanafredda Barolo (£21 at Sainsbury’s) has only been fermented for ten days rather than the traditional 15. Whatever the techniques, they seem to work. This wine bursts with powerful and rounded black cherry fruit with an attractive herbal background and good raspberry-centred acidity, but the tannin is reasonably soft.
Next let’s move east, to Lake Garda, to meet up with Amarone – pride of Valpolicella country. To create this titan of Italian winemaking, grapes are dried to reduce the water content and, thus, increase the intensity and richness of what remains. This is done off the vine and, traditionally, involved spells of up to three months on straw mats. Nowadays, special drying chambers are used.
To sample the finished product, seek out 2010 Villa Annaberta Amarone della Valpolicella (£17.99 at larger Co-op stores). It is a dense, black cherry-dominated wine with touches of spice and really lively acidity to underpin its bright fruit and nicely balanced tannin. This one uses a fairly typical blending profile of 70 per cent corvina grapes with 20 per cent rondinella and 10 per cent molinara. A word of warning though, I understand that the Co-op will move on to the 2011 vintage shortly.
Heading south to Tuscany, the Montalcino area was a late developer in commercial terms compared with the Chianti region on the opposite side of Siena. Until the 1980s, the powerful Brunello di Montalcino was almost a local secret. The grapes it uses are, by law, unblended sangiovese, but the unique local clone involved was originally called brunello; hence the name of the wine. Such is its intensity that this wine cannot be released for more than four years after the harvest.
Like most of these big and stylish wines, they are never cheap and 2009 Brunello di Montalcino Pinino is available from selected M&S stores at £36. It is, however, a superb, deep and intense special occasion wine with terrific cherry and walnut-influenced flavours. There is also a warm chocolate finish, but all that power is nicely counterbalanced by generous and lively acidity.
These last few weeks (I hope) of winter would be a great time to try at least one of these winemaking giants.
2012 Finest Domaine Aubermesnil Fitou
Languedoc, France, 12.5 per cent
This bright and fresh red is from the coastal part of this split appellation and adds a sizeable lump of carignan to the familiar grenache, syrah and mouvedre. Its main flavours are plum, cherry and clove with touches of herbs and pleasingly soft tannins.
£5.99 – instead of £7.99 until 17 February at Tesco
2013 Domaine Gadais Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie La Grande Cuvée
Loire Valley, France, 12 per cent
As good a Muscadet at this price as I have tasted for a while. The customary freshness and green apple flavours shine through, but there is also attractive grapefruit-centred acidity and that slightly briny finish that muscadet does so well.
£8 at M&S