Certainly in Piedmont, there has been a succession of great vintages, broken only by the minor blip that was the tumultuous 2002 vintage. In the UK we seem to be gaining an increasingly insatiable thirst for Italian wines. Its plethora of characterful, indigenous grape varieties and ever-growing quality make this one of the most compelling wine-growing countries in the world. Spearheading the attack is the Piedmontese Nebbiolo grape, in the guise of Barolo, Roero and Barbaresco. The variety is produced in small quantities and needs careful hand-tending. It has an aromatic subtlety and temperament similar to that of fine Burgundy, from where pioneering growers such as Elio Altare first drew their inspiration.
Thirty years ago, in the days when Dolcetto fetched higher prices than Nebbiolo, there care was only for quantity not quality. At a time when there were very few good winegrowers, Elio Altare was so driven by his passion for wine he even risked being ostracised by his family. He was joined by other pioneers such as Enrico Scavino and Roberto Voerzio who were subsequently termed “modernists.” They became better known for their technical extraction and fermentation methods as well as use of new oak and small barrels, than their vineyard practices. It is important to remember, though, they helped promote healthy and sustainable viticulture, stopped overcropping and improved hygiene in vineyards and wineries immeasurably.
Now there is more of a centre ground, modernists use less new oak and smaller barrels, traditionalists are more attentive, crop less and are cleaner. Producers should not be pigeon-holed the way they used to be. There is a wider array than ever before of top quality producers making terroir-orientated wines. We are thrilled to represent Altare, Marco Marengo, Luigi Oddero, Roberto Voerzio, Paolo Scavino, Azelia, Piero Busso, Castello di Verduno, Brovia, Fratelli Alessandria and Roagna in the UK, amongst many other domaines, making us one of the biggest importers of Barolo and Barbareso.
Further south, Montalcino continues to be the king of Tuscany. Poggio di Sotto and Le Ragnaie two of the region’s leading exponents of traditionally-made Sangiovese. Over in Chianti Classico, the artisan traditionalists Monteraponi are trying to drag the region out of the commercial doldrums with some vivid, character Chiantis from the region’s highest vineyards in Radda,
Perhaps the hottest and fast-growing area, commercially, is the Etna. Italian wine aficionado, Marco de Grazia, realised a hard-fought dream by successfully producing his first vintage from his own vines in 2002. Planted in the shadow of the towering Mount Etna, the long-forgotten Nerello Mascalese variety produces wines of an almost Burgundian charm and delicacy. Today these are proving to be some of Italy’s most sought after new wines whilst the region itself has started to attract major foreign investment.
Not to be outdone by the reds, Italian whites deserve a serious mention. Cutting through the swathe of bland, characterless, white Italian wine that has hitherto dominated the market, some really mouth-watering wines are being made by quality-conscious growers. In Veneto the Ginis make a Soave Classico exclusively from the high quality, low yielding Garganega variety, planted on the poor soils of the steep Classico hillsides. Whilst in Campania there grows some of the country’s most in demand white varieties Greco di Tufo, Fiano di Avellino and Falanghina. Rocca del Principe, La Sibilla and Quintodecimo Umbria, Giovanni Dubini's classy single vineyard wines from the Palazzone Estate, whose beautifully poised, mineral and polished examples of Orvieto are some of Europe’s most interesting and keenly priced white wines.
So much is made of Barolo and the other wines of Piedmont that sometimes the rest of Italy can be a little overlooked. There are truly exceptional wines to be found coming out of Tuscany, Umbria, Sicily and the Veneto as well as many other areas across the country.
Italy is famous for its multitude of indigenous grape varieties and their immeasurable blending combinations and capabilities. It is also home to well-known noble varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot but the jewel in the crown is undoubtedly the highly fashionable and much sought after Nebbiolo – this grape is responsible for Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero too.