Italian wines – so much more than a profusion of Prosecco and Pinot Grigio

22 Apr

You probably have to go to Italy to appreciate the fantastic variety of wines of high quality that never make it to mainstream quaffers on this side of the Channel.   Brits have picked up the Prosecco habit, but when it comes to still wine are too easily sidelined by poor Pinot Grigio, cheap Chianti and mediocre Montepulciano which undersell the considerable skill of Italy’s great wine-makers.

A trip to Florence and Venice last week brought this into sharp focus, as this particular Wine Wanderer was soon disabused of the knee-jerk response: “If this is Tuscany, it’s got to be a Brunello.”  In the cellars of the majestically monastic Villa San Michele, high above Florence, the lady sommelier explained that these days Brunello doesn’t exclusively refer to the fine, rich Sangiovese of Montalcino.    We were sipping a Merlot di Brunello, and what a very voluptous drop it was; merlot is currently the grape du jour among Tuscan’s more innovative wine-makers, I was told.

Merlot di Brunello was not the only great red wine I drank in Florence last week.   Lunch in the fabulous Loggia restaurant of the Villa San Michele, which sits five miles above the town in Fiesole, looking down on the Duomo, started with a fresh cabernet franc blend from the Tuscan coast, and dinner with a sumptuous pinot nero from Coldaia.   Who knew the Italians had grasped the difficult art of making not just stonkers like Barolo and super-Tuscans, but  elegant pinot noir?    Eventually we got to a Brunello di Montalcino from Frescobaldi, but great as it was, the merlot and pinot noir-sorry, nero – were equally sumptous.   But nobody should leave Tuscany without trying one good Brunello di Montalcino, because wine of this quality costs an arm and a leg in Britain.

A word here about whites, which understandably get overlooked in Tuscany, with so much bistecca and red to drink with it.  The Tuscans also make Vernaccia, a grape which has travelled as far as M&S without managing to impress me.   But the Loggia serves a fabulous Vernaccia Panizzi Riserva 2008 made in San Gimignano – the secret, I suspect, is in that bottle age; utterly fabulous.

Moving on to Venice brought more surprises from another lady sommelier, this time at the Cipriani; the sommelier’s art is one an increasing number of women are endowing with a special empathy.   Loved the Schiopetto from neighbouring Friuli served at Cip’s restaurant on the banks of la Giudecca, full of personality and a lot richer than many of the vapid whites of the Veneto proper.   Even better discoveries followed at Orto dei Mori next day, a great little osteria on a backwater in Cannaregio where the proprietor really knows his wines.   We had two great whites with a long seafood lunch – Ribolla Gialla from Casella, another rich Friuli, and a Gramine 2009 from Longariva in the Dolomites,  aromatic and almost pink in intensity of gold, “with a touch of frivolity” according to our host, Giulio Gentile of Orient Express Hotels, who makes wine himself on his estate in Tuscany.

So glad I managed to avoid Prosecco and Pinot Grigio for four days – not my bag, however good.  And having gone on to taste some top drops in Croatia, I’m thinking it must be the Adriatic influencing such great wines from the north of Italy and neighbouring Istria.   Watch this space…

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