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Italy has always been a wine-producing country, but it is only in the last 40 years or so that they have gained the recognition they deserve worldwide. Classification of wines didn’t begin in Italy until the 60’s. Grapes are grown all over Italy and each region grows its own varieties to make its own unique wine – in fact, in rural areas each family makes its own and, like food, everyone claims to have made the best!
The wines that are most known outside of Italy and exported worldwide tend to come from Tuscany and the northern regions. Without a doubt they are excellent wines from age-old producers – who has not heard of Chianti from Tuscany, Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige or Soave from Veneto? Excellent as they are, and present on every menu in Italian restaurants abroad, these are the Italian wines that immediately spring to mind. It is said that there are over 2,000 grape varieties in Italy and at least 350 official wine varieties. With such a choice, it is worth exploring a little further into the fascinating world of Italian wines.
Let’s start with everyone’s favourite region – Tuscany – with its beautiful, evocative, picture postcard landscape. Tuscany produces some of Italy’s finest red wines thanks to its hilly soils and climate which makes it excellent for growing grapes. I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity of visiting vineyards there like Petrolo, who produce the award-winning Torrione and Galatrona. Located in the heart of the Chianti countryside is Tenuta Fontodi, producers of Flaccianello delle Pieve, described by suppliers as being "simply one of Italy’s and the world’s greatest wines." I must admit it is amazing and my Christmas table just wouldn’t be the same without a bottle or two. Other famous names in the "Super Tuscan" elite list to look out for are Brunello di Montalcino, Sassicaia, Solaia and Ornellaia which command very high prices. Tuscany also produces a sweet dessert wine known as Vin Santo, traditionally enjoyed by dipping Cantucci biscuits.
The region of Piemonte with its nebbiolo grape produces another range of elite wines like Barolo, Barbera d’Asti and Barbaresco. The famous white wine of this region, and one of my wife Liz’s favourites, is Gavi di Gavi with its crisp, aromatic and floral quality, a perfect accompaniment to risotto and fish dishes. One of the most famous wines, however, from this region, and for years exported all over the world, is Asti Spumante. In recent years, though, this somewhat looked down upon, with sweet sparkling wine being overtaken in popularity by Veneto’s Prosecco. For me, Prosecco is a winner, a much pleasanter taste then the sometimes over-rated champagne and kinder to the purse! It makes a perfect aperitif or celebration drink to suite any occasion and is widely obtainable. However, look out for the Valdobbiadene di Conegliano or Valdobbiadene Superiore to ensure a good quality Prosecco.
Veneto is also home to Valpolicella, the popular light-bodied and easy to drink red, as well as the more robust and more expensive Amarone. The balmy southern shores of Lake Garda produce a wonderfully dry, fresh white called Lugana and is one of the few whites which is able to age well.
Moving further south there are plenty of good wines and I am pleased to see that gradually they are becoming available abroad. In my region of Campania, wines such as Greco di Tufo, Falanghina and Fiano di Avellino are excellent examples of light, crisp, aromatic whites which can be drunk at any time. Probably the most famous wine is Lacryma Christi, however, when choosing a red from this region, I would definitely opt for Aglianico. This rich, full-bodied red, from age-old vines in the Campania and Basilicata regions is finally having a well-deserved revival thanks to a young generation of producers - look out for Feudi di San Gregorio or Aglianico del Vulture. Often compared to Barolo, it is the perfect accompaniment to hearty meat dishes.
For a long time, Puglia would make wine to send to northern Italy and France for vermouth making. However, I am pleased to see that this region is now making its own excellent wines and exporting them. My favourite Puglian wine is a full-bodied red called Rocca.
The islands, too, have age-old histories of wine making. Sicily’s hot dry climate and sweet grapes makes it ideal for dessert wine – the popular Marsala, but also Passito di Pantelleria and Malvasia di Lipari. For whites look out for Trebbiano and Zibbibo and for a superior red, Cerasuolo di Vittoria. In Sardegna a light, crisp white Vermentino or Cannonau for red.
When I return to Italy, and visit friends and family, we usually drink the homemade stuff which I just love and if possible bring home a bottle or two! In off-the-beaten-track trattorie and agriturismi, there is no wine list and you are simply offered a jug of their own homemade red, which is usually very good and highly drinkable with whatever food you eat.
I often make my own wine and have vines in both my London and Norfolk homes. I make it the old fashioned way and get my girls to tread the grapes. The white variety in London doesn’t always come out as it should depending on what summer weather we have had. With the red in Norfolk, I am really most impressed – this year’s hint of cherries really hits the nose. So you never know, look out for Cantina Gennaro! In the worst case scenario I’ll have lots of delicious, pungent vinegar!