Monday, 14 April 2008


Bordeaux has a hypnotic effect on the wine trade. Wine writers too. The first week of April sees scores of scribblers with their noses deep in half-finished claret and their backs to a much more interesting show.

Vinitaly, Italy's annual national Winefest, bagged the April Fool's slot 40 years ago. I'm not sure whether Bordeaux never heard of it or decided to snub it, but that's exactly when they decided to mount the quite recent annual Primeur Circus. Let's not go into why the British choose Bordeaux, but English voices at Vinitaly are rare enough to make you turn your head. Last week I felt almost like the sole representative of our island race at a show that offers more new, different, characterful and often bargain wines than Bordeaux can muster in a dozen vintages. My effort at covering them was sadly inadequate. Where do you start when every region of the winiest of all countries has a pavilion like half Olympia to itself?

The Fair site is daunting, and frankly hideous, with all the charm of an industrial estate. (You'd think that between bouts they might get round to planting trees). Inside the hangers, though, one trade fair is much like another. It's easy to see which producers, and which regions, have juicy promotion budgets. My prize for style and imagination went to one of the poorest: Campania. Its stands were somewhere between village hall and Vintage Festival. To make up for lavish structures though, the designer has put the Campanian landscape on the ceiling. You looked up and there were the crops, the vines and corn, the rocks and the seashore, upside down above your head, with olive trees hanging down like strange silvery chandeliers. It was the image that I took away with me to sum up the stylish originality of Italian wine – and its makers.

After hours, of course, Verona more than makes up for its fairground. It is the perfect urban Italy in miniature, its palace-lined streets and piazzas absurdly rich in history and beauty (and restaurants). You can walk across the mercifully traffic free centre in 20 minutes, taking in the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, and ancient Rome in the form of the wonderfully complete arena. In April you can even find a seat unjostled in the Piazza delle Erbe, Italy's most beautiful square.

Vinitaly is about exploration. No one claims there is a simple solution to Italian wine. (Perhaps this explains the relative appeal of Bordeaux: a chateau is a chateau and a vintage is a vintage). The easiest way to explore is to go the varietal route: latch on to a grape and keep asking questions about it. Each region has its favourites – not mutually exclusive by any means. You may find, as I did that regional style often wins out over varietal differences. This was the case in Friuli in the north-east, currently Italy's best white wine zone, where Pinot Grigio and Pinot Bianco are just the best known of no less than 17 grapes that go, separately or together, into silky fresh whites. Collio is the zone name of many of the best, but you could go crazy trying to follow the permutations. At a dinner one night, entitled Bianco and Bianchi, the single Bianco turned out to be asparagus and the Bianchi an unending parade of wines aspiring to match it. With 40 different asparagus recipes and at least as many wines the permutations were palate-boggling.

Trends, then, in this cornucopia?

Good white wines are everywhere in Italy now. Fine ones are rare and great ones probably non-existent, but the old dearth of white refreshment is over, from the Alps to Sicily. One of the big surprises, in fact, is how Sicilian summers can produce such easy wines. We should explore them.

Reds? I hardly tasted a bad one. No longer do Tuscany and Piedmont hold all the aces. Grape names we had hardly heard of three years ago have started mini-booms of their own: Sagrantino, for example, in the Centre, Nero d'Avola in Sicily, Montepulciano on the Adriatic coast, Negroamaro down in the heel of Puglia. The old fatalistic formulas are on the way out as these clearer, fruitier, grapier wines become the norm.

1 comment:

Terence said...

Dear Mr. Johnson,

As a long-time admirer (since the first Wine atlas) I can't but comment on 2 points:

1. Why are there no comments on this blog? It's a rare chance to have something of a dialogue, however glancing, with you.

2. Your assessment of Italian wine is one I agree with 100%, succinctly expressed as always.

As someone who has been besotted with Italy since the age of 14 (1960) to the extent of teaching myself the language, this is very gratifying to me. And this is for more than one reason. You were my original wine "guru" and your atlas was my guide to tasting and judging wine...back in the early 70s when I worked in wine retail and could actually afford to buy top Burgundies and Bordeaux.

I've heard many Italian wine producers tell me that you are indeed their nec plus ultra among wine writers and critics, in part because of your deep knowledge and appreciation of French wines. They regard France as the top in wine even now.

And now that I've launched myself as a wine importer (all Italy and heavily in the Mezzogiorno) I find your enthusiastic valuations of Italian and especially the South very encouraging. Thank you!

By the way, when you were in New York to sign copies of your book a few years ago, I was devastated to have missed the venue. Please write another and come over here, so that finally I can meet you in person.

And thank you very much for the intelligence, judgement and wonderful writing for all these years.

Terence Hughes