Saturday, 20 April 2002

Touring Italy's Vineyards

Low cost airlines are changing the wine map of Europe. The flight to any except the most mainstream wine regions used to need patient and complex logistics; a travel agent fond of obscure landing-fields. Even Bordeaux had, until this year, the most profoundly inconvenient links with the UK.

Not any more. Now you can choose Bergerac if that's nearer. Or Limoges, Poitiers, Tours or Carcassonne. They'll fly you direct to Dijon, no problem, to Nantes, St. Etienne for Beaujolais, Aix for Provence and the Côtes du Rhône.

The public airport for Pisa is huge: at least two 737s arrive each day even out of season. It was an easy and incredibly cheap jaunt last week to visit one or two cellars in Tuscany on Thursday, drive half a day past Rome on to Pescara, catch some festivities on the Adriatic coast of the Abruzzi and be home for Sunday lunch.

We've been talking super-Tuscans for years now, and being sucked into the almost theological wrangles about how much Cabernet says it's not a Chianti. And when is a DOC not a DOC? A discussion made no easier by labels which remain firmly ambivalent on what the wine is actually called.

But we've seen nothing yet. The Battle of Tuscany, I reckon, is still only in the skirmish stage. While the players still seem uncertain about the value of Chianti, (famous, yes. But famous for what?) they are camping all round the edge with their heraldic-sounding challenges: Brunello di Montalcino, Vinonobile di Montepulciano (can't you just see their cuirasses catch the sun, their plumes and standards shift in the breeze?). And now Morellino di Scansano, a knight whose beard is still incipient, and cohorts of his from the Maremma coast on still more expensive chargers.

Morellino appeals to me. The name - like morello cherry - expresses a character you could, maybe, find in a good example. Scansano, or rather the steep hills round the slightly forbidding little town, is an outstandingly pretty bit of country. None of the urbane style of High Tuscany with its files of cypresses; far less buildings; just serene wooded and grazed hills with occasional farms - and increasingly vines.

Now of course the price is increasing too. Residents (my brother is one) are not happy paying three times as much as three years ago for substantially the same wine. Solution: (as always in places where the band-wagon is beginning to roll) stay close to the bottom rung. Avoid bottlings with designer labels. Avoid the tall-shouldered black bottles that weigh as much empty as a bottle should full. Avoid Riserva wines, usually stiff with raw oak. If the fleeting flavour of little morello cherries is what you are after choose the basic bottlings of the best-known local firms. The Cantina Sociale, co-op to you and me, is the first resort. Three bottles for the price of one with international pretensions.

Or move on from Tuscany into the relatively primitive Abbruzzi. To confuse everyone the good red grape of this zone between the Appenines at their highest and the Adriatic coast at its sandiest is called Montepulciano. Familiar? It's the name of the hill-town in the south of Tuscany that makes the fancy-sounding Vinonobile. Apparently no relation. My advice: forget the town and concentrate on the grape and its Abbruzzi home.

Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is just the hearty, ripe, really red and warming wine that Chianti so often fails to be. It can rasp a bit. Three or four years aging takes care of that, except in extreme cases. There is a summer-weight version, deep rosato, that really can taste of cherries, if not morello ones. The name Cerasuolo is evidence that Italian wine-growers have an inbuilt cherry complex.

The festivities last weekend were in Ortona, next town down the coast from Pescara. They centred round the restoration, by the dynamic Farnese company, of a medieval castello on the town walls as their cellars and offices And a very stylish job too.

It made an excuse for tastings, a serious conference about reaching world markets with the right stuff, and a gala evening with soprano and all the chefs of the area cooking their hats off. All within a weekend's hop. At a price you can't resist.

Hugh Johnson,
Club President