My first experience of Italian wines on mass was at Vinitaly April 1987.
I had just joined Oddbins as a trainee Wine Buyer in the February of that year.
My previous experience and observations of Italian wines were very limited, and those that I had tried in my previous 2 years trying to get in to the trade, usually picked up in a Peter Dominics or supermarket or similar had not left a very favourable impression. My initial impressions were:
Barolo “thin, tannic, acidic only for those into S&M”. Chianti, “thin and less tannic S&M for beginners”. Frascati a curious cross between ground almonds and baby sick. Soave, watery and acidic no discernible character ditto most other Italian whites. Lambrusco Rosso sweet and frothy. White Lambrusco Yikes.
I did manage to taste some of Oddbins offerings before setting off, which were mercifully better than my previous encounters.
So I was not coming at this from a very educated position.
Anyway I was told to go to Vinitaly and sort out our Italian range. If I came back with a decent selection I was safe for the moment. If my suggestions were appalling I would probably be fired as I was in my 6 months’ probation period. No pressure then!
I was hosted by the Italian government and was whisked off to Verona and installed in the beautiful Accademia Hotel right in the centre of Verona.
That evening I had a wander around the streets which was amazing. I had never been to Italy before. I had been brought up in the North in the grim 1970s and was now living in a converted toilet (bedsit) in Muswell Hill. So it was a sensory overload.
It was love at first sight. I could not believe how beautiful the town was. How history was just around every corner. The pavements were made of marble for god’s sake. As for the Italian’s. I could not believe how stylish they were. Dressed sublimely, stylish supremely confident and all beautiful, even their dogs were better turned out than me. Yet they were really friendly. They were certainly living and loving La Dolce Vita. I needed some of this.
The next day I was let loose on the fair. To say Vinitaly was a revelation is an understatement.
Firstly it is enormous. It looks like a series of Aircraft hangers dumped on an enormous expo park. Well I think that is probably what it is. There are thousands of winemakers present.
Inside there were the most impossibly beautiful Italian women and immaculately turned out winery owners and export directors behind every stand. The winery owners were accomplished jugglers act with enormous Riedel glasses in one hand and usually a cigarette in the other. Yes the Italian’s smoked at Wine Fairs and spitting was optional. My first Italian and pretty much my only Italian was “Voglio Sputare”. I felt a little out of place and to be honest a little daunted.
Luckily for me some members of the UK Italian trade took me under their wing and decided to educate me. Luckily for me they were some of the greats of the trade and pioneers of quality Italian wine. Renato Trestini, one of the true pioneers and a wonderful human being who is sadly no longer with us. Paul Merrit and Michael Garner, the authors of the definitive book on the wines of Piemonte. I shared my initial musings on Barolo with them. They carried on my education regardless.
“Luckily for me some members of the UK Italian trade took me under their wing and decided to educate me.”
Michael Benson who was living in Verona and who quietly steered me in the right direction regarding culture, wines and things to see and do in Verona and last but not least 2 heavyweights of the industry, Nick Belfrage and David Gleave. Both were generous with their time and were patient with their ignorant but very enthusiastic pupil.
Within moments of my first tastings I realised there was a lot more to Italian wines than I had previously been exposed too. Not all Barolo tasted like the horrors previously encountered. Conterno sorted that out. Soave did have flavour and depth. Pieropan sorted that out. There were so many revelations. Super Tuscans Sassicaia etc , Super Barbera from Chiarlo and Giacomo Bologna. Angelo Gaja anyone! The most amazing sweet wine I had ever tasted Acininobili from Maculan. Every stand I went to there was something of real interest and quality. I was lucky I had good guides.
Exploring a few stands on my own over the 3 days of the show didn’t dissuade me from the fact that Frascati tasted of ground almonds and baby sick and there were still lots of badly made red wines that tasted of stables and fruit flies, and whites which were insipid at best. But there was more than enough, particularly on the reds and sweet wines, to show back at the ranch and hopefully prevent my summary sacking.
“Within moments of my first tastings I realised there was a lot more to Italian wines than I had previously been exposed too.”
Anyway people were pleased with my selections, not least the ever enthusiastic and educated shop managers and the wine press. So I survived.
So what has changed since the late 80s and where does this leave us now. Italy is recognised as one of the greatest wine producing countries and their classic wines, still mainly reds are revered around the globe. Everyone knows Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello, Amarone and their rightly lauded producers.
For me there has been a gradual increase in wine quality particularly initially through the 90s. The reds led the way and the big hitters in Piemonte and Tuscany led the way. Barolo became more poised and balanced, Chianti became fruitier and better balanced.
But new areas began to establish their credentials. The wines of Puglia and Sicily came a huge way from hot sometimes dirty wines to full throttle new world reds and whites. Campagnia began to establish its terroir driven wines particularly through Feudi di San Gregorio.
So where are we now? I am most excited by the huge improvements in quality in lesser known areas and particularly with white wines. I think my excitement is reflected in recent additions to our range. We have now got some fantastic examples of the quality and value that Italy offers. The whites are totally on trend. Crisp bright and usually unoaked or lightly oaked and produced very often in a sustainable eco-friendly way. The reds are fully of fresh crunchy fruit. The array of intriguing local grape varieties adds to the excitement.
We have one of the best Verdicchios in Colpaola. Which is an amazing intense, mineral driven white wine that is a shoe in for the Chablis slot on a list as is Soave. Ca’Rugate make wonderful volcanic Soave that more than fill the gap left by shortages in Chablis and Picpoul this year. We have seen the amazing rise in quality and popularity of grapes such as Pecorino and Passerina from the Marche and Abruzzo. The wines of Carminucci are fine examples. The wines of Umbria also reflect this transformation and we have added two fine organic estates in Di Fillipo and Roccafiore.
Calabria is also waking up from a long slumber with some great Ocean influenced whites and reds. Ippolito the oldest winery in the region has reinvented itself. Greco, Pecorello or Calabrese for anyone?
Oh and everyone must try the amazing Frascati from Castel de Paolis. This is an amazing wine. One of the best examples of a terroir driven volcanic white you will ever try. The wine rightly wins the Coveted Tre Bicchieri from Gambero Rosso every year and is rightly considered one of Italy’s finest white wines. Not a hint of ground Almonds or baby sick here.
As I write this I am excited to be getting ready for my 31st trip to Vinitaly. Since my first trip 35 years ago I have improved my wardrobe and I have to say I have a weakness for Prada, my only Italian is still Voglio Sputare. I love Italy and its wines and I will still be daunted by the 4,500 producers and 100,000 visitors awaiting me and I still class myself as an enthusiastic amateur. I am always learning and Italy always has something new and exciting to offer.