When most people think of world-class red wines, the grapes in the bottles are usually from the international quartet of cabernet/merlot/ syrah/pinot. But not in northern Italy. Step forward sangiovese, nebbiolo, and corvine/corvinone/rondinella.
Too many of the wines from these grapes are under-rated, says one of the most distinguished of their growers. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, argues Baron Francesco Ricasole. “If you are under-rated, you can only get better. If you are over-rated you have to be scared,” he told a roomful of wine trade people in London earlier this year.
Let’s begin this journey of grape exploration in the pretty hills of Tuscany, where in 1872 Francesco’s great grandfather Bettino created modern chianti classico, in which sangiovese must form at least 80 percent of the blend. But Bettino’s wines – and even those of much more recent generations of chianti classico winemakers – were quite different from the best offered today.
The last 20 years have seen a “sangiovese evolution”, adds Francesco. “There has been a very big change: a new generation, big investment, really a great revolution.”
If chianti classico is the bordeaux of Italy, barolo is its burgundy – not least in the way the prime vine-growing land is shared between many small family wineries. Renato Ratti is one of those, established 50 years ago by the man who initiated single-vineyard crus of barolo, now the respected norm.
Renato’s son Pietro runs the business today, with an engaging enthusiasm for making the finest wines from nebbiolo – not only barolo but also much less expensive bottles from less famous locations. “It’s better to drink a good nebbiolo than a bad barolo,” he told that same audience.
Like his father, Pietro embraces the single-vineyard concept, believing that for a one-variety wine (no other grapes are allowed in barolo) place best expresses character. Two of his top barolos, from the much-lauded 2010 vintage, support that: power in Conca, elegance in Rocche dell’Annuziata, alongside enveloping fragrance and smart flavours. Their longer potential is obvious, too: as the discussion continued, the wines in our glasses developed deliciously.
If the Ratti family is one of the newer northern Italian wine dynasties, the third in that day’s experience more than compensated. Tedeschi has been involved with the vines and wines of valpolicella for close to four centuries. Here blending reigns, to restrain the vigour of the main varieties – the corvina/corvinone/rondinella trio – and to create a combination better than the component parts.
Ricasole’s top wines are magnificent: Castello di Brolio Gran Selezione 2011 is one of my desert-island wines, its dark intensity and complexity of colour, scent and flavour a long-lingering world away from the thin, astringent chianti of unhappy memory. Where in Bordeaux is there similar quality at this price (around £42, millesima.co.uk, hedonism.co.uk)?
Rocche dell’ Annuziata, my favourite, is around £60 (Handford Wines 020 7589 6113, Planet of the Grapes 020 7405 4912, Vagabond Wines 020 3302 4044, uncorked.co.uk); for an introductory Renato Ratti experience try Nebbiolo d’Alba Ochietti 2012 or Barbera d’Asti Battalgione 2012 (£16.75 and £18.75, agedinoak.co.uk).
Maternigo Valpolicella Superiore 2011 (around £20, Italian grocers, winecircle.co.uk) is a fine example: savoury, dry, elegant evolving – and crying out for a high-quality steak.