In the perennial oenological battle, France has always been the patronising older brother, putting the upstart Californian in its place, while refusing to even acknowledge its Chilean sibling.
Well, I’ve always been a champion of the underdog, so France is welcome to its pretensions. Besides, I’m an Italophile all the way. I’ve watched Roman Holiday more times than I care to admit. I’ve spent many a lazy summer strapped to the back of some mocha coloured chancer on a Vespa. And I’ve supported the Italian boys in the World Cup (in retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best idea to defiantly don the Italian flag while watching the match against Australia in the last tournament....whilst in Sydney). So ardent is my devotion to all things Latin, I even did a degree in Italian, though “Watch those hands, mister" was about the only phrase I seemed to master. It served me well.
It’s no surprise then, that when it comes to wine, I’ll always choose Italian. I’ll admit, it’s hard to beat a good white Burgundy – Sancerre, Pouilly Fuisse, a nice Chablis – and I’ll happily order any of these on an al fresco outing. But give me an Italian red any other time, with its big, rustic, unapologetic flavours; the perfect accompaniment to a bowl of steaming Tuscan bean soup, or a plate of Antipasto Misto. Simple, honest food and wine, no bullshit.
There’s still a certain stigma attached to Italian wines, thanks to a few ignoramuses who associate them with a bottle of non-descript plonk in a straw basket, to be swilled while some pseudo musician administers an acoustic version of O Sole Mio over a candlelit dinner for two. Thankfully, those in the know, know better.
Chianti was traditionally served in this way and OK, you can see why it might once have been considered the poor man’s Claret. But poor Chianti hasn’t has the easiest of rides. It was the viticultural victim of Italy’s historic political and economic upheaval, and its production in the late 19th century became synonymous with low prices and poor quality. First, vineyards were ravaged by a Phylloxera epidemic (that’s grape blight to the unitiated), then the chaos and poverty that followed Italy’s reunification led to a diaspora of vineyard workers. Emphasis shifted to planting high-yielding grapes to meet an increasing global demand for cheap, easy-drinking wine, hence the bottle in a basket, which the Italians call a ‘"fiasco". Indeed.
Luckily, there remained a discerning few, willing to save Chianti’s reputation from ridicule and ruin. The introduction of modern winemaking techniques, combined with a demand to update government-imposed regulations surrounding wine production in Tuscany, led to the birth of the high-quality Super Tuscans. Chianti is fashionable once again, but a top version will still cost a lot less than a mediocre Claret. I guess snobbery takes a while to catch up with the palate.
So, Chianti is looking up. Yet there are still more exquisite fine Italian reds out there: Brunello di Montalcino, IGT Toscana, Barolo…
A great selection of these bad boys can be found at Bottle Apostle in Victoria Park. This small neighbourhood merchant is a huge fan of the Super Tuscans and owner Tom recently held a tasting session devoted to the fine red wines of the region. I, and my Italian devotion, went along and we were seriously impressed with the selection. Tom had prepared a carefully considered menu of top-notch labels.
The tasting was informal yet informative, and had the easy charm of a dinner party with close friends. Bottle Apostle runs a series of tasting events throughout the year, from traditional wine and cheese evenings to blind tastings, and, I’m happy to report, a delicious selection of Antipasti is served at each session.
So, take this piece of advice from a self-confessed Italophile: brush up on your Super Tuscans at Bottle Apostle, then impress your date at the excellent Bocca di Lupo Italian restaurant in Soho by teaching the sommelier there a thing or two about wine.
Looking for further Italian inspiration? Check out the Top 10 Italian Restaurants in London.
Image courtesy of Flickr users _gee_.
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