Cracking the codes on an Italian bottle

The Italians don't make it easy, but a sure bet is to choose a wine that grew up alongside the food you're eating.

I’ve got chilled comfort for anyone who finds French wine hard to understand: Italy makes France look simple by comparison. These are the world’s two biggest wineproducing nations – France is usually ahead but there’s not much in it – and neither seems bent on reassuring the novice.
If you’re a native of Barolo, in Piedmont, you are born knowing that one of the world’s great wines – the purest expression of the Nebbiolo grape – takes its name from your village. In fact, by the time you’re about three, if you’re lucky enough to have family vineyards, you’re probably making the stuff yourself. The idea that some foreigners may think Barolo is a grape is, to you, unimaginable. Which is presumably why the Museum of Wine in Barolo, though an entirely hilarious cacophony of multimedia fabrications, son et lumière and mirrored ceilings (really), tells you absolutely nothing about Barolo.
Italy is large and historically and geographically complicated, and most of it makes wine; it also has more than 300 grape varieties. Yet its classification system is loosely copied from the French – a combination that works about as well as Cornas with tiramisu. At the top of the hierarchy are DOCs (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and DOCGs, the latter showing their superior quality, for some reason, by adding the word “guaranteed”. To make life more difficult, many great wines, including the legendary Super Tuscan reds, choose to break the DOC rules specifying which grapes are allowed in whose wines in what proportions, and have willingly downgraded themselves to Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) – if you can call a voluntary switch from focusing on the contents of a bottle to prioritising the land on which it was grown a “downgrade”.
The oddest thing about this system is that it concentrates on grapes yet there is nothing in the rules about listing grapes on the label. You must offer would-be buyers a name of some kind. You are also obliged to give the bottle volume, even though that is standardised at a multiple of ten between 740ml and 760ml. But for all the poor thirsty blighters can tell, you’ve squeezed tomatoes to make their beverage. So the best course is to be neighbourly – something that grew up with what you’re eating.
In Sardinia, I was given dinner by the children of Alberto Loi, who now run the winery of that name. They fed me an eel the size of a boa constrictor, pinioned on a skewer the length of my torso. This was daunting: what to drink with it? The fratelli Loi’s answer was Sa Mola, made of Cannonau, Sardinia’s most celebrated grape, known elsewhere as Grenache. This quaffable, raspberryish wine was a fine match for the meaty fish – and prepared my stomach for the sausage extravaganza to come, which was in turn excellent company for the thyme waft and blackberry tang of Loi Corona 2009, a more imposing wine, still mostly Cannonau but with a little Carignano and Cabernet Sauvignon to add weight. Even though, by this point, I was doing that without help.
These wines have little in common with the vibrant and sophisticated reds of Piedmont, a thousand kilometres north, but how to negotiate the madcap variety of the many regions in between?
My recommendation is don’t. This is a country that can find more than 650 ways to turn flour and eggs into pasta; do you really want to mess with them? If you aren’t choosing wine to go with food and so can’t follow the suggestion above (though you’re now sorted, should anyone ever present you with grilled and skewered eel), visit a wine merchant with a strong Italian list, such as Berry Bros & Rudd or Lea & Sandeman, and ask for advice. Better yet, turn up with a map. If fellow customers look at you oddly, let them. You are saluting the far-famed regional pride of the Italians; the least those Italians can do is give you a nice drink in return. 
Next week: John Burnside on nature 
The perfect match: if in doubt, be neighbourly, writes Nina Caplan.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

Photo: Tashphotography / Stockimo / Alamy
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The Negroni fools no one – it’s easy to make and contains nothing but booze

It is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

The cocktail is designed to lie about its origins; no wonder it reached its apogee during Prohibition, which forced everyone with an unrepentant thirst to lie about their cravings. Even today, when only extreme youth, religious belief or personal inclination prevents a person from draining the bar dry, the cocktail continues its career of dishonesty. It hides ingredients or methods. It provides a front for poor-quality booze. And it often dissolves, within its inscrutable depths, mountains of sugar, enabling drinkers to pose as sophisticates while downing something that tastes like a soft drink – to get drunk without leaving the playpen.

This is why I love the Negroni, which fools no one. It is easy to make and contains nothing but pure booze. Despite being a third sweet vermouth, it isn’t saccharine: the other two thirds, equal measures of gin and Campari, may have something to do with this. And it is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

They say it was invented in Florence at the request of a Count Negroni, who wanted a drink unsullied by club soda – a drink stiff enough to get a man back on a bucking horse, perhaps, since this Count may have been a rodeo rider. I prefer to believe that the Count, if Count he was, came in, tossed down enough strong liquor to start telling stories about his American adventures, and, when he finally staggered out into the night, the exasperated bartender poured three straight shots into a single glass and baptised this wondrous reviver in grateful homage to the fabulist who had inspired it.

In a former glue factory a very long way from Florence or America, the East London Liquor Company now makes very good gin – Batches One and Two, the former tannic with Darjeeling as well as cassia bark, pink grapefruit peel, and coriander seeds; the latter redolent of savoury, bay, thyme and lavender. Transforming these plants into excellent alcohol seems an improvement on boiling down horses for adhesive, and the company also makes superb Negronis from Batch Two.

We sit outside, in a carpark made marginally more glamorous by border boxes of Batch Two botanicals, and marvel at the transformation of this grimy part of East London, next door to a park intended to give Victorian working men brief respite from lives all too lacking in myth or fantasy. It is a reincarnation at least as miraculous as the transformation of three strong and entirely unalike spirits into the delectable harmony of the Negroni. The sun shines; a fountain plashes. Nuts and charcuterie arrive. All is right with the world.

I leave my herbaceous bower and dangerously pleasing drink for a peek at the large copper distillery behind the bar, walking in past the fountain, a whimsical stone construction that pours vermilion liquid into two, tiered basins topped by a chubby putto clutching a rather reluctant fish.

And then I stop. And double back. Vermilion liquid? It is, indeed, a Negroni fountain. There are even slices of orange floating in the basin. I dip a finger: the taste is slightly metallic but still undeniably that potent mixture of booze, botanicals, bitterness, and just a hint of sweetness. A streak of citrus from the orange slices. It turns out that the world’s most straightforward cocktail lends itself to a decadent neo-Renaissance fantasy. There’s a message here, one forthright as a temperance tract: without imagination, we would have no lies – but no Negronis, either.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder