Raise a glass to Carthage
Hannibal's tipple, Montepulciano, fortifies both man and beast
A short while back I wrote about the unparalleled variety of Italian wines, which record a deep experience of locality that survived the Risorgimento and the EU, and which remains in the background of life as a permanent spiritual value. English wine merchants are at last beginning to appreciate this intensely localised form of viticulture, and Corney & Barrow's selection presents four wines from indigenous Italian grapes, each characteristic of the region in which it is grown.
The Chianti is light and elegant, with that inimitable flavour which the Sangiovese grape seems to suck from the Tuscan soil. However, as the Morellino di Scansano reminds us, the Sangiovese is not one grape but many: its peculiar ability to hybridise means that, like the Italians themselves, it changes character from village to village, so that the Morellino, although a version of the Sangiovese, has a forward fruitiness all of its own. This wine, grown by the Moris family on sandy soil, mixed with crumbling rock and limestone, is soft, full, easygoing, and drinking well, despite its youth. It will be even better in a year or so.
From the same growers comes the white Vermentino, grown at Maremma in Tuscany. The Vermentino recalls, in name and taste, the Furmint of Hungary, and produces a dry, crisp wine that cuts through a greasy antipasto like Whistler through Oscar Wilde. Luckily we drank it before the Chianti, otherwise it would have been a case of "Siena mi fe', disfece mi Maremma", so deadly are its thrusts. Those who like zucchini in batter, calamari in oil and marinated olives, will like this wine, which could slice the grease off a deep-fried elephant steak.
Most interesting, in our view, was the Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. This wine is often confused with the wine of Montepulciano in Tuscany (the famous "Vino Nobile"). However, the name refers to the grape, which is indigenous to the Abruzzo region and has grown there since ancient times. The Montepulciano produces a wine that ages well, acquiring a deep flavour and aromatic style greatly appreciated by Hannibal, who camped in Abruzzo during his attempt to wrest Italy from the Romans.
Hannibal insisted the wine be given to his men and their horses, to fortify them for combat. We tried a glass on Sam the horse, who much preferred the Vermentino. No doubt Carthaginian horses were more discriminating than your average English hunter. Not that Sam is exactly average, of course; and if he objected to the Montepulciano on account of its youth, he was probably right. The beauty of Sam is that there is no wine-speak to accompany the slurping and sniffing - only that low, eery mooing of a Hobdayed horse, and the back-and-forth motion of the ears as the wine slips down the long oesophagus.