Zilli season

Drink - Victoria Moore gets in the mood for winter

Here we go again. It's the end of November and an important date in the wine calender is upon us. The third Thursday in November (this year, it's the 16th) is the date when Beaujolais Nouveau is traditionally released.

Obviously, the whole charade of the grand Beaujolais race is little more than an overblown marketing ploy, but that is no reason to dismiss it out of hand.

Beaujolais Nouveau remains a seasonal pleasure. Shop windows barricaded with the first bottles of thin-looking, purply wine stir the same prickling anticipation as early glowing piles of pumpkins and satsumas. It marks the beginning of winter, the only sliver that isn't spoiled by being almost Christmas. And as fur-lined leather gloves are pulled on for the first time, you never think that you will want to drink any wine that's lightly chilled (except, perhaps, champagne). But it is so exciting, that first sip of the newly fermented vintage, made from grapes ripened in a season that has only just been snapped out of sight by the newly crisped air.

This year, there's a new wine to look at, and it's Italian, brought into the country by "the chef to the stars" Aldo Zilli at the beginning of this month, just early enough to steal a march on the now traditional French option. The first I heard about it was from his PRs. "Aldo has just rung us from Abruzzo where he is visiting family and has just done a deal with a vineyard exclusively to showcase a new wine at the Zilli restaurants before it goes on sale nationwide," they told me a few weeks ago.

This is a slightly disingenuous explanation. Abruzzo is an area on the same latitude as Rome. This wine, Novello (which, not surprisingly, means new or early), is from a vineyard in Valdobbiadene in the north of Italy, not far from Trento. Aldo came across the vineyard, the story goes, tasted the wine and enjoyed it so much that he just had to bring it over here. In my experience, you don't happen upon vineyards at the beginning of winter, you go looking for them. But I shall stop carping. The tale is typical of Aldo, and of his zesty tendency to sweep every acquaintance and every experience into the family bosom of Zilli-ness. This is part of his charm.

It comes as no great shock to learn that Aldo has really gone to town on this wine, researching a Venetian menu to serve alongside it in his restaurant. You do not need to go to such lengths to drink it yourself.

The label is hideously off-putting - a black-and-white shot of a baby, for heaven's sake, crawling and crying out with glee. (A baby wine with a baby on the label: I am sorry if you think this obvious. I make the point only because it took me some time to make the connection myself.)

The wine itself does, I think, need food to balance it. It's a good lunchtime wine. Made with Merlot and Teroldego Rotaliano, a grape grown practically nowhere outside north-east Italy, it does not have the soft fruitiness of the Gamay that makes Beaujolais so very drinkable. The nose is all red fruits - cherries and raspberries, some have said. It is also quite acidic and, like Aldo, rather lively. It is meant to be drunk within the year - swigged down with gusto (the price point allows this), paying little attention to the flavour. It is recommended that it be drunk with appetisers, fish, soups and white meat. Aldo served it with fried fish (a clever match - it would cut very well through the fatty flavours), rustic bean stew and chestnut cream.

One last word of caution: wines such as this are not for everyone. They suit a particular mood and a particular time. They can taste delicious. They can taste thin, overly acidic, insubstantial and as out of place as tinsel and fairy lights on a hot summer's day. But in any case, part of the fun, with seasonal drinking, is getting it right.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Interview - Lord Falconer