Careless whisper

Wine - Roger Scruton hears the murmur of Italy's glorious past

Almost everybody who travelled to Italy in the Sixties can recall the surprising taste of the local wine. Chianti, Frascati, Friuli, Veneto - even the bland, thin wines of Orvieto - tasted quite different in Italy from the stuff that was then being marketed under those names in Britain. Bought locally - preferably from the old marble-lined shops marked "Vini ed olii" where you took your own carafe - the wines of Tuscany, the Campagna and the Veneto had a freshness and fullness of flavour that bore no relation to the sour and dusty exports.

All that has changed and, while one should avoid most Italian wine available in this country, this is merely because one should avoid most wine. The real product is now getting through to us. Enthusiastic growers and proud importers have between them launched a wine risorgimento, bringing together the many regions of Italy in a collective assault on the world's jaded taste buds.

The most interesting of the importers is Enotria Wine- cellars, founded in 1972 by Remo Nardone, and now purchasing from 65 of Italy's top producers. The Italians have instituted a snob-free form of quality control - the Gambero Rosso - which each year singles out the wines of distinction and grades them as meriting one glass, two glasses or three (a ludicrous way of scoring, given that a wine is worth five glasses or nothing). Only a few obtain the coveted Tre Bicchieri award: inevitably, the Piedmont, with its northerly climate and French-influenced viticulture, scores well, and Enotria has a collection of Barberas, Barbarescos and Barolos whose taste (and price) will persuade even those habituated to cheap Valpolicella that elements of Roman civilisation survive outside the Sorbonne.

But Piedmont is just one among many wine-producing regions. Moreover, it has been responsible for some of the most loathsome of the Marxist dragons against which I snicker-snacked when young. Hence I prefer, in my imaginary travels, to go further south.

And here's what I found, with Enotria as my guide. Taking a detour through the Veneto, I encountered the most lively, refreshing and seductive Italian white that I have ever tasted: the Capitel Croce 1999, produced from the San Vincenzo grape by Roberto Anselmi in Monteforte. This has no DOC etiquette (or any other appellation) and is proof, like almost everything in Italy, that bureaucratic controls are always counter-productive. Many Italian producers have gone in for industrial Chardonnay - one, the Planeta family in Sicily, has just won a Tre Bicchieri award with its highly creditable version, available also from Enotria. But real Italian whites - especially those that escape the bureaucratic net - avoid the all-over-you style of transplanted Chardonnay, and have something of the priest-nurtured, shame-engendered eroticism of a shy contadina.

I stopped over in Tuscany, at the Castello di Brolio, which has just won the prestigious prize of Cantina dell'Anno for 2002. Its 1997 Chianti Classico has also been awarded three glasses: I settled for the usual five, and was still panting for more. A smooth, rich wine like old mahogany, with that depth of flavour and openness to ideas (they felt like ideas, at least) that is characteristic of the best Chianti.

But my destination was Calabria, where the Librandi family has established a cantina that produces the local Ciro - a red wine that has all the sweet music of a cicada-filled evening, and which, the Librandis modestly claim, contains a "whisper of the glorious past". Librandi's traditionalism does not forbid experiments: two dark wines - Magno Megonio, made from Magliocco grapes, and Gravello, which mingles the local Gaglioppo grape with Cabernet Sauvignon - deserve the highest praise. Indeed, Gravello has just won a Tre Bicchieri award. These licorice-flavoured, volcanic concoctions flowed peacefully through your wine steward's inner regions, and as he lay in bed thereafter, his entire body whispered of Calabria's glorious past - so Sophie reported.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher and countryside campaigner as well as an author and broadcaster. Widely regarded as one of Britain’s leading right wing thinkers, his publications include the Meaning of Conservatism. He has also written on fox hunting.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2002 issue of the New Statesman, A kosher conspiracy?