I've been going to bed with Burton Anderson since last December. Not the man himself, I hasten to add, but his marvelous book, Vino. Until I gave Vino for Christmas, there had been a large gap in my wine library. There was no comprehensive book in English on the wines of Italy. Vino: the Wines and Winemakers of Italy, an anecdotal and personal volume, is informative and up to date.
My nightly relationship with Anderson has opened a cellarful of delight and curiosity. Familiar with the names and tastes of the better-known quality wines of the Piedmont and Tuscany, the somnolent mind is now being awakened to the mysteries of Apulia, Campania and Sardinia.
A reasonable selection of such wines as barolo, brunello di Montalcino, ghemme and gattinara has been available in Washington for several years. Yet it is only recently that the consumers and restaurants have been willing to move on from the play-saffe Veronese trio of soave, bardolino and valpolicella. Yet while our attention has been caught by California developments and sky-soaring French prices, the Italians also have been on the move. Anderson refers to the '70s as a decade in which "tradition-shattering advancements" have been made in vienyards, cellars and marketing.
Certainly, the record on exports to the United States is most impressive. An increase of 975 percent, in 10 years, has given the Italians a 63 percent share of our import market. More than half of the Italian shipments are made up of lambruscos, the low-priced, usually medium-sweet and slightly "frizzante" wine from the Emilia-Romagna region, surrounding Bologna; but that share is declining in favor of the more serious wines, most of which come from DOC zones.
The Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), introduced in 1963, is the government's system of quality control of all facets of wine production i approved zones. It has been instrumental in improving the standard and image of Italian wine.
According to the adage on Italian whites, it is one thing to sit on the Spanish Steps and polish off a bottle of frascati, or to watch the sun set behind the Lido with a glass of soave, but it is another matter to drink them back in the States. The light, dry whites don't travel, do they? Not always, in the past. With latter-day cool fermentation and automated bottling, though, there is less likelihood of early oxidization and the wines are better stabilized to withstand transatlantic shipment. Instead a new danger has appeared: Some of the whites have become so clean that they are characterless and almost flavorless.
Here are a few of the noteworthy recent arrivals: Light-to-medium-bodied, with a smooth, dry finish
'79 Verdiso, Pino Zardetto ($6), from the Veneto.
'79 Gavi, Contratto ($6.75), from the Piedmont, the cortese grape.
Vernaccia di Sangimignano, from Tuscany, is a versatile wine, with a deserved place on restaurant lists. A new label to look for in late February is the single vineyard "Vina a Solatio" by Franchini, ($4.75).
'79 Pinot Grigio, Civit, from the Trentino -- Alto Adige ($4), maintains the good standard of previous shipments. Light-bodied and fruity
'79 Traminer, Istituto Agrario, San Michele, from the Trentino-Alto Adige, is a delight -- crisp and spicy, with both acidity and fruit to give it balance.
The Traminer is an anytime restorative -- perhaps in bed, while reading Vino? In the next column, I'll take a look at the more varied, complex and exciting Italian reds.