Despite the growing international fondness for white wines, I suspect that the hearts and palates of the Italians are still with their reds. They make more, drink more and are more enthusiastic about red wines. Statistics aside, their emotional involvement is evident in interview after interview in Burton Anderson's book Vino.
With characteristic warmth, the winemakers discuss their rivalries and controversies. In some zones of the Piedmont and Tuscany, traditionalists produce big, long-aging wines, while the new school prefers shorter skin contact during fermentation, making fruitier, quicker-maturing wines. Elsewhere, new techniques, such as the carbonic maceration widely used in beaujolais, are being introduced. Others are joining the "cantine sociale," the cooperatives that have been instrumental in improving the financial lot, and the wine, of thousands of small growers. All are participants in the Italian wine revolution of the past 20 years.
Coincidentally, there has actually been a decline in wine consumption in Italy. Urbanization in Italy is on the increase, manual labor on the decline. The result is less thirst and less need for wine as a source of food and energy. Consumption has dropped from 29 gallons to 24 gallons per person (still far more than 2 gallons a year the average American drinks).
As the world's largest producer, with a declinning home market, what should Italy to? Export. In Washington, thanks to the pioneering work of importers such as Alseca (the Gabriella selections) and retailers such as A & A and Mayflower, there is a widening selection. In New York, the Italian Wine Promotion Center has just opened an enoteca at 499 Park Avenue.
As with politicians and entertainers, the famous get most of the attention and we hear more about the powerful, breathe-them-all-day reds than about the less-expensive, often more versatile wines. Therefore, I shall briefly mention that such stars as Giacomo Conterno of Barolo, Angelo Gaja of Barbaresco, and theFattoria dei Barbi of Brunello di Montalcino are available. Their younger bottlings should be laid down and are good value in relation to burgundies and bordeaus of similiar quality.
The following "vini misti" were tasted in a spirit of adventure. They are a handful of the interesting new arrivals.
'77 Dolcetto d'Alba, Dosio; Piedmont ($5.50): medium-bodied, dry, with some international bitterness and a smooth finish. The '78, due soon, should be fruitier and less astringent.
'77 Teroldego Rotalian, Maso Scari, Barone de Cles; Trentino-Alto Adige ($6): a firm, medium-bodied, all-purpose wine with pleasant woodiness. A few '71s on which Anderson is very keen, will be here in spring, in the $15 per bottle range.
'78 Merlot, Collio, Livio Felluga; Friuli-Venezia Giulia ($7.25): lightish, with a soft nose and good balance of fruit and acidity. Can be drunk now, as can other merlots and cabernet francs from the northeast.
'78 Brusco dei Barbi, Colombini; Tuscany ($8.75): a more affordable, less subtle wine than the brunellos of Barbi. Deep and robust, it will mellow well with bottle age.
'77 Monte Vertine, Chianti Classico; Tuscany ($7): well-balanced, with more fruit and tannin than many chianti from this vintage.
'76 Rosso di Sava, Primitivo, Amanda; Apulia ($4.75): the primitivo grape is thought to be related to our zinfandel. Disappointingly, the name has nothing to do with the rather basic qualities of the wines, but to its being an early ripening wine.Deep purple, high in alcohol, with the finish of a dry-style port. Not subtle, on easy-drinking, but worth the experiment.