St. Valentine was a Roman and, while history doesn't record whether he loved wine, I'm sure that he'd have been on the side of the Italians in their current disagreement with the French. No love is being lost between the wine industries of the two countries.
Vinous warfare reached a venomous low in the port of Sete last August when French growers poured fuel oil into the hold of a Sicilian-registered ship. The ship was carrying Italian bulk wine for blending in France.
The cause of the enmity is that both countries have surplus of their lowest quality wine. Because this wine is unlikely to reach America, we can afford to smile at the antics of frustrated growers. However, there's also a rivalry in better quality wines between the French and Italians. It's the rivalry for the American market.
While the Italaian export four times as much wine to the United States as the French, half of it is low-prices lamburscos. Now they want to improve the image for their better wines. An advertising campaign tells us that Italian wine producers today underprice their works of art, just as Michelangelo and others underpriced their works of art. They may have a point.
At the end of 1981, 14 major Italian producers flew to the United States to show us their best red wines. They came to celebrate "Ten Years On," the anniversary of 1971, a great vintage. They made a strong case for Italy. The wines have aged well, some needing another 10 years to develop, and, with the exception of Biondi-Santi's Brunello di Montalcino at $60-plus, represented good value when compared to French wines of similar quality.
I particularly liked Lungarotti's Torgiano Rubesco Riserva, Antinori's, Tignanello, Pio Cesare's Barolo and the beautiful nose on Mastroberardino's Taurasi Riserva, a nose that its maker described as that of wild cherries.
Any Italian '71s are not easy to find today, but here are some that are available and should be laid down for a few more years: Barolo Riserva Speciale, Dosio, $13; Barolo Riserva, Prunotto, $13; Barbaresco, Gaja, $30; Tignanello, Antinori, $14; Recioto Amarone, Speri, $12.
The lesson of "Ten Years On" is that it's never too early to buy the wines of an excellent year and to lay them down. The 1978 vintage was very good in the Piedmont, and both '78 and '79 were highly rated in Tuscany. Some of the big reds of '78 will be released this year. Buy them young and hold them.
Angelo Gaja, a strong man of jutting jaw and hunched shoulders, said he preferred his '78 barbaresco to the '71. It is a deep-colored, firm, gritty wine with fine promise. From 1974 he's been aging the barbaresco in small oak barrels and is happier with the results. However, Gaja's latest price list shows quite clearly which wines he sees as his competitors: burgundies!
In Tuscany, the new wines show some changes with tradition. Antinori is adding an increasing amount of cabernet sauvignon to the sangovese in Tignanello, a wine "designed to create a new tradition." And chianti producers report that they are using fewer and fewer white grapes in their blends.