Burton Anderson is often cited as the foremost authority on the wines of Italy, which is foremost among countries in wine production. Italy not only is prolific, but also offers extraordinary variety and quality, much of it discussed in rich detail in Anderson's voluminous book, Vino. Most of Italy's 5,000 distinguishable wines never find their way abroad or, for that matter, out of the vineyards where they are made; but what is available here will match every conceivable combination of food, at a price usually below the esteemed competition.
Italian wine remains a confusing subject for the beginner, and should be approached with a modicum of method. "You have to start with known wines, the chiantis and the soaves," said Anderson, recently in Washington for a barrel-tasting sponsored by Les Amis du Vin. "The next most approachable whites are verdicchio and those from Orvieto. Then come the whites of Friuli and Trentino-Alto Adige; then the gavis (whites from Piedmont), and Greco di Tufo" from Campania in southern Italy, where the wine's dryness and strength are a perfect match for seafood.
Red wine has a similar progression. "If you're already a bordeaux connoisseur, then start with the riserva chiantis (at least three years of age), Vino Nobile (di Montepulciano) and Brunello (di Montalcino); then come the barbarescos and finally the barolos. They all have a little more than the usual personality" -- a good summation of all Italian wine, personality being the basis of its appeal and a fact that should be kept in mind by the consumer.
"You have to read up as you go," Anderson adds, "and find a good shop for Italian wine." (Two good ones here are A&A Liquors and Mayflower Liquors.)
People accustomed to anonymous white wines, or to the pleasant lack of complexity in good jug red, are often put off by the more demanding flavors of the Italians. The first one Anderson ever tasted was chianti in a straw-covered flask -- in Minnesota, where he grew up.
He later moved to Rome, where he worked as a newspaper editor for the Rome Daily American. "I drank the local wine, and decided to find something better." What he found was infinity in bottles. "Italian wine hadn't been thoroughly studied and researched. I decided to do it."
He also bought a farmhouse in Tuscany, where he lives with his wife and children. Since Vino was published four years ago, things have changed in the Italian vineyard. "The tendency is toward lighter, fruitier wines. The revolution has been caused by a drop in (annual) wine consumption in Italy by 20 liters a head over the last 10 years, and more interest in exporting. They're spending money on technology," including stainless steel vats where fermentation can be controlled, and resident enologists with university degrees for advice -- California methods.
"It's beginning to show," Anderson says. "The wines are better balanced and better vinified, and they mature sooner."
Many of the Italian reds and whites coming on the market, like some of those Anderson presented, are very good values. The best white was Pio Cesare's Cortese di Gavi, recommended for fish and pesto. Good reds included the '79 Carmignano riserva of Conte Bonacossi, a Tuscan variation on chianti with complexity and tannin; and the '77 Taurasi riserva of Mastroberardino, one of the so-called "barolos of the south," from Campania, where it is made from the aglianico grape into a smooth, characterful wine with a very good future.