Why it’s time to revisit Italy’s BIG red wines

Don’t fear the reaper – nor the tannins in full-bodied Italian reds, suggests Peter Ranscombe.

SCOTLAND’S links with Italy stretch back for generations.

Whether it’s Italian restaurants, ice cream shops, or the local fish and chip emporium, there are few Scottish towns without a connection to the “Bel Paese”.

Those strong bonds are reflected in our choice of wines too.

While our “auld alliance” with France may have given us a taste for claret, that hasn’t stopped wines like Brunello, Chianti, and Valpolicella winning a place in our hearts.

If Bordeaux’s red wine is the epitome of “medium bodied” then Italy produces textbook powerful, “full bodied” reds that come into their own with food.

The old adage of “What grows together goes together” has never been truer than when it comes to the Italian classics.

That reputation for full-bodied tipples comes from four elements in the wines’ structure – their tannins, their exposure to oak, their level of alcohol, and their ripe, sun-soaked fruit flavours.

Tannins are the substance found in tea that makes you suck in your cheeks and dries your gums.

At their best, old oak barrels add texture to wines by letting in a tiny amount of oxygen during the ageing process.

Judicious use of newer oak can coat wine with vanilla and spice – without over-powering the fruit flavours.

The level of alcohol and the ripeness of the fruit comes down to how much sun the vines have received.

More sunshine leads to higher sugar levels in the grapes and higher alcohol levels in the finished wine.

Climate change poses a major problem for many areas of Italy; alcohol levels are already creeping higher as temperatures rise.

Getting back to basics

Yet clever grape farmers and winemakers are fighting back.

In Tuscany, Banfi is experimenting with alternative varieties for the future.

Trellising and pruning techniques can also be used to combat higher sugar levels by positioning leaves to shade the grapes.

Site selection is going to become more and more important – with a focus on getting back to basics.

Higher vineyards on hillsides will offer elevation and cooling breezes to help control sugar levels, while we’ll also see a focus on the traditional heartlands of the major regions.

These earliest sites were chosen for a reason; their soils were best suited to the local grape varieties, long before the expansion of winemaking areas into their marginal peripheries to sate the growing international thirst for supermarket entry-level bottles.

Expect to see more emphasis on “classico” sites at the heart of traditional regions.

The 2017 Tedeschi Marne 180 Amarone (£32, Fareham Wine Cellar) is the perfect case in point.

It’s one of five Amarones made by family-run Tedeschi and is the winery’s most “gastronomic” example.

Corvina, corvinone, rondinella, rossignola, and oselata grapes are harvested from hilly sites, bringing uplifting fresh acidity to a wine that weighs in at 16.5% alcohol by volume (ABV).

Its nose is complex and concentrated, with distinctive notes of dried herbs, black cherry, black plum, pencil lead, and a balsamic twist.

Black plum comes to the fore on the palate to balance its chewy yet well-integrated tannins.

Look out for its younger sibling too, the 2018 Tedeschi Capitel Nicalo Valpolicella Superiore (£15.50, The French Wine People), made in the same way with semi-dried grapes, although for a shorter time, but still capturing the delicious dried-herb note from the soils in the western part of the region.

Taming those tannins

Freshness is also the name of the game with the 2017 Lungarotti Sagrantino di Montefalco (2014: £30.91, Great Wines Direct), a variety notorious for its rampant tannins.

“Sagrantino is like a wild horse that needs to be tamed before it can be ridden,” explained winery chief executive Chiara Lungarotti during a Zoom tasting earlier this week.

Lungarotti set about taming sagrantino in the vineyard thanks to vine leaves positioned to provide shade, and in the winery through a shorter time soaking the juice on its skins and then a cooler fermentation.

The result is a rich, ripe nose full of red cherry, raspberry jam, sweeter vanilla, and a floral lift, complete with a complex balsamic note too.

The tannins perhaps still need a wee while longer to become more integrated, but they’d make short work of roast beef at the moment.

Right now, it’s the rich and ripe fruit flavours that shine, with red cherry, spun sugar, vanilla, and darker blackberry notes too.

When it comes to balance, you’ll find few better examples than the 2014 Castello di Radda Riserva Chianti Classico (£29.34, Independent Wine) imported by Edinburgh-based Independent Wine.

Tipping the scales at 14.5% ABV, you wouldn’t know it in the glass.

Hailing from Radda, the coolest and driest part of the “classico” zone within Chianti, there’s a delicious freshness to its acidity.

On its complex nose, it’s full of Chianti’s classic wood smoke, spun sugar, red cherry, and dark chocolate notes, with a more savoury balsamic element too.

On the palate, there’s a richness to the concentrated fruit flavours, with red cherry, red plum, spun sugar, and strawberry jam taking the starring roles.

Its tannins are well integrated and well balanced by the fruit and the clever use of new and old oak, yet they still have enough heft to rip through a weekend Tuscan steak or a midweek sausage casserole.

Through a combination of selecting the right sites and controlling sugar levels, Italian winemakers are retaining freshness in their big, full-bodied reds – a mark of talent that separates the leaders from the chasing pack.

Read more of Peter Ranscombe’s wine, whisky, gin and beer reviews in his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.