Some Italian red recommendations from Mirror wine columist Doug Sloan.

Wine Wise: Italian reds are always worth discovering

Wine columnist Doug Sloan has some recommendations on a few good Italian reds

Regardless of your personal preferences – if you enjoy red wine – there’s one being made in Italy to suit your tastes. Few wine regions produce the breathtaking range and variety of red wines that can rival Italy’s offerings.

Once thought to be an Italian native variety, Primitivo’s foreign origins have since been exposed. Descended – like California’s Zinfandel – from Croatia’s ‘Crljenak Katelanski ‘, reds made from Primitivo grown in Puglia in the southern heel of the Italian boot can be rich, ripe and luscious.

Affordable enough for mid-week sipping, Ogio Primitivo ($11.99) oozes jammy blackberry fruit with undernotes of prunes and subtle wisps of dusty sage. If you like Yellowtail Shiraz from Australia or Apothic Red from California, this could be the best place to start exploring Italian red wines.

Just 50 years ago plantings of international favourites like Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Syrah were few and far between in Italian vineyards. Then in 1971, with the encouragement of his cousin Piero Antinori, the Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta unveiled his elegant Cabernet Sauvignon based 1968 Sassicaia.

It didn’t happen overnight but innovative Italian winemakers began to investigate the possibilities of these ‘foreign’ red wine grapes. Blessed with Sangiovese and Montepulciano, Italy has so many other traditional options. Veneto’s famous Valpolicella and Amarone reds are primarily Corvina wine grapes, typically blended with Molinara and Rondinella.

Putting a twist into that recipe, Monte del Fra Bardolino ($17.99) is made from a blend of 65 per cent Corvina, 30 per cent Rondinella and 5 per cent Sangiovese from vineyards near Verona’s Custoza. An earthy kind of leathery edge underlies the sassy sweet-and-sour cherry and raspberry flavours in this outrageously food-friendly wine.

While many ‘New World’ winemakers – in North and South America, Australia and South Africa – are moving slowly towards using natural yeasts, organic practices and non-interventionist winemaking, most traditional Italian winemakers know no other way. They’ve always made wine like that. In sunny Abruzzo, 40 years ago, Jasci & Marchesani was one of the first wineries in Italy to be certified organic.

Like many Italian red wines Jasci & Marchesani Montepulciano D’Abruzzo ($20.99) offers few distinctly recognizable fruit aromas, although a subtle wisp of vanilla betrays the 6 months it spent in oak. The first sip slides through a medley of flavours – tart cherries, plums, blueberries and blackberries swirl over the tongue. Hints of smoky sage and thyme linger in the earthy finish.

Italy’s most widespread red wine grape, Sangiovese, reaches its finest expression in Tuscany’s Brunello di Montalcino made from specific Sangiovese clones grown around the hilltop town of Montalcino. Most Brunello specialists make a second red wine – aged for a shorter time, intended for earlier drinking and often less than half the price of their ‘first-growths’ – that they call Rosso de Montalcino.

Seductively fruity, silky smooth, Altesino Rosso di Montalcino ($27.99) starts with cherry and spicy red berry flavours of dried strawberries and sage, raspberries, tomato leaf and sun-warmed leather. As the wine breathes and opens up in the glass, those same aromas very quietly begin to appear, presenting the fortunate taster with a fascinating bouquet.

A sweet or dry, fortified, sherry-styled wine, Marasala was as close as most wine lovers came to drinking wines from Sicily in the last 50 years. With 150 years of history firmly based in their Marsala cellars and their vineyards at Contessa Entellina in western Sicily, Giacomo Rallo and his wife, Gabriella, launched a new project in 1983 – Donnafugata.

Be prepared to be overwhelmed by the density and complexity of Donnafugata ‘Mille e una Notte’ $74.99. An homage to the fanciful romantic collection of Indian and Arabic stories known as ‘A Thousand and One Nights’, this lush, velvety blend of Sicily’s indigenous Nero d’Avola with Petit Verdot and Syrah overflows with aromas and flavours of blackberries, blackcurrants and prunes before sliding into liquorice, soy and dark chocolate.

There’s something for every red wine lover coming out of Italy. And we didn’t even begin to look at other exceptional indigenous reds like Barbera, Nebbiolo, Algianico and Negroamaro…

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