“Nowadays there is a richness and diversity in Italian wines that shows the growers are really making an effort to produce quality,” wine critic Michel Bettane said at a recent tasting.
The Romans brought the vine culture to France when they invaded Gaul in the times of Caesar, as excavations around the southern French city of Lyon have attested.
The French elevated wine-making to an art over centuries and say some of that know-how has been brought to Italy – especially when the French owned or occupied parts of the country before Italian unification.
Camillo Benso de Cavour, an architect of Italian union in the late 19th century, spoke French and maintained Barolo vines.
The French also exported some grapes like Merlot and Cabernet to supplement the Nebiollo that is indigenous to Italy.
“It is not a secret that several decades ago Italian wines did not have a good reputation and were at best used to be mixed with French wines,” said Giovanni Caracciolo di Vietri, the new Italian ambassador to France.
But due to the work of people such as Angelo Gaja this has changed completely.
A scion of a long line of Piedmont wine makers, Gaja revolutionised wine-making in Barbaresco and beyond. He studied in France and introduced temperature-controlled fermentation and other techniques to Italy, as well as the use of French grapes.
So it was slightly tongue-in-cheek when the Italian institute for international trade hosted a tasting in the historic buildings of the Italian cultural institute in Paris and served five red wines that were all made from French grapes, apart from Gaja’s Barbaresco 2004 that was 100 percent Nebbiolo.
For Enrico Bernardo, the world’s best sommelier of 2005, Italian wines were known as sweet and light drinks that one bought to go with pizza.
“Now you can make a journey from south to north Italy and the differences are astounding,” said Bernardo, an Italian who works at the Villa Madie restaurant at Cassis in France.
“You can have a perfect marriage of local wines with local produce,” he said at the tasting, organised in advance of the Vinexpo international wine fair in Bordeaux later in June.
In 2008, Italian wine exports rose 1.7 per cent in value but fell 7.4 per cent in volume, with the United States, Germany and Britain as main export countries.
France is the ninth destination, after Denmark and before Sweden, and Italian wines have a market share of 2.3 per cent with sales down 5.53 per cent in 2008 to 80.5 million euros ($114.1 million) – a big challenge for the trade representative in Paris, Leonardo Radicati.
The tasting started with a bubbly wine, the Bellevista, Riserva Vittorio Moretto, a Franciacorta of 2001 made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The wine was refreshing, not too sweet and sells for 100 euros a bottle.
A Tenuta San Guido, Sassicaia, Bolgheri of 2004 had a deep cherry-red body and a fruity taste that was a bit astringent. It sells for 125 euros a bottle.
A Montevetrano, Colli di Salerno Rosso 2005 was almost black in colour and had hints of rhubarb and pepper in the nose. The makers let the wine mature for 10 months in barrels and six months in bottles which is longer than many others do.
It sells at 58 euros per bottle.
The Tenuta San Leonardo, a Vigneti delle Dolomiti Rosso of 2003 had lingering fruity tones and sells at 45 euros a bottle.
Gaja’s Barbaresco of 2004 had a lighter red colour than the others and in the bouquet there were hints of raspberry and leather. It sells at over 170 euros per bottle.
The tasting was closed with an amazing desert wine, a gold- coloured Donnafugata, Ben Rye from the small Pantelleria island off Sicily. Sweet, fruity, light and made from Zibibbo grapes.
It sells at 47 euros a bottle.