Italy has 4,000 native grape varieties and twice as many attitudes to wine-making so, in this country of consummate individuality, clusters of well-managed, actively promoted vineyards are most likely to capture international attention. Foremost among these is Piedmont with its big-hitting Nebbiolo reds from Barolo and Barbaresco. Of the producers here, Angelo Gaja could certainly claim to be the most recognisable name globally, not just because of critical acclaim, but also due to his efforts in marketing his wines. However, rather than promoting the names Barolo and Barbaresco, he is now labelling many of his wines as 'Langhe', the regional category for the area.
There will be a good selection of Gaja and other Piedmontese wines in our sale in September, along with big names from Tuscany, Italy's other pre-eminent region. Here the focus is not so much on the DOCs of Chianti, Brunello and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano but on 'Super-Tuscan' wines, brands that stand on their own merits on the international market. The stronghold of these is the coastal area of Maremma and most take top-quality Cabernet Sauvignon as their inspiration, often in a Bordeaux-style blend with Merlot, although some incorporate the traditional grape of Tuscany: Sangiovese. Sassicaia was the wine that first defined the concept of Super-Tuscans, and it is still one of the most sought-after, but Piero and Lodovico Antinori have had praise heaped on them from all corners of the globe for their Ornellaia, Solaia and Masseto.
Tuscany and Piedmont are really the business end of Italian wines at auction but there is a devoted following for top producers of Valpolicella, a red wine from the Veneto, west of Venice and on the edge of Lake Garda. The traditional style of this wine, made from Rondinella, Molinara and Corvina grapes, is a light, supple style of quaffing wine, although producers such as Allegrini have done much to change this image. The apotheosis of Valpolicella is an especially rich, dry wine with a raisiny flavour and velvety texture that comes in the form of Amarone della Valpolicella. This wine is produced by leaving selected bunches on the traditional Valpolicella vines until they reach a high degree of sugar ripeness in late October. These are then dried, either on straw mats in the traditional way or in drying rooms, which helps avert the onset of noble rot, prized in most sweet wines but unsuitable for an Amarone. The bunches are specially selected since the tannins and acidity of the grapes have to be in perfect harmony with the fruit, otherwise the concentration of components brought on by desiccation will highlight any discrepancies, something between 30-40 per cent of the volume being lost by the process.
Amarone's story starts with a sweet version, still produced, called Recioto. This wine has form, having been mentioned in a letter written in the fifth century by, of all people, a civilised Goth. It wasn't until 1936 that the wine began to be fermented out fully – possibly by mistake, in the first instance. Amarone has supplanted Recioto as the Veneto's tribute to the gods and the wines of two of its greatest exponents, Romano Dal Forno and the late Giuseppe Quintarelli, will offered at our sale, with Quintarelli 1993 estimated at £1,400-1,600 per dozen bottles and Romano 1996 at £600 for six.
Anthony Barne MW is UK Head of Wine.