Astrum Cellars is a specialist importer and merchant, dealing primarily in fine Italian wines. The company is owned by Bruno Besa, once sommelier at the Halkin Hotel in Belgravia, now importing a range of Italian wines from both classic regions, and from the newer and often exciting IGT areas (rather similar to France’s Vins de Pays, where the stricter traditional appellation rules are expanded). Bruno told the Telegraph newspaper recently: “The difficulty is that wine merchants will list endless bottles of identical Australian Chardonnays, but pay little attention to the wealth of Italian wines”. This is perhaps true, but one can understand the reasoning behind it: a lot of Italian wine – like a lot of French wine – was not of great quality in the late 80s and early 90s, and confusing labelling and lack of information made choosing a bottle a hit or miss affair. Consumers fell for the easier charms of Australian wine, but for totally understandable reasons.
But Italy is on a roll; or rather a revolutionary path at present, with not only the IGT laws allowing producers some leeway, but with lots of dynamic change in traditional areas: revitalised, much more modern and carefully made wines from northern areas like Trentino, Alta Adige, Piedmont and the Veneto, all the way down to the glorious whites and deep-chested reds of the deep south and Sicily.
Lean, rather acidic wines are definitley no longer the norm in Italy, which in currently one of the most exciting of all wine producing countries, Old World or New. I tasted three representative wines, available from Astrum Wine Cellars and from independent wine merchants.
di Lenardo (Italy) Tocai Friulano Toh! 2003
Tocai is north-east Italian grape that is unrelated to either Tokay-Pinot Gris of Alsace, or Tokaji wines of Hungary. Here in Friuli it is widely planted, making everything from cheap and cheerful jug wines, to some more modern, serious examples from producers aiming for quality. The young and dynamic Massimo di Lenardo makes his from hand-harvested grapes and the work in the cellar is immediately obvious on the nose, which is suffused with a yeasty, oatmeally quality from lees-ageing, and a nutty, almondy aromatic character that is almost smoky. On the palate it delivers a great burst of citrus fruit, that is concentrated and mouth-filling, with a rich edge to the texture and a broad-based acid like tart yellow plum skins with mineral qualities too. It is quite a powerful style of wine (13% alcohol) that has a real core of complex, skin-contact and concentrated fruit character. Very good indeed. £8.00 – £8.50
Cantina Terlano (Italy) Chardonnay 2002
This Chardonnay comes from Alto Adige, the beautiful Alpine province in the far northeast of Italy on the Austrian border. This is a very succulent, nicely savoury style of Chardonnay with a very pale, gold colour and aromas of honeysuckle, ripe pear and melon, with a subtle oatmeally, toffeed nuance. On the palate it is flooded with sweet-edged white fruit flavours, stonefruit notes of peach and plum and a broad-based, but incisive acidity. The texture is medium-to full, and this wine has lots of elegance and purity but good concentration too. Tasty stuff, that is reminiscent of a good Mâcon Burgundy. Not cheap at £9.50 – £10.50, but then neither is a good Mâcon Burgundy. See all Cantina Terlano wines at wine-searcher.com.
Orlando Abrigo (Italy) Barbera d’Alba Vigna Roreto 2002
This family estate is now in the hands of Giovanni Abrigo, who has introduced new technology alongside traditional methods, such as automatic fermenters which control temperature and optimize colour and “phenolic” extraction for red wines. The estate uses a combination of traditional large oak casks and 225-litre French oak barriques. This single-vineyard Barbera comes from 40-year-old vines and has a sumptuous nose, flooded with opulent, aromatic kirsch and violet-tinged berry fruits, spices and a warming core of tobacco. On the palate it is rich and full-bodied, with a fine cedary, savoury character and big, powerful tannins. That is amply . matched by chunky, robust fruit and a vanilla and toasty background of oak. This wine has fine balance, with a cherry acidity and some earthy depth. Excellent. £9.60 – £10.20. See all Orlando Abrigo wines at wine-searcher.com.